A Playful City

A Playful City, Sheriff Street, Dublin, 14 September 2017, Photograph by Paul Kelly

As part of the MA in Geography last year, we studied the historical development of the Sheriff Street area. This area has been the subject of many documentaries and there has been a focus upon children in some of these, as in this RTÉ programme from 1970

Sheriff Street, RTÉ Documentary 1970

In this 1976 documentary from RTÉ about the social deprivation that followed the replacement of people by machinery in some dock-work, there is also a discussion of families and children with Tessie McMahon commenting on the difficulties of bringing up a family in the area.

Tessie McMahon, Sheriff Street, RTÉ documentary, It’s A Hard Auld Station, 1976

RTÉ came back to check up on the kids of Sheriff Street in 1986. This is a bleak tale of unemployed families and kids who know that their area has a reputation for larceny that will prevent them getting work once their residence is known.

Sheriff Ten Years On, RTÉ documentary 1986

In the 1980s, another documentary focused upon the women of Sheriff Street and contained further testimony on the travails of raising children in the area.

The Women of Sheriff Street, 1980s documentary

The plans to demolish housing for the redevelopment of the docklands was protested by local women – “Docklands Development Means Homes Demolished” as their placards said in 1990. The women protested demolition without local rehousing being provided as Michael Punch explained in this article in Irish Geography. [1] This footage of the area from 1991 is really very striking, not only for the republican graffiti, and for the burned-out cars, but also for showing some of the housing that was cleared for the development of the International Financial Services Centre and associated new commercial/banking space.

As part of our field class we looked at how new social borders were designed into these fresh commercial and associated residential spaces. A recent film by Moira Sweeney looks at efforts to preserve the legacy of these dockworkers and their communities, including Sheriff Street. [2] Moira Sweeney’s film, Keepers of the Port, finds that after the social dislocation and suffering caused by the laying off of dockers with mechanisation and containerisation, there is still a fervent desire to record and honour the work, the solidarity, and the society of the dockers and their families.

Video still from Keepers of the Port, dir. Moira Sweeney, 2017

Given the continual attention given to social problems in the Sheriff Street area, it is especially welcome to find more positive stories about the area and its children. Recently, A Playful City closed off the street and cleaned it up so that kids could play safely.

A Playful City began in Dublin in March 2017 with an evening to produce some ideas for the project of making cities more suited to children’s play. A Playful City comes from Dublin’s culture of pop-up initiatives:

[W]e are Connect the Dots, a start-up that specialises in engaging stakeholders around topics that matter, and Upon a Tree, masters in making sustainable play spaces for children and adults. We both recognised how important it is for the health and happiness of a city to carve out spaces to live, work, but also – to play. Our vision is a city where the streets and public spaces engage and interact with its people – of all ages and abilities.

This pop-up culture builds upon relationships established in earlier projects such as Upstart’s Granby Park. [3] Several geographers from Maynooth have worked with these artists and pop-up initiatives and a Maynooth geographer Rachel McArdle is completing a PhD thesis on these initiatives.

A Playful City has a competition for kids to come up with ideas to make their city more playful. So far, 700 kids have been involved with the project. There is a conference coming up, Design Meets Play, which will take place on 17 October 2017 – tickets etc. available here. Among the speakers at the conference is Dublin academic and activist (playtime.ie), Jackie Bourke, who wrote a doctoral thesis about the urban geography of children’s play and who has published several articles on the subject. [4] Dr Bourke also gave a workshop to students on the M.A. in Geography as part of GY619/Public Engagement. This year A Playful City, Connect the Dots and Playtime are partners with our M.A. in Geography and there will be further opportunities for students to complete worthwhile projects in this way.

The emphasis upon play and upon its analeptic qualities may mean that urban streets can take their place among the therapeutic landscapes that geographers have been studying of late. [5] Although some people present play as an element within digital media, the playfulness discussed here is very much embodied and it celebrates co-presence and rejects purely instrumental purposes. [6] Play is more than just kids’ stuff and some writers have described the possibility of a Ludic City. [7] For example, in Montréal, the 21 Balançoires (Swings) brought shrieks and smiles into the city, in Amsterdam a Boom Bench allowed people to sit down and share via bluetooth their own music choices with others on the bench, in Bourges, a project, La Ville Molle (The Soft City) replaces some paving stones with units that have the resistance of water pillows giving our feet a different experience of what were expected to be hard surfaces, with the Limelight project of Sans Façon, cities temporarily replace the occasional street lamp with a theatrical-style spotlight inviting people to perform for each other, and with Cloud Gate in Chicago, Anish Kapoor created a shiny kidney bean shaped archway that gave citizens a new and playful way to transform their reflected vision of themselves and their city. [8]

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, Millenium Park, Chicago (from 1millionfreepictures.com)

We know from the historical research of geographer Elizabeth Gagen that instrumental values have even been smuggled into the playspaces of children. [9] Play is never innocent, and its role in reproducing gender roles is well established. [10] Play can also be joyful and it is, after all, a fundamental human right of children as Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child insists:

  1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

Urban geographers have much to learn from initiatives like A Playful City as it seeks to realise the rights enshrined in this UN Convention.

A Playful City, Sheriff Street, Dublin, 14 September 2017, photograph by Paul Kelly

Gerry Kearns, 22 September 2017

[1] Michael Punch, ‘The politics of memory: the socio-cultural contradictions of globalisation and urban regeneration in Dublin,’ Irish Geography 39:2 (2006) 194-198.

[2] Keepers of the Port, Ireland, dir. Moira Sweeney, premiered at the Irish Film Institute, 23 September 2017.

[3] Gerry Kearns, ‘The Pop-Up City,’ Huffington Post (16 July 2013); http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/gerry-kearns/pop-up-city_b_3591768.html; Karen Till and Rachel McArdle, ‘The Improvisional City: Valuing urbanity beyond the chimera of permanence,’ Irish Geography 48:1 (2015) 37-68.

[4] Jackie Bourke, Standing in the footprints of the contemporary urban child: constructing a sense of place along the everyday urban routes children walk through public space. Doctoral thesis, Dublin Institute of Technology, 2012; Jackie Bourke, ‘”No messing allowed”: The enactment of childhood in urban public space from the perspective of the child,’ Children Youth and Environments 24:1 (2014) 25-52; Jackie Bourke, ‘Children’s experiences of their everyday walks through a complex urban landscape of belonging,’ Children’s geographies 15:1 (2017) 93-106.

[5] Ronan Foley, Therapeutic Landscapes in Historic and Contemporary Ireland (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

[6] Ian Borden, ‘Eight Tactics for a Playful City,’ in F. von Borries, U. Brinkmann, M. Böttger, and S. Walz (eds) Space Time Play: Games, Architecture and Urbanism (Basel: Birkhauser, 2007); Ben Schouten, The role of play (Eindhoven: Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, 2011).

[7] Quentin Stevens, The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces (London: Routledge, 2007).

[8] All these examples and more are described in: Gabrielle M. Donoff, Plan for a playful city: A typology of ludic ways to increase pedestrian activity, Masters of City Planning, University of Manitoba-Winnipeg, 2014.

[9] Elizabeth Gagen, ‘Too good to be true: Representing children’s agency in the archives of the playground movement,’ Journal of Historical Geography 29 (2001) 53-64.

[10] Alice Eagly, Sex Differences in Social Behavior: A Social-role Interpretation (Hillsdale NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1987).

One comment

  1. […] city, a project called A Playful City. I have written an introduction to the area and the project here. In this set of blogs I will review people and place, past and present. I begin with […]


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