Bristol: Where Work Meets Play

Credit: Farrows Creative

Credit: Farrows Creative

Fun times in Bristol – they’re not hard to come by. Is Bristol’s obsession with play the reason it’s one of the best places to live? And what is a playable city anyway? Ajit Niranjan finds out.

…could Bristol become the nation’s first ‘playable city’?

Unlike the economic powerhouses of Manchester and Birmingham – or the politically weighty regional capitals, Cardiff and Edinburgh – Bristol has little claim to be the UK’s second city. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in creativity. A dramatic rise of innovative ideas has elevated the hub of the South-West to the global stage: could Bristol become the nation’s first ‘playable city’?

If you’ve spent any time in Bristol this summer, then you’ll have probably noticed a hubbub of activity taking over the heart of the city. In May, almost 100,000 residents – myself included –  signed up for the chance to hurtle down a 300ft long water slide along a major artery running right through Bristol’s centre. A month later, the same high street was kitted out with artificial grass, a host of independent stalls and an entertainment stage in order to transform it into a park for the day. Businesses flourished and charities raised thousands of pounds from the high footfall generated by the attractions. The city garnered international attention.

…they provide a nice snapshot of life in this highly dynamic city of almost half a million people…

These weren’t the only exciting events to take Bristol by storm this summer, but they provide a nice snapshot of life in this highly dynamic city of almost half a million people. For a start, they were independently run: the waterslide was a crowd-funded project by award-winning local artist Luke Jerram and the ‘Park on Park Street’ was organised by Bristol traders and volunteers. And, they both took place as part of the mayor’s campaign to ‘Make Sundays Special’ – closing down the city centre to cars and lorries in order to let community groups and artists bring their talents to the public.

 …cities don’t just have to be coldly functional…

What really makes these ideas shine, though, is the growing recognition that cities don’t just have to be coldly functional; art and urban spaces can combine in ways which make them interesting places to live and work in. And Bristol, more so than any other region in the country, is leading that change.

Early this month, Bristol-based creative media centre Watershed hosted its first ‘Making the City Playable’ conference. Bringing together a diverse group of ‘thinkers, makers, planners and civil disobedients’, including the urbanist mayor, George Ferguson, the conference was a chance to showcase some of the wackiest ideas they’ve dreamt up in order to put people – and the relationships between them – at the heart of cities.

A focal point of the event was the unveiling of the award-winning ‘Shadowing’ installation. It’s a brilliant example of how technology can bring people together in more interesting ways. Eight lampposts throughout Bristol have been modified to project the shadows of previous passer-bys onto the pavement, allowing night-time pedestrians to interact with other citizens who’ve shared that same space earlier in the day. Confused? Take a look at it here (or even better, go find them yourself!)

Shadowing trailer from Playable City on Vimeo.

For those of you thinking this is ‘just’ frivolous entertainment – you’re missing the point. The team behind the conference are actively trying to do just that; they want to make the city more fun, not more functional. And lamppost shadowing is one of many exciting schemes that achieves it.

But why the focus on play?

But why the focus on play? Largely, it’s a reaction against the growing obsession with ‘smart’ cities and the digital baggage they carry: according to the organisers, ‘public narratives around technology-driven cities often feature a fear of isolation, that community and conversation will be rendered extinct’. In an attempt to avoid creating yet another technology-driven hub – burdened with the inevitable focus on growth over wellbeing, and of work over play – Bristolians are trying a different tack: building a city where citizens, at a grassroots-level, get to decide how they interact with their surroundings.

The importance of this can’t really be overstated. By 2050, more than 70% of the world’s population will be city-dwellers, living and working in urban spheres which are getting increasingly larger. Somehow we need to find effective strategies to ensure the wellbeing of individuals, and prevent them from blurring into the cold walls of anonymity that so many of our urban spaces inspire. And focussing on playfulness is one way of doing that.

As more and more countries around the world begin to realise the need for incorporating play into city life, the ideas generated at the Watershed conference will become ever more valuable. They’ve already sparked international interest, and installations such as the waterslide are being exported across the globe. Bristol – awarded the title of European Green Capital for 2015 – is once again setting an example for the rest of the UK.

‘Shadowing’ runs from 11th September to 31st October. Here’s a fun little Storify of people’s reactions to the installation. Check out the locations here. Not that we at Rife want to ONLY go on about Watershed stuff but, you know, there’s LOADS of playable stuff going on over there. Check out Fun Palaces

What makes a city ‘playable’? Should they be playable? Did you even get on the Waterslide? Let us know: @rifemag

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Jon live-tweets the waterslide

Rife met the army and we thrashed them