Home » 2012 » November

Weekly highlights: play in urban space

A bunch of projects crossed our desk recently that are all about re-imagining the potential of urban space.


Jay White walk

Walking East

First off, here’s a project that is underway right now, for an undetermined length of time — perhaps a few days, perhaps more. One of our own, Jay White started out from downtown Vancouver yesterday, November 28, on a long, rule-based walk. You could help him along in some way by giving him a call at 1-778-319-2405.

This is the second of a series of walks he plans to undertake, heading eastwards from downtown Vancouver, according to certain rules, which in this case are:

  • Start at Emily Carr University and walk Eastwards.
  • When I don’t know which route is more East, choose between them completely randomly.
  • A route can be any linear trace created by human and/or non-human: road, sidewalk, deer trail, stream bank, ridgeline, gully.
  • Do not knowingly trespass.
  • Buy food along the way, but do not stray from the random route to buy food.
  • The walk ends when I miss a meal or become exceedingly uncomfortable.

In the first walk he did, he experienced a new connection to, but also estrangement from, the familiar urban environment:

In the first walk, I was struck by the vastly different perspective I had of an area that I’ve lived in for so long. I was also struck by the complete distance I felt from the people in my vicinity, and of my inability to share what I was experiencing in an immediate, direct and personal way. So this time around, I am inviting you to give me a phone call.[...] My cellphone number is 778-319-2405. No pressure!

He also reflected upon what he is ‘accomplishing’ through the walks.

The walks have a variety of meanings for me: They are an excuse to get outside, a means to use my whole body and mind to learn, to come to new understandings of the landscape and the beings that surround me. I’m also seeing it as a part of my art practice, as a means to create art, as art in itself, and as a program of research[...]. Above all, it is something I enjoy more than I ever would have imagined.

It’s a brave idea, putting oneself into a vulnerable situation in order to bear witness to the collective landscape. The project has all kinds of potential for observing transitions in how space is used as one moves from a dense urban landscape into suburban and then agrarian ones: a kind of moving through time and models of social organization as well as through space.



Dude Chilling Park

In other Vancouver news, last week another citizen took it into his own hands to help reshape our public space in the name of how it’s actually used. One day a new, seemingly official, Park Board sign appeared in a modest East Van park, renaming it from Guelph Park to “Dude Chilling Park.” The Vancouver Province reported on it, gamely describing the park as “a place where dudes and dudettes can presumably go to, you know, just chill — like the relaxed figure depicted in a sculpture on the park’s grass.” Apparently Park Board vice-chair Aaron Jesper praised the handiwork of the counterfeiter(s), and the Province‘s polling of passers-by also revealed acceptance of the new moniker: “Wendy Stewart, who takes a lunchtime walk around the park every day, was also surprised by the sudden renaming. Given the park serves as a hangout for the homeless, she thinks the renaming might be a form of social commentary. ‘You can see them there, sitting on the bench — they don’t have much,’ she said, adding a lot of families also come to the park to chill. ‘Dudes chilling is OK.’”

Then came the social media campaign. People posted pictures, and a dude named Dustin Bromley started a change.org petition to Mayor Gregor Robertson, to permanently change the park’s name, arguing that it has been “under appreciated, and mostly occupied by empty bottles of mouthwash”, but that could become a destination. Within a few days, the petition had gained 1500 signatures, and the fate of Dude Chilling is now being debated in local and social media. (We sent a suggestion that it could come live in the yard of the League field house in Elm Park.) According to Park Board commissioner Sarah Blyth, it’s on the agenda for the Park Board’s December 10 meeting.

It turns out that the sign was the work of artist Viktor Briestensky, as the Province reported in a follow-up article.

Whatever the eventual fate of Dude Chilling, it succeeded in playfully reminding us that we could all have a part in shaping public space into the forms we’d like, that communal space comes to have its own meanings through use, and that there’s nothing fixed about the space around us.



Improv Everywhere, “Black Friday Dollar Store”

New York City “prank collective” Improv Everywhere was at it again on Black Friday. Masters of twisting expectations and disrupting habits in urban space, this time they had 100 people camp out in front of a 99-cent store in the early morning of Black Friday, the biggest retail sales day of the year in the United States. “When the store opened, the crowd rushed inside and made purchases, buying 99 cent items with glee. Actress Cody Lindquist posed as a local NBC news reporter and conducted interviews with confused and delighted store employees and passersby.”

Thank you, Improv Everywhere, for creating one joyfully absurd moment to balance the make-you-despair-of-humanity stories of consumer greed that are otherwise the annual Black Friday news fare.



Urban transit

Inhabitat reports on a prototype trampoline sidewalk “built by Estonian firm Salto Architects for the Archstoyanie Festival this summer in Russia. During the festival Fast Track was used for both play and transport, giving visitors a different way to get from one place to another.”

That brings to mind the slide installed at the Overvecht train station in Utrecht. As described last year by the Pop-Up City blog, “the slide offers travellers the opportunity to quickly reach the railway tracks when they’re in a hurry. But above all, the slide is a great instrument to make the city more playful. The ‘transfer accelerator’ was designed by Utrecht-based firm HIK Ontwerpers, and installed as the final piece of the renovation of the Overvecht railway station.”



DoTank chair-bombing image by Aurash Khawarzad



Here’s a project by Brooklyn collective DoTank, who are working to improve the commons through “tactical urbanism” projects. It’s a sort of recipe for improving the livability of public space.

Chair-bombing is the act of building chairs out of found materials, and placing those chairs in a public space in order to improve its comfort, social activity, and sense of place.

DoTank’s chair-bombing process began by building adirondack chairs made from discarded shipping pallets. The DIY chairs were placed in public areas that were in need of street furniture. These places included sidewalks in front of coffee shops, transit stops with no seating, and other areas with potential to become quality public spaces, but were suffering from a dearth of public amenities.

[Thanks to Maia and Andreas from Grey Sky Thinking for the lead.]



Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam

ArchDaily posted a profile of artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam, who makes brightly coloured, hand-knit installations and public spaces. Inspired by natural architectural forms and her own background as a textile designer, her practice has developed through a sensitive observation of materials and forces. Her approach sounds like play: “Most of my artwork involves architectural ideas or references. I am interested in how form is created through tension and the force of gravity including the weight of the material itself and textile structures. It is the intersection of art and science – like geometry – which we observe in nature. ”

[Thanks to architect Carla Smith for the lead. Go check out her coaching project Roller Derby Athletics.]




And lastly, here’s a Kickstarter campaign for 9-Man, a feature documentary directed by Ursula Liang, about an extremely localized street version of volleyball played in Chinatowns since the 1930s. Playing against stereotypes and segregation of Asians, it was a game that developed in isolation within large cities.

  9-MAN is a streetball game played in Chinatown by Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian men. It’s fast, chaotic, unpredictable, grueling; the rules are distinct and exist no where else in the world—imagine volleyball with 18 guys, dunks, and bloodied elbows. This is a sport that is completely unique to Chinese-Americans and therefore something very special to those who play it. Why haven’t you heard of it? Because it’s played only by men. And two-thirds of the players have to be “100% Chinese”. And perhaps because good things are often kept secret. If you’re not part of the 9-man community, you may have no idea what an incredible scene it is. We’re trying to change that.

The documentary promises to reveal something of the particular social conditions that this particular sport grew out of. If you want to help the film get made, head over to their Kickstarter page before December 21 to give them a hand.


Played: Sunday 25 November 2012

Everyone was asked to bring a stick of some kind, and it was a funny sight to see people arriving at the field with brooms, umbrellas, lacrosse- and hockey sticks, branches, a mop, and a piece of bamboo. Others pulled out chopsticks and sticks of Juicy Fruit.

The idea behind the vaguely-worded stick request was to start us thinking about how games can stand in for real life activities like probing, battling, moving things, or navigating; how sports and game equipment might have originally been adapted from tools or objects at hand; and about the potential for all kinds of things we have lying around our homes.

After warming up by trying to figure out the mechanics of the traditional native game called Double Ball, we started by thinking about a game suitable for people of all ages.

Sonic Pick Up Sticks

League - Sonic Pick Up SticksI’ll tentatively call it Sonic Pick Up Sticks, but if someone has a better name, please suggest it.

The basics:

The basic idea is to sneak around a blindfolded person, collecting objects from around him or her. You are safe unless s/he hears and points at you.

The iterations:

This game changed a lot, as we figured it out, even reversing its basic direction.

  •  First, we spread out a bunch of sticks around the blindfolded person and tried to pick them up without being heard. Because they were spread out, it became a kind of free-for-all instead of a turn-based procedure, and it was quite hard to distinguish a single person.
  • Then, we thought that perhaps we would hear better if instead of picking up, people put sticks down around the blindfolded person, trying to get each one as close as possible without him hearing and pointing. So we tried that, but it was still quite chaotic, as multiple kids tried to go at once and the blindfolded person ended up pointing almost at random.
  • Then we realized we could make the action more challenging by making it like classic pick-up sticks, with the various kinds of sticks piled up around the blindfolded person. (That person looks a bit like someone about to get burned at the stake, which wasn’t intended but is an interesting perception combined with the vulnerability of their being blindfolded.) This iteration started to work well, although we needed to introduce some traffic control to ensure that only one person at a time was trying to pull a stick.
  • Lastly, with a bit more order established, we tried a version in which the blindfolded person was told when someone was coming, and they could point only three times. This iteration worked very well, making it quite difficult to pick up any sticks successfully.

League - Sonic Pick Up SticksNote that the advantage may have been more with the blindfolded person if this game were played in a quiet space rather than a city park.

Emergent strategy:

Most people naturally tried slow sneaking, but League regular Bruce did successfully pull off one run-and-grab. Wyatt tried faking out the blindfolded person by throwing his hoodie to a different part of the circle. As with regular pick-up sticks, placement makes a difference to difficulty, but in this version the shape and material of the sticks also was a factor.

Character of the game:

This game came about by attempting to craft something that would be suitable for young children and adults. It was interesting that it ended up creating what felt and looked like a vulnerable situation for the person in the middle, physically hampered and blinded. It was also somewhat unusual in that it privileged slow, quiet movement and careful listening. Perhaps the advantage of young ears was balanced by the elders’ patience.

League - Sonic Pick Up Sticks


Field Pong

League - Field PongField Pong was a partly-formed idea brought by Germaine. The idea is that, like Pong, players form blocking lines to deflect balls — in this case runners — who are trying to score points.

The basics:

Two teams face each other, with a number of other people as runners. The teams form walls by holding any of the sticks. A wall must include at least two people holding the stick at all times. A number of cones are set on the end lines, representing points to be scored by the runners. The runners have to stay in bounds, and must change direction (running towards the other end line) when they are touched by a wall, or they reach an end line, or they grab a cone to score a point. They can move side to side but cannot backtrack. They can score points on both end lines.

League - Field PongEmergent play:

There was some very intense running, dodging and diving, with not everyone following the guidelines about running direction. Semi-cooperative strategies emerged when runners approached simultaneously, so that the walls had to choose one or the other.

Character of the game:

The way we played it, this game has an unusual structure in that there are essentially three teams: one defending each end, and the runners trying to outscore each other. If played again, we could try to make those fixed teams that rotate between the positions.

The verdict:

It has potential, but the functions would need to be clarified. We could further the rare situation of a team game involving three teams by finding a way to make it worth it to play effective defense. Alternately, we could modify it so that there are only two teams, with runners from each team.

League - Field Pong


League - Wicket AwesomeWicket Awesome

Ian brought this idea for a cross between Ultimate and cricket. The goals were three sticks of equal length propped together as a tripod. First we tried short sticks, but quickly switched to hockey sticks. One point was given for knocking over the tripod with the frisbee, and five for landing the frisbee on the ground inside the goal. There were no field boundaries, but when you had possession of the frisbee you couldn’t take steps.

League - Wicket AwesomeGame play:

This initial play was a lot of swarming around after the frisbee, but would probably develop into something more positional (and more efficient) with more play. We started with a soft, kid-friendly, but erratic frisbee, but as soon as we switched to a standard frisbee the positioning spread out.