The Power of Play in the Public Square
Paris is a city of grand projects. Its landmarks—the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysées, and Notre Dame cathedral—are massive public works of the grandest order. Designed by Frank Gehry, the newest museum in Paris cost $130 million and, while it is a private venture of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, it’s indicative of the scale of this market. That “pop-up beach” on the banks of the Seine each summer? Price tag: $2 million.
That’s why it was so gratifying to see, on a visit to Paris last year, a fantastic urban project that cost the city very little, but has produced big results. The Place de la République is one of the city’s most beloved public squares, presided over by a colossal statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. (This statue was in the news recently, serving as the gathering place for those who marched after the Charlie Hebdo shootings.) The square, historically important as a place of protests large and small, has gone through several iterations in the last century and a half. For much of that time, it was a busy traffic circle with isolated park benches and walkways only reachable by dodging cars and motorcycles. In 2013, the city completed a costly renovation of the square, shifting the balance from two-thirds roadways to two-thirds pedestrian space. Cars have been pushed out to the edges of the three sides, with the rest as pavement interrupted only by benches, trees, and, of course, a cafe.
That sounds rather barren, but it is anything but. The architecture firm TVK wanted to preserve the full use of the square’s acreage without disrupting traffic flow or preventing groups from gathering under Marianne’s raised olive branch. The new square includes an attractive glass-walled cafe and an inviting “fountain,” where kids are free to play or ride bikes through the half inch of water covering the paving stones. In the evenings, the water is turned off, opening the space for strolling and weekend dances. The other side of the long square is a favorite place for skateboarding, which is wildly popular in Paris at the moment. The square is also wide enough to accommodate flâneurs, cyclists, or those hurrying to the underground République Métro station below the square.
Also popular in the square is a games kiosk called “L’R de Jeux” (a play on the French word for playground). For me, it is the pièce de résistance. On first glance, it appears to be one of Paris’s ubiquitous newsstands or snack vendors. But this is a different kind of kiosk, one that stocks a surprisingly large selection of games and toys. Leave your name, address, and ID and pick up puzzles, card games, pull toys, or building sets. Or just walk up and enjoy the pile of Legos or the housekeeping corner. Staff people will show you how a board game is played or help you find an opponent if you need one. And yes, it’s all free.
So, the city provides a large stock of sturdy toys for all ages, an extremely safe, public place to play, conveniently located at the intersection of five Métro lines, an abundance of tables and chairs, and a small staff. What does Paris get in return?
People of all ages and classes congregate in the square. I believe it’s critical that there is no cost to play. Some users could afford a day trip to a museum, while others have very few toys in their own homes. Moreover, the nature of play makes it easy for cultures and nationalities to mingle. Chinese and Senegalese Parisians may shop in different grocery stores, but here they play the same games, regardless of their language proficiency. As my non-French-speaking son can attest, language is seldom a barrier when there’s a great game in progress. Other, perhaps more insurmountable barriers, like politics or religion, may be set aside by adults in need of a chess partner.
I don’t want to overstate what happens at the games kiosk. Without it, the square will still be criss-crossed by thousands daily, a few of whom will sit at the park benches or order at the cafe. But the presence of toys and games changes the character of the space. Suddenly it welcomes families, and friends of families; it speaks to our love of play and recreation. We’re not just using this space, we’re enjoying it. There is a huge benefit to introducing a palpable measure of regular happiness to the environment we already inhabit. Such feelings are a key element in neighborhood pride.
These payoffs spring from a simple but original idea. “Toy libraries” are not uncommon even in the United States, but they usually lend out toys to be taken home, reinforcing existing family relationships. The public nature of the games kiosk, on the other hand, introduces spontaneity and connectivity, putting pleasure and discovery on display.
While the Paris games kiosk may not succeed in every city, it’s the kind of idea that can be almost infinitely adapted: offer people a place to share musical instruments, art supplies, design tools, or kitchen equipment. Or take it in another direction and focus on the public spaces already in use by pedestrians or vendors or protestors. Are we missing low budget, high impact opportunities for positive civic interactions in these public spaces? How can we better utilize the common spaces that we already populate or are passing through regularly? If such spaces don’t exist, can we tinker with transit routes to make them happen? What would be the payoffs?
And what are the costs of not pushing these connections to happen?
Wendy Baucom is a recent transplant to Charlottesville from Durham, North Carolina. She has a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and currently volunteers at Central Virginia Restorative Justice.