Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Power of Play in the Public Square

Photos courtesy of Eline ‘s Gravemade,

Above and below: Scenes from the Place de la République games kiosk, Paris; photo courtesy of Eline‘s Gravemade,

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.

Photo courtesy of Eline ‘s Gravemade,

Photo courtesy of Eline‘s Gravemade,

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.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.


The Role of Faith Communities in the Flourishing City

This entry is part of Common Place’s  Faith in the City series.


Faith communities, their ministries and programs, and their congregants play a vital role in the health and vibrancy of our cities. These communities are full of people who want to contribute to their city’s success and flourishing. After all, charity toward those less fortunate is one of the ways the faithful are called on to act in a community. But what does it mean for the faithful to contribute to the successful flourishing of a city?

There are as many answers to this question as there are faith communities. For example, on  Instagram, I’ve witnessed suburban churches that mobilize their volunteers to drive to the “inner city” and help paint over graffiti or plant flowers in a playground. I’ve also watched volunteers show hospitality by distributing water bottles with a church’s business card as a way to invite strangers to worship services.

Good intentions are plentiful in faith communities, but how do we know that the good faith efforts in which we engage are actually helping those around us? Do our efforts reach those most in need? It is not enough for religious organizations and their volunteers to declare their love of a city without first considering the subtleties of the surroundings in which they live.

In her groundbreaking 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs investigated what social workers learned by talking with residents of a housing project in East Harlem. She learned that the social workers found that the tenants were indifferent to the physical condition of their apartments and the buildings overall. Crime was rampant and there was almost no evidence of neighbors caring for one another. In fact, the tenants hated the project housing. Why?

Tenants complained that the urban planners and architectural designers had built the projects without considering the context of the community. The non-native “experts” did not understand how the community functioned and their efforts essentially created an environment of isolation—segregating the residents from the social fabric of the surrounding neighborhood.

Even though the professional planners had good intentions, they were, in Jacobs’s eyes, too focused on rationalism and the City Beautiful tenets of orthodox urbanism. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” Jacobs noted, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretend order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Jacobs contended that in order to achieve a sense of thriving in a community, leaders must work first to understand the complexity of their communities—when it comes to urban planning, one size doesn’t fit all.

Faith-based organizations seeking to improve life in their cities may fall prey to this same “meaner quality.” A call to action is not enough. True affection for the city requires a virtue which David Brooks calls “epistemological modesty”—the ability to remain humbly open to the input and influence of others to ensure the best possible result in a given plan of action. In order to discern the needs of the city, faith communities should first learn about the history of the city and its residents, connect with those residents, and activate a communal call to collaborative improvement. How does the city work? How are decisions made? What are the benefits and consequences of the built environment within the principal city?

Questions like these have driven my interest in the Thriving Cities Project (TCP). By focusing on the history, culture, and institutional interconnections of a city, the Project allows practitioners and faith leaders to understand both the assets and the intricacies of a city. Further, TCP’s recognition of social connectivity highlights the ways all neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and faith communities collectively contribute to the common good.

Religious organizations must begin by building relationships with those outside of their immediate communities. As author and pastor Jay Pathak suggests, get to know the neighbors around where you live and worship. According to John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, leaders should also learn how to leverage the assets and strengths of a neighborhood by creating strong, multilayered networks of trust. When trust is established, religious groups will have a solid basis for long-term transformation in their cities.

Developing these networks of trust is also key. Working collaboratively, the members of the network may develop a plan of action. But don’t be daunted by the “tyranny of the urgent.” The realization of urban improvement plans may take years. When we as faith communities commit to learn all we can, to connect with each other, and to activate our networks for long-term change, we take meaningful steps toward realizing the flourishing and thriving of our cities.

Chris Meekins is a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary who is interested in urban planning and the American Church. He is currently working with Mission Columbus to bring the Thriving Cities Project to Columbus, Ohio.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.