On the 29th September ‘The City of Play’ Founder, Grant Menzies, traveled to Mexico City to give a lecture at the #SimposioPapalote to a crowd of local Government Officials, Architects, Planners, Transport Ministers, Educators and Playworkers about the value of play in childhood and society and the principles of a ‘child-friendly city’. Grant was commissioned by the Papalote Children’s Museum, Arquine and SEDATU_MX. Below is his account of his time in – and the playability of – one of the largest cities in the world.
Representing a small Social Enterprise from what is probably one of the smaller cities in the world, it is a great honour and privilege to have now spoken about and studied play in two of the world’s largest cities, firstly Tokyo and now ‘la Cuidad de Mexico’. So this is an opportunity to thank my hosts.
I was invited by Arquine [Ar-kee-neh], to speak about ‘The Child’s Right to the City’, to educators, play-workers and an important collection of people concerned with matters regarding the design and policies of ‘the city’, at an event marking the renovation and re-opening of the Papalote Children’s Museum #SimposioPapalote.
This symposium brought together leading national and international experts in ‘sustainable cities’, including myself, Alejandro Echeverri, Peatonito, Tuline Maia Gulgonen, Nadine Maleh, Miquel Adrià, Jorge Wolpert, Edgar Olaiz, Pablo and Dolores Vaggione Beistegui, with a special focus on the child’s right to play as well as various initiatives, proposals and innovative projects encompassed within this theme.
Following the conference, I was thankful for the opportunity to experience and study Mexico City for myself particularly in regards to its playability and child-friendliness – ‘cause that’s my thing. From first-hand experience, Nadine Maleh of the Institute of Public Architecture, believes that my “eyes are tuned to spot anything ‘play’”. It’s a pretty modest super-power, but you work with what you’ve got.
What strikes me first is that Mexico City has a monument for everything; a physical manifestation of its entire history and culture. Public Art adorns the streets reflecting the energy and culture of the city, and celebrating its creativity and its past.
Exercise classes on and around monument
Such civic decoration ensures that the public spaces are inviting and aesthetically pleasing - perhaps masking some of the city’s underlying social problems. In actuality though, they should rightly be considered more than decoration. They activate the space, in some cases through playful interactions with the physical object, or the spaces they create, but also creating movement in the city as curiosity immerses visitor’s in the story of the city.
A giant “43” remembers forty-three disappeared students (rumoured to be at the hands of the Cartel) while other more light-hearted works invite you to pose with a set of Angel Wings or sit, swing and ring a collection of bells, here physical interaction with the works in rewarded. These are just one of the ways the city is at play.
Angel Wings Photo Op
Swing & Ring!
Admittedly, in regards to child-friendliness, first impressions were not great. Mexico City is massive and manic. Massively manic. It has a population of 22 million, 37 million if you include the metropolitan area, and rush hour appears to be… every hour. The streets are rammed with traffic 24/6.5 (yes, I said 6.5 – I will explain in due time) and there are clearly some very dubious road rules, either that or it’s just a case of shocking road discipline – apparently many drivers don’t actually hold a valid licence.
I saw very few children, those I did see were accompanied by parents, in some questionably placed playgrounds. My belief being that independent movement for children must be severely limited.
This belief compounded by Mexico’s ‘Pedestrian Superhero’ who, at the Simposio Papalote, who called for the re-organisation of the cities Transport Hierarchy and demonstrated the difficulty children can have in walking from the nearest metro station to the CHILDREN'S Museum.
Further, I was informed that Mexico has a very ‘restrictive/controlling’ culture “don’t do this, don’t touch that” which can be witnessed in various ways; in the museums numerous guards ensure that you do not touch anything (ANYTHING!), not even the glass; excessive and unnecessary traffic directors; cling film (ceram wrap for those in the US) around the base of monuments and columns at the National Art Gallery; and a traditional belief that children have designated places to play. So it would seem reasonable to assume that, even with a reduced traffic problem, freedom of movement is culturally restricted.
I had all but given up, and just about made my mind up about Mexico City until Sunday rolled around. I stepped out of my hotel in the morning and there were no cars, but plenty of cyclists. They had closed one side of the street to cars and opened it to cyclists, skaters and runners. What’s going on?
Sunday Cycle Roads
Up until this point I had had enough of the city, and only wanted to see the main tourist attractions and museums – which are world class, in stark contrast to the rest of the city I had seen. As I walked to the Anthropological Museum (which is brilliant) however, I noticed for the first time that the city had come alive. I realised that many of the roads had been closed for cyclists (hence the 6.5) and the public parks had become a hive of activity.
Huge numbers of people, predominantly Mexicans (tourist season is over) flocked to the ‘Bosque de Chapultepec’ park, on the far west of the city proper, which contains several museums and Chapultepec Palace. The paths are lined with market stalls, selling various merchandise, food and toys. The experience is reminiscent of the ‘outdoor living’ that originated in the pre-hispanic culture of the area. Family groups and even large groups of cyclists and skaters (roller-skaters) travel, gather and play together creating a strong sense of community that is surprising within such a large city.
Football in the Park
The large natural playscape allows children to play within eye-shot of their families enjoying picnics in the park, and roller-skaters - of varying ages and abilities - take advantage of a smooth surfaced public space to hone their skills and techniques.
Skaters begin to gather early in the morning
Feeding a Squirrel!
While it is encouraging to see Children playing in nature, I’m not sure whether it is an everyday occurrence or just an occasional thing. They are also still with their families, but here they seem free to play without direction or oppression. Perhaps with so many people complete independence is a genuine safety concern. However, in an attempt to uncover a ‘playful’ city, watching the skaters, and one particular young BMX-er, was truly delightful.
Generally, the playgrounds in Mexico are disappointingly standard fare. Although I did notice a difference in, or maybe a lack of, regulations in regards to fall heights - I witnessed slides from the top of swing frames and climbing frames at least twelve feet in height - which is all cool in my book.
However, in the historical centre between Zόcolo and the Palacio de Belles Artes I discovered something of a spatial experiment, the ‘Connecting Structures’ in the San Francisco Atrium #enelAtrio (in the Atrium) by Anonymous Architecture (AnonimA)
‘Connecting Structures’ is a temporary intervention that has recycled forty-five de-commissioned and even broken playground frames, best described as ‘pyramids of circles’. Some have been upcycled to create seating and picnic benches, one even used to prevent the bins moving, while most have been used to create one large frame. The giant structure is simply sat upon rubber matting meaning easy and affordable installation.
45 Frames #enelAtrio
AnonimA have re-purposed and re-activated this public space for sport, play, life and even work supported by a formal programme of activity of urban acrobatics, apparently proposed by the community themselves.
My experience is just a snapshot of play in Mexico City so maybe I don’t have the full picture but I was surprised for different reasons. Firstly, in how seemingly un-child friendly it is, with its traffic and walkability issues and the standardisation and location of its playgrounds – many adjacent to busy roads – factors that combine to mean that children always have an adult over their shoulder to be safe guarded while they play in designated areas (we all know the implications of a ‘helicopter parent’). But then in how these challenges are overcome. To be honest, I don’t know where kids spend their time during the week, but; in the Papalote Museum they have a phenomenal play based learning centre; the playgrounds - however meek - and the admittedly fantastic public parks are extremely well used at the weekend; and they have a culture where play seems to continue on into adulthood, perhaps even becoming more free, which likely stems from this sense of community; of each generation being and playing together. I imagine this to be like the parent who works and spends less time with their children, but makes up for it in meaningful quality time.
The city is flawed, no doubt, but with this acknowledgment, against the odds and true to form we can still play.