• Blog
  • September 05, 2023

Evidence for Playful Placemaking

Observationally, there is much to share about the alignments of how all people, young and old, benefit from play and how playful placemaking methodologies leverage those benefits to support community empowerment, whether the design is for a community center and playground, a housing subdivision, streetscape, a nature preserve, or an urban schoolyard. As adult human demands increase, we often lose sight of how much of the world is enhanced by keeping much of it as a playground instead of a proving ground or battleground. The traditional public meeting forum is too often seen as a “proving ground” or “battleground”, between the design team, community members, and project leadership, whether it be private or municipally led. This knowledge can be seen as a “call for something better.” Playful Placemaking can be that something better.


Trust — Trust is a crucial element of human need, and the heart of playful placemaking, which supports the development of trust between community and design team as well as the community and project owner or leader.

Empathy — We note this as a primary outcome of playful placemaking. Cultivating empathy through play and activities, building the capacity to agree, even if one is not benefiting from the agreement, is a crucial outcome of empathy.

Optimism — Playful placemaking supports an opportunity to generate from possibility, reinforcing optimism as an outcome of the participation. The feeling of optimism rises overall across the community, leaving the participant with a positive outlook on how the project impacts them, as well as the contribution they have on both the community and the project.

Flexibility — Designing the built environment takes a great deal of flexibility and willingness to discover the answers together. Playful placemaking supports people and groups being flexible as they discover and analyze the community, as well as flexibility in how they participate. The activities support letting go of “this isn’t how we do it.”

Attunement — This biological phenomena is rooted in newborn relationships with parents and caregivers, allowing individuals to feel deeply connected with others throughout their lives. The heart of playful placemaking is to generate an experience of collaboration and co-discovery when designing the built environment. Attunement is a highly sought after state, occurring when participants play together in such a way that evokes joyfulness and reactivates innate play natures of individuals. Creating emotional bonds, building investment in the project, strengthening the community to project team relationship, as well as committee member to committee member relationships are examples of attunement.

Problem Solving — This is the most obvious applicability as the design process is used most regularly as a mechanism for problem solving. Shifting from “Designer as expert” to “Community as collaborative problem solvers” is one of the most natural benefits of playful placemaking. Play allows all who participate an opportunity to not only inquire and study the problems, but to play in the brainstorming and consideration of opportunities and constraints. Play encourages the community to consider much wider solutions to deeper problems while feeling trust and empathy, making those solutions feel more impactful.

Joy in Movement — Many playful placemaking activities start in movement or are movement- based. When our participation with a group begins with movement, we are immediately shifted to a joyful state, and our willingness to participate and contribute increases. Additionally, there are therapeutic benefits realized when experiencing joy in movement, making playful placemaking unique in this outcome for all communities, but particularly in challenged or marginalized communities.

Three-Dimensional Thinking — Much like problem solving, designing the built environment is a three-dimensional activity. A typical constraint found in engagement is the challenge for participants to easily understand
three dimensionality, as it is a skill that needs to be fostered to use well. Playful placemaking activities support “seeing a project” with new eyes. Tours empower participants to be with the team in the real areas and spaces, while games and activities explore the many dimensions of the space beyond the physical three dimensions, including dimensions of culture, society, resiliency, etc.

Perseverance, increased mastery — Design is a willingness to consider opportunities and possibilities over and over. Playful Placemaking creates a space to consider that the iterative nature of the design process is a delight rather than a waste. The project finds its design and its consensus in the perseverance of the team and the community the more it plays.

Emotional regulation and resiliency — Typical design engagement meetings, as we know them today, may evoke a sense of powerlessness that can often escalate feelings of frustration, anger, or hopelessness with either the community or the project leaders. Playful placemaking activities, by their nature, support exploration in a setting that naturally supports emotional regulation. Engagement events often see participants “come ready for a fight” and then shift through play to be willing to explore considerations, or even better, to become advocates for the project.

Openness to receive inspired “Aha moments” — The very best designs come from the community: their needs, their passions, what they find beautiful, and most importantly what would improve their quality of life. Eliciting this information can be challenging. Many community participants are not even aware of what could be possible for their community, or the community itself has a low sense of self-worth. They may also be very rigid, sharing very few ideas, or believing “we can’t have this or that.” Each of these impact possibilities. Conversely, when designers come with “great visions,” the community may feel like the designers aren’t listening, or are pushing their agenda. Playful placemaking activities are designed to help the community discover for themselves and learn where they hold themselves back, where they limit their value, and what possibilities could be available for them if they were willing to see themselves and their community differently. “Ah-ha moments” are generated out of playful placemaking activities, allowing their possibilities to be realized fully as THEIR OWN.

Cognitive growth, innovativeness — Designing for the built environment can often be limited to the designing of the actual THINGS that will go into the space, yet playful placemaking supports innovation, growth and development opportunities in the multi-dimensionality of community. Activities may link economic innovation that might be needed in order to support social justice initiatives or economic innovation may be an anticipated outcome of the design that now needs a social system to better leverage these outcomes.

Belonging — Basis of Community and altruism The most basic understanding of why community participation is needed can be understood in the idea of “belonging.” Belonging is a fundamental human experience and without it both individuals and communities are left incomplete. Designers, even with the best of intentions, do not “belong” without a willingness to listen, explore, and inquire. Community participants may feel as though they do not “belong” in the process of designing, saying “that’s why we hired you, the professionals.” Individuals may feel they do not have anything to contribute, and will stay away from speaking or participating. Playful placemaking activities naturally create a space for inquiry and exploration, where ideas and contributions are openly accepted and considered, but also ACKNOWLEDGED, with the design team and participants thanking one another for their contribution.

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