London Essays – Issue 9: Play


By Geraldine Bedell, Editor of London Essays, and Ben Rogers, Director of Centre for London

When historians and economists write about the origins of cities, they make much of their capacity to meet basic material needs. They tend to say less about opportunities for play and what that means for the economic, social and cultural life of cities. Yet parks, playgrounds, play-centres, playing fields and parties, comedy clubs, carnivals and casinos are as essential to cities as markets, banks, hospitals and homes. Perhaps London’s single greatest export, Shakespeare, emerged not from the mercantile culture of the city or the courts of Westminster, but from the playground that was 16th-century Southwark, as both a playwright and an actor (a player).

In our interview, Steven Johnson, author of the recently published Wonderland: How Play Made The Modern World, suggests that many world-transforming ideas, movements, and inventions – from the Industrial Revolution to the computer – originated in play, amusement and delight. Johnson points to the important role that London’s pubs and coffee houses had in generating new political and economic movements and institutions.

Pat Kane’s overview essay suggests that London’s essential, exuberant playfulness takes many forms, some time-honoured, some new, some institutional, some individalistic and anarchic. Holly Gramazio charts the remarkably rich relations between digital games, cities in general, and London in particular: it’s not just that many digital games have been set in London – increasingly we are seeing a mashup between the physical city and digital gaming.

The Playable Cities movement arose as a way to humanise the Smart City. Christina Patterson looks at how the idea has spread, and casts a slightly sceptical eye over the idea of imposed fun. Simon O’Hagan writes about a much more self-directed kind of fun, describing the community of cyclists who gather in Regent’s Park every morning as dawn is breaking, who play with the obstacles of the city, turning them to their advantage. And Rosie Ferguson and Jules Munns describe the rise of improv – a genre that is growing at a remarkable rate (both in terms of practitioners and audiences) and which allows relative strangers, from all walks of life, to play together on a deep level very quickly.

Several of our contributors explore children’s play. Rosemary Watt-Wyness, the new Chief Executive of London Youth, describes the value and diversity of London’s youth clubs. Paul Hocker, Director of the children’s charity London Play, reports that one in seven children visit a local green space less than once a year, and sets out some of the factors detracting from children’s play opportunities, including the privatisation of play space. With council adventure playgrounds closing down, adventure increasingly comes with an entry charge. Holly Donagh worries that it’s getting harder and harder for London’s young people to play around with culture, as school and youth cultural programmes are cut – and argues for a different approach both to physical space and young people’s rights in the city.

Geraldine Bedell visits the first care home in the UK to have a nursery on-site, in Wandsworth, where there are frequent opportunities for intergenerational play: too often, she says, old people are not seen as interested in or entitled to play. Robert Bevan looks at the playfulness of LGBTQ+ venues over a long history in London, laments their disappearance, and considers some of the ways in which these cradles of a culture might be saved. And Sarah Shannon investigates the ways in which retailers are responding to the challenge of online retail by trying to make shopping more fun, which increasingly entail consumers leaving the shops without physical purchases.

Some of our graphics throw an interesting light on where adult Londoners get their fun. While the number of London pubs, bars and performance spaces is falling, the pattern is by no means even, with venues popping up in some areas as they decline in others. Perhaps surprisingly, given the paucity of sports fields in the city, Londoners take part in sports at about the same rate as the rest of the country. Perhaps even more surprisingly, they don’t tend to go to cultural venues much more often than people outside London, despite London’s extraordinarily rich cultural offer.

Finally, the neuroscientist Sophie Scott explains that play and in particular laughter – “play’s expression” – is a central form of human communication and bonding. Being able to play is essential to human wellbeing. If that’s right, London will have to protect and promote its play spaces jealously.