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Boston launches initiative to promote playfulness

A common criticism of the smart city movement is that it could lead to over-optimised, potentially soulless spaces. Boston is looking to ensure playfulness and a healthy amount of randomness aren’t lost.


Boston has announced Playful Boston, a city-wide effort to incorporate “engaging, innovative and playful approaches to civic life and municipal work”.

The initiative is a partnership between the Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, the Education Cabinet and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). The latter is Boston’s civic research and design team which runs pilot experiments that aim to improve the quality for life for Boston’s residents.

Playing around


As part of this effort, the city also announced the launch of Play Around the City, a public competition to re-imagine four Boston Public Schools bus stops with temporary, playful interventions.

Four projects will be selected for funding, one at each bus stop. Projects must be temporary (4-6 months), ready for implementation within 2-3 months, and meet a budget of $2,000. Proposals should have both the potential and plan for scaling to more locations in the future.

"Play Around the City is an approach for how we can support more curious, collaborative, and resilient future generations," said Lori Nelson, the newly appointed Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Boston. "Equitable access to playful spaces requires approaches that meet Bostonians where they are. This means bus stops, corner markets, laundromats, sidewalks, and more. These are the spaces where communities, young and old, can develop habits of resilience in applied ways."


Prioritising play


Boston cites research from behavioural scientists and other cities which suggests that playful activities in untraditional spaces can increase an individual’s learning ability and help develop skills such as collaboration, communication and adaptability. Playful Boston aims to test the impact of playful interventions, events and spaces on community interactions and civic engagement.

Boston has already launched or trialled several projects that explore the impact of playfulness on civic life, including:

• Boston Safest Driver: A smartphone app that provides feedback on your driving and allows you to challenge friends and family to see who is the best driver.
• Hub2: A pilot project aimed at engaging residents in the planning of a public park using Second Life.
• Community PlanIt: An online game which becomes part of a community discussion.
• Participatory Chinatown: A character-driven virtual world that allowed residents to explore Chinatown.

The Playful Boston website notes: “A playful city rejects that the future of cities is only optimised, efficient, and smart. Instead, a playful city also prioritises the humanness of play. This happens even when the results are messy and unpredictable.”

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