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Please Walk on the Grass: Recreation and Play in the Contemporary City

An exhibition explores the reinvention of urban public spaces to meet the demands of 21st century recreation and leisure.

by Zoë Ryan, Senior Curator, Van Alen Institute
September 6, 2006

Editor’s note: The Van Alen Institute is presenting The Good Life: New Public Spaces for Recreation  at Pier 40 in New York City, September 8 – October 1.


In our dense cities, recreational spaces are essential components of healthy and sustainable urban environments. Longer working hours, reduced vacation time, and growing health concerns have made the need for public spaces in the centers of cities increasingly vital. The complex economic and political situation today has also intensified the need for such spaces that welcome and include citizens from diverse communities, but no matter one’s background, how one’s leisure time is spent in a city depends on the environment and facilities available, and these activities determine the quality of one’s life.


Chosen for their innovative solutions and high-quality designs, the projects presented by the Van Alen Institute in The Good Life: New Public Spaces for Recreation explore how architects, designers, landscape architects, and artists are reinventing urban public spaces to meet the needs of 21st-century recreation. Ranging from designs for street-corner and block-wide recreation to plans for entire districts, they collectively provide a cross section of some of the most interesting new spaces for leisure around the world.


This exhibition is organized around five themes: The Cultured City, The Connected City, The 24-Hour City, The Fun City, and The Healthy City. They act as a framework for the projects and provide both a navigational system and a means by which key issues, vital to contemporary discussions, can be explored.


The Cultured City


The central idea of The Cultured City concept – that culture is an essential component of urban development – emerged in America in the early 1980s. In 1985, Europe also embraced this idea with the launch of the annual award for the European City of Culture, later renamed the European Capital of Culture.


Projects in The Cultured City section draw references from across creative disciplines. The Idea Store in Whitechapel, London is a new library concept that borrows concepts from the retail industry in an effort to create an accessible, eye-catching design that will engage local residents. Architect David Adjaye claims to be “deeply suspicious of a built environment which young people understand only in terms of shops and commerce.”


Smaller scale actions have also reawakened urban areas. San Francisco-based public artists and activists Rebar produce insightful public art projects that combine humor and activism, such as temporarily installing pocket parks in car parking spaces on city streets. Such projects reinterpret the city as a stage on which novel ideas can be played out for public use. They illustrate that urban public spaces can have strong identities and engage cultural programs that attract a broad public, ensuring vitality and relevance over time.


The 24-Hour City


24-hour cities are often declared the most desirable places to live, work, and play. Urban dwellers are prepared to tolerate the inconveniences like noise, congestion, and high living costs in order to take advantage of the activities and entertainment that are available to them. The 24-Hour City projects embody a view of the urban environment as flexible spaces that can accommodate different activities, whether programmed or spontaneous, and have the capacity to transform, over time, to new uses, energizing the site at all times.


For the redesign of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, for example, Diller Scofidio + Renfro devised a scheme that would open up some of the buildings with new glass façades, unveiling the activity within. Making it possible to see dancers warming up or practicing at the New York City Ballet’s studios will enliven the site day and night, whether or not performances are in session. Another project that adaptively renews existing infrastructure is Flux Space in King’s Cross, London, a new event destination conceived by General Public Agency, an art, design, and architecture consultancy. The project takes a former gas tank and adapts it into a flexible environment with a 24-hour-a-day program of events and activities.


The 24-Hour City projects focus primarily on making public spaces that are accessible, fostering community engagement and active participation in urban life. They demand diversity of all kinds: juxtapositions of people, functions, built forms, spaces, and activities are just some of the fundamental elements that help encourage an inclusive and sustainable public sphere that thrives at all times of the day and night.


The Fun City


At the core of The Fun City is the notion of play, defined by French theorist Roger Caillois in the 1950s as an activity that is essentially free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make-believe.


Included in The Fun City projects is a new skateboard park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that aims to integrate skaters and non-skaters in a new recreational venue that both can enjoy – a tough task, but one that designer and artist Vito Acconci hopes can be achieved through a design that functions as a performance space with designated areas for spectators. In Japan, Tokano Landscape Planning’s parks in Obihiro City and Tokyo might have been intended for children, but their diversity of play spaces, ranging from huge bouncy domes to artificial fog forests, are hits with all ages, encouraging cross-generational exploration and interaction. These designs provide novelty, unpredictability, and surprise in the urban environment, but also promote social cohesion.


The Connected City


Since the end of World War II, the battle between cars and the city has figured increasingly in city politics and urban planning. In The Highway and the City, published in 1963, Lewis Mumford foresaw “a tomb of concrete roads and ramps covering the dead corpse of the city.” The future has not proved to be quite so dismal, yet the mass of traffic in urban centers has triggered radical responses. And yet a city’s streets are about more than just the movement of vehicles and people. The late American urban theorist Jane Jacobs asserted : “Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs…If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.”

The Connected City projects show how designers and architects are creating networks of urban public spaces and rethinking the routes between them. For example, in New York, the High Line, an abandoned elevated railroad is being transformed into a new urban park. This public project will provide much-needed green space as well as link three neighborhoods along the West Side of Manhattan. The Manguinhos Complex in Rio de Janeiro, designed by architect Jorge Mario Jáuregui, is intended to foster connections between people and places in an area where tensions run high between the informal favela communities and the surrounding neighborhoods of the city.

The diverse projects in this section, whether physical or virtual, show that the exchange of ideas and information is a fundamental part of The Connected City, encouraging movement and exploration that animates and informs the urban environment.


The Healthy City


The 21st century has so far been characterized by increased threats to our planet's environment and biodiversity. In 2000, James Wines asserted that the challenge facing architects and designers is the integration of “environmental technology, resource conservation, and aesthetic content,” into the design of the built environment.


As the projects in The Healthy City section illustrate, visionary thinking at both small and large scales can have dramatic impacts on our cities. The potential for formerly industrial sites to be transformed into new public spaces for recreation and leisure is being discovered globally. For instance, in Seattle, Washington, extensive remediation has enabled a former brownfield site on the waterfront to be converted into an art park. Concepts for healthier options than traveling by car also have the potential for widespread influence on future city planning and urban design processes. In Manchester and Toronto, designers are working on ideas for new recreational highways that encourage biking, jogging, and even swimming as alternative methods of commuting into the city. These projects underscore that for The Healthy City to succeed, designs need to focus on environmental and ecological sustainability, but also on political, economic, educational, and cultural sustainability.




This exhibition demonstrates that the best and most sustainable public spaces engage a broad range of users, can be designed for both large- and small-scale interventions and events, and are flexible to change over time, accommodating multiple activities, both programmed and unscripted. Good design serves both individual and collective needs. These innovative solutions to new public spaces for recreation are highlighted for their ability to be appropriated by people from diverse communities, for encouraging multiple experiences, and for fostering social and cultural exchange. Projects like these prompt discovery, help promote understanding and tolerance, and enhance the quality of our everyday lives.


The projects have one thing in common; they are all “open-minded space,” to borrow Michael Walzer’s term. It is the design of a city and its public spaces that enables this open-mindedness to emerge, stimulating individual and group expression and encouraging engaged citizenship. Well-designed urban public spaces should aim to address the needs of city dwellers to rebalance their lives, offering a refuge from the hustle and bustle or a place in which they can develop through learning and new experiences. People need to connect with their environment and feel a sense of belonging, to feel good being there – therein lies the good life.


Editor’s note: The exhibition, designed by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WORKac, showcases 70 projects from New York City and London to Rio de Janeiro and Soweto, South Africa. Designers and artists include: Ábalos & Herreros; Acconci Studio; Adjaye/Associates; Stan Allen Architects; ATOPIA; Diller Scofidio + Renfro; FAT; Thomas Heatherwick; Walter Hood; Martha Schwartz; SHoP Architects; Ken Smith; Weiss/Manfredi; and West 8 among others.


Van Alen Institute is an internationally recognized generator and platform for new ideas and initiatives for improving the design of the public realm. Since it began its program of Projects in Public Architecture in the fall of 1995, the Institute has directed exhibitions, design studies and competitions, lectures, conferences, and publications designed to research and communicate the critical role of design in regenerating cities.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Martha Schwartz Inc.)
Martha Schwartz Inc.: Grand Canal Square, Dublin, Ireland

(Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Field Operations)
Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Field Operations: High Line, New York City

David Adjaye: Idea Store, London

(West 8)
West 8: West 8: Northern Park, Amsterdam (2010)

© 2006