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How cities are becoming more playful

Cities seen slideways

Much more than a cheap thrill, the urban slides opening around the world are part of a trend to make cities more playful 

Much more than a cheap thrill, the urban slides opening around the world are part of a trend to make cities more playful 

Rebecca Dalzell | June 27th 2016

The four new slides on Governors Island, facing the Statue of Liberty, have the best view of any playground in New York. But they’re not only for children. When they open on July 19th, adults will also race to the top to take in the panorama of the harbour and try the slides, which, at up to 17 metres high, are the longest in the city.  A seven-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, the island already feels like a getaway, with hammocks and a mini-golf course. Add Slide Hill, and it’s a grown-up summer camp.

Governors Island is one of three major public projects involving slides opening this summer. In late June, Los Angeles unveiled a glass chute affixed to the side of the US Bank Tower, the tallest building in California (above). In London, a 178-metre slide designed by the Belgian artist Carsten Höller is now intertwined with Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture in the Olympic park (below). These aren’t the only childlike amusements to pop up recently. For the last decade or so, slides have appeared in public and private spaces around the world. There’s one at Changi airport in Singapore and another at a railway station in Utrecht. A tubular steel slide winds down four storeys of a Manhattan penthouse. Workers can whiz through offices in Silicon Valley, Toronto, Vienna and Sheffield. Chic curlicues animate a beach in Mexico and a Czech mountain resort. 

What’s going on here? At first glance, slides seem to align perfectly with the mores of the millennial generation, with its extended adolescence and desire for Instagram-worthy experiences. But they are part of a larger urban-design story. In the last 20 years, there’s been a shift towards public spaces for prescribed activities – sports fields, performance areas, skate parks – and whimsical installations. Cities worldwide have become more playful.

We can thank Carsten Höller for the current vogue for slides. He has been making them since 1998, and in 2006 he installed five at Tate Modern in London, filling the cavernous Turbine Hall with steel-and-acrylic spirals and the echoing shrieks of visitors. Höller’s slides have travelled the world, from Berlin to Boston, setting museum attendance records in their wake. He is a serious artist, but it’s his popularity that explains his involvement in the Orbit project. London officials say that the slide offers a new way to engage visitors, but Kapoor has revealed that Boris Johnson, the city’s former mayor, “foisted” it on his sculpture to raise revenue. The result seems less like contemporary art than a counterpart to the London Eye: an entertaining cash cow with great views. 

The slides on Governors Island are part of a new ten-acre development called the Hills. The four artificial knolls, designed by the Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze and up to 21 metres high, have expansive views of Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge and Staten Island. Geuze says his team aimed to “expand play beyond just children”. When he incorporated slides into a project in Madrid, they became “a magnet for people”, so they were a natural fit for Governors Island.

Along with the slides in London and Los Angeles, they will offer new vantage points on the city. Linda Pollak, a New York architect, says that play helps people connect with the dense, dwarfing metropolis. Physically interacting with the built environment helps residents feel like a part of it. “Slides are more than a cheap thrill,” she says. In part, their adult iterations have grown out of a new mission for urban design. Pollak notes that in the past two decades city governments have realised that good design can improve public health. People are more likely to walk if streets are inviting and lively. Urbanists used to talk about retail and parking; now “active design” is all the rage. Since 2006, New York’s annual Fit City conference, sponsored by the health department, has explored how design can combat obesity by encouraging residents to be active. In Europe, Britain’s National Health Service and the World Health Organisation promote similar initiatives. 

To make an outdoor space appealing, urban planners might bring in public art, porch swings or spurting fountains. Since 2008, for instance, the British artist Luke Jerram has introduced painted street pianos to 50 cities around the world for a project called “Play Me, I’m Yours”. During the innovative administration of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, colourful plazas replaced traffic lanes and the musician David Byrne built fanciful bike racks. International design competitions help offbeat ideas spread globally.

Engaging streets also breed community, which can be hard to find in modern cities. The Playable City movement, led by Bristol’s Watershed lab, taps into the desire for human interaction in a very 21st-century way. It uses art, games and technology to get people to look twice at their humdrum sidewalks, such as street lights that project shadows of pedestrians. Guided by the theories of Jan Gehl, who described how neighbours are more likely to meet in lively spaces, Playable City aims to connect residents through shared experiences. 

All of this suggests a desire to improve city life. We want serendipity, interaction and escape. Traditional playgrounds were first built as a response to 19th-century urbanisation, when reformers worried about children’s lack of outdoor exercise; cool public spaces today are for adults who also crave release. In a Tate interview, Höller said that he viewed the Turbine Hall installation, called “Test Site”, as an experiment to see how slides could be used in public spaces. It was “a small model for the whole city, for every city,” he said. Slides are “a sculpture you can travel inside”, a way to move people efficiently, like an escalator. They also transport us to an emotional state “somewhere between delight and madness”, Höller said. They are the opposite of orderly urban spaces, like the Brutalist buildings on the South Bank.

As Höller’s work implies, maybe cities today are too organised and predictable. We have to manufacture surprise. Slides add a little playful anarchy.

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