Play for Placemaking


Federation Square is often described as the backyard for city dwellers; their outdoor space for leisure, relaxation and even a place for play. With the idea of play in mind, Fed Square Pty Ltd programs a series of small activities that encourage playful interaction.

On sunny days, chess sets are placed in natural people-gathering areas in the Square. Mahjong boards are periodically set up on tables in The Atrium with colourful seats inviting players to settle down for a match. A vintage piano is rolled out in the Square and encourages visitors to tickle its ivories. A series of free dance classes are held each week, where participants can swing their hips with Latin-American styles or follow easy-to-learn aerobic steps.

These small, and seemingly unexpected, playful activations have proven to be a successful placemaking strategy for city dwellers. Yet the concept of play is universal for all audiences, therefore Fed Square Pty Ltd integrates an element of play across many programming initiatives.

When selecting major installations by local and international artists, the “playfulness” is considered. Constell-action, the audio-visual installation by Polish artist PanGenerator, involved playful interactions by the public where they lit up the installation using their own mobile phones. In the Pines, the Christmas installation of more than 100 plastic pine trees by Melbourne artists The Projects, included a daily program of games for both adults and children. The major installation for this year’s The Light in Winter, Federation Square’s annual winter program of art, music and performance, will be an interactive light sculpture by UK designer Asif Khan. The sculpture, titled Radiant Lines, will “play” with visitors using sensor technology to respond to their presence with unique patterns of light.

Highlighting the idea of “play at Federation Square”, Melbourne’s Pop Up Playground were commissioned to bring their Fresh Air Festival back to the Square in March this year. The festival included an array of street games, participatory activities and sports – all of which were designed for adults. Game designers from across Australia came to Melbourne for the festival as well as international game agents Serious Business (London), Atmosphere Industries (Toronto) and Vienna Street Games Conspiracy.

The benefits of play for adults are not as widely discussed as the benefits of play for children. Play helps children with cognitive and social development as well as encouraging physical health. For adults, play can help build community by breaking down cultural barriers, encouraging teamwork and communication, which are fundamental to healthy social systems in urban environments.

The use play as a placemaking strategy for urban public places is growing in popularity around the globe. Dutch railway maintenance company, ProRail installed a metal slide alongside a flight of stairs leading down to the Overvecht railway station. The slide was immediately popular with the hundreds of commuters who opted to slide their way to the train instead of taking the stairs. In Germany, two students form the HAWK University have created touchscreen traffic light display where a pedestrian can play a game of Pong with a stranger on the other side of the street crossing. Their StreetPong project has been commissioned by the City of Hildesheim and a prototype is currently in development. Starting in Birmingham in 2008, UK artist Luke Jerram created the Play Me, I’m Yours project of pop-up street pianos. Since then, the project has traveled to 42 cities around the world with commissions from city councils and cultural organisations including Arts Centre Melbourne, which worked with Fed Square Pty Ltd to exhibit one of the pianos at Federation Square.

It is not just placemakers who have recognised the benefits of this style of urban play. Volkswagen have created the Fun Theory program, which is based on the idea that “something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better”. Their urban interventions have claimed world notoriety including the Piano Staircase installation and the Bottle Bank Arcade project.

The use of social media and mobile technology allow urban play projects to gain similar world-wide recognition. Videos and photos of playful interventions can be easily captured with mobile devices and shared rapidly to audiences online. One of Fed Square Pty Ltd’ first playful commissions in 2011, MÖBIUS by Melbourne design collective ENESS, was specially created with online social sharing in mind. The commission involved 21 large triangular sculptures that were configured into cyclical patterns throughout Federation Square with the help of public participation. The patterns were captured with a time-lapse camera creating a video showcasing the optical illusion that resulted. The video has been played over half a million times online and continues to be shared regularly in social media channels.

Social media is also a good tool to measure the effectiveness of play as a placemaking strategy. Alongside the qualitative and quantitative data that can be captured at the physical project, its dissemination across social media platforms can be an indicator of success. Therefore, not only is a project’s playfulness a consideration for Fed Square Pty Ltd, its “shareability” is also taken into account.

With the right formula, play for placemaking is not only proving to be a successful model, it is proving to be fun too!