Place Dialogues 2022

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place dialogues URBAN JOY







- ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON Kites flying over Cairo Image Credit:


For this issue collaborated: David Burney Omar El-Feki Ariella Levitch Marissa Garcia Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment © 2022 Pratt Institute 61 St. James Pl, Brooklyn, NY 11238

Contents page 1


Existential Insidedness

page 13

Cairo Street Play

page 19

Children’s Right to the City

page 27

Kick Flips, Drop Ins & Varials

page 35

What it takes! How Little Island Came To Life

page 57

Urban Joy Across Cultures


page 11


Exuberant Cities: Finding Joy in Urban Places

Kat Cognata

Omar El Feki

Yoni Kallai and Omar El Feki

Alice Krieg

Professor Signe Nielsen

Amira Badran, Elisabeth Stieger, Ryan Swanson and Omar El Feki

Public space can mean Play, Joy, Happiness, delight!

Since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 our lives have changed in many ways. We have developed new behaviors previously unknown and new words to describe them – “social distancing”; “lockdown”; “mask-mandate”. One significant change has been the renewed importance of public space as a safer way to be together socially, outdoors, with better ventilation and the ability to “social distance” more effectively. This has produced and explosion of new uses of public space, from restaurants taking over street parking spaces to the closing of entire streets to allow children to play and residents to hang out together more safely.

The landscape architect and Pratt professor Signe Nielsen discusses her recent design for the whimsical “Little Island” in Manhattan.

Placemakers and active practitioners from New York, Berlin and Cairo share with us the similarities and differences of what Urban Joy means across cultures. UPM alum Alice Krieg looks at the joy of skateboarding.

UPM student Kat Cognata presents her view on “Place attachment”.

UPM student Omar El Feki shares a story of playing in the streets of Cairo. Giving a voice to Joy and advocating for Urban Joy has uncovered the interconnectedness of joy, cities and the people living in them. People are the main creators and enablers of joy. To enable joy we must first empower the people. “What is a city but the people; true the people are the city” - Shakespeare

We hope that this edition of Place Dialogues will help you celebrate the vibrancy and joy of public space when we most need it. David Burney

December 2021


The design firm RIOS looks at the “Exuberant City” with its “whimsy, discovery and curiosity.”


In seven articles our contributors address this theme.


This edition of Place Dialogues is being published in the midst of these changes. During the depths of this pandemic public space has brought some of the few moments of joy in a harrowing period of our lives. So the editors of this edition thought it would be appropriate to look at public space from this aspect of joy, of play, of the ability of public space to make up for the grim restrictions the pandemic has imposed.




Design collective RIOS shares how to find joy in urban places. Article by RIOS’ Sabina Cheng, Robin Kim, Stephanie Lin, and Carissa Gerzeny

Architectural education produced generations of architects who worship Modern Architecture and often, the hard and structured confines of the urban public spaces appear to leave little room for joy. We strive for the noble pursuit of clean purist geometry and axes, the honest expression of raw materials, and celebrate the advancement of technology by stripping colors and decorations from the prior decorative era. Many elements of urban spaces are results of the standardized, economized versions of this ideal with ease of maintenance and security in mind, resulting in sterile environments.

How do we create exuberant cities? Intertwining play into our everyday experiences brings the unexpected and childlike wonder back into our urban environments.

Moments of levity and surprise reframe our typical perspectives and provide a spirit of creativity and freedom. We believe urban environments are not only ripe for these spontaneous and pure moments of delight, but it’s also beneficial to our health and daily lives. From inspiring community building to providing opportunities to enhance individual and public health, play within the urban sphere can reach a greater proportion of general populaces and provide equitable access to its benefits. By creating opportunities for play, cities can sensibly support their communities, improving our individual health and wellness. Play is a ubiquitous and crucial aspect of bringing joy to everyday urban life for all. We practice three essential ingredients that maximize the potential of any site when reimagining public spaces with playfulness in mind:

Whimsy, Discovery, and Curiosity


As architects and designers, we have an opportunistic lens on finding different ways to introduce joy into cities through architecture and urban design. Creating spaces that connect people with moments of familiarity and exuberant expression bring connections between people and place, even in the most unexpected ways.



Introduce whimsical elements to spark interaction One of the best ways to break from our ordinary and everyday routines is to introduce whimsical elements. Imbuing a sense of humor and fantasy transforms how people interact with the space and shifts assumed perceptions of the expected. Whimsical elements and programming within our day-to-day settings shake our preconceived notions by introducing the feeling of childlike wonder in places not typically viewed as warranting extra attention.

Above  Sunset Gateways proposes inflated beacons, transforming streetscapes into dynamic and fantastical experiences from day to night. Left  Design interventions create a bright and lively outdoor space at Third Street Promenade.

Inspiring humor and fantasy transforms how people interact with the space.

Third Street Promenade 3.0 RIOS experimented with another pilot project at Third Street Promenade in Downtown Santa Monica named “Promenade 3.0.” The outdoor laboratory provided insights into making public space vibrant and active again. Installations tested flexible flow, active amenities, and green gateways, including different seating configurations, overhead canopies, lawns, and an outdoor stage, paired with shade elements and games. Each contributed to the Promenade’s unique sense of place. Combined, these factors elevate the retail street and its role as an economic engine, active mobility hub, worldclass destination, and people-focused urban neighborhood.

Sunset Boulevard Gateways This idea proposes inviting interventions to create a sense of place and arrival with landmark “gateways” along L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The design engages big-picture, large-scale placemaking for the greater public good by creating equitable experiences across distinct moments aligned with a modern interpretation of public space potential. Inflated beacons present dynamic opportunities for creative content by offering a blank canvas. The gateways provide solutions that cover a variety of city-specific public space needs, including places to gather and celebrate, pollinator pathways, sustainable infrastructure, and enhancing awareness of this area of the city. Ultimately, the experience defines a new reference point in future media that documents the story of Los Angeles.





ROW DTLA A century ago, the site of ROW DTLA was the terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad where goods were unloaded from railroad cars, loaded onto trucks, and delivered across Southern California. RIOS’ design reimagines the 30-acre campus by embracing its historic character through industrial materials and raw utilitarian details.

Grand Park Expressing the multicultural diversity of Los Angeles, the 12-acre park is transformed into “The Park for Everyone” featuring an interactive water feature, lawns and gardens, a dog run, playground, and a pedestrian loop. Custom site furniture in bright magenta creates a community Southern Californiabackyard feeling.

The design transforms ROW’s warehousestyle buildings into 1.3 million square feet of creative office space, while the landscape approach encourages nature to encroach gradually on the old industrial site. Over 100 unique retail stores and space for the arts, including dedicated space for street art, enliven the complex at all hours of the day and night.

Grand Park acts as the ‘front and backyards’ for the community. The park represents the many cultures that have settled in Los Angeles, featuring plant species from each of the world’s six floristic kingdoms – Cape, Boreal, Neotropical, Paleotropical, Australian, and the Antarctic. Vegetation from all six kingdoms flourishes in L.A.’s climate of easy adaptation.

Another way to bring joy into public spaces is through a sense of discovery.

Juxtaposition also highlights the differences of a place, which can be executed at various scales from building massing to the simple layout of paving materials. This pulls people out of their typical ways of living and provokes realization, bringing one to the present.

Above  Grand Park’s splash pool encourages play with colorful kaleidoscopic LED lighting. Left  The center tree at ROW DTLA anchors the pedestrian throughway between market row and the historic warehouses.


Finding opportunities for fun in the unknown By reworking ideas for play from expected to unexpected spaces, like industrial areas, parking garages, or under highways, the design of a place can invite visitors to engage with the unfamiliar and discover new experiences.


Inquisitive places introduce newfound joy into the public sphere.

Inspire Learning and Creativity No matter our age, people are innately curious and interested to learn more about what’s going on around them. Whether through active interventions or passive illustrations of learning through texture, material, and color, people engage with their surroundings to satisfy the urge to know more, making rewarding and memorable experiences.

Above  The Leimert Park Al Fresco initiative creates outdoor seating and lounges spaces with modules that activate the street and sidewalk while celebrating the neighboring arts, culture, and community. Right  Palm Springs Downtown Park prompts play and discovery with interactive water features and native plants inspired by the geology and ecology of the region.

Leimert Park Village Al Fresco This space presented an exciting opportunity to transform the street into a public outdoor space. RIOS worked collaboratively with Leimert Park business owners and community members to design a simple, affordable, easy-to-construct streetscape module that could be used as a “canvas” for artwork by local artists. The bright colors and collaborative effort infused a new meaning to the simple block construction, creating an outdoor furniture module that can be flexibly arranged into different configurations.

Downtown Palm Springs Park In the heart of Downtown Palm Springs, this 2-acre public open space offers a shady oasis, inspired by the city’s legacy as a destination for health, nature, and pleasure seekers. The park’s design draws from local natural features, such as the Washingtonia filifera oasis in Palm Canyon and the waterfall in nearby Tahquitz Canyon. The park features a dense palm grove with ample seated shaded areas, eco-lawns, and amphitheater seating for community events, shade structures inspired by palm leaves, and an interactive water feature for play and cooling ambient temperatures. Locally sourced stone and native desert plantings create a common ground rooted in a sense of place for the growing Palm Springs community.




RIOS is a design collective working beyond boundaries to combine disciplines and amplify the impact of design inventively. Within our practice, the built environment and landscape architecture are interconnected to harness the positive impacts of wellness and define design as a continuum. We use the power of story to connect us to place and to one another.

We believe that design is better when you think inclusively about solving a problem. We are problem-solvers, innovators, and creative thinkers. This proclivity can be seen in our unshakable nature as storytellers, revealing each project’s potential to celebrate our diversity and humanity.

Our work is irreversibly connected to the narrative of place and the complex order of human culture, creating joyful, authentic, and unexpected solutions. Each project is a genuine expression of the important stories connecting us and revealing location, ecology, culture, and ethnography. We frame playfulness in terms of wildness and indeterminacy to promote a contemporary understanding of play as an open-ended, imaginative, and experimental process that empowers people to create their own physical, psychological, and social experiences. Beyond typical play spaces like playgrounds, we believe playfulness can be employed as an overlay of our existing cities that incorporates natural qualities. In framing playfulness as a system, we look beyond conventional constraints and toward public space improvements that allow more possibilities for engagement. By infusing playfulness into public space design, we invite new means of personal engagements that promote creativity, wellness, and community. As designers and part of a community, we should intentionally and thoughtfully reintroduce play in many places to make our communities a more wondrous place. RIOS is recognized for design excellence across the broad spectrum of design disciplines, including as a finalist for The Architect’s Newspaper Best of Practice Awards, a Jury Winner for the Architizer A+Awards for office interiors, for the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture, and as ‘Firm of the Year’ by the California Council of the American Institute of Architects.


The practice operates at the intersection of architecture, landscape, urban planning, interior design, video, graphics and signage, experiential, and product design to inform design at all types and scales.

Existential Insidedness PLACE DIALOGUES -11- URBAN JOY

Article by Kat Cognata

Photo by Holly Zausner Stills from film “Unsettled Matter”

From my perspective, living in such a large, ever-changing city simply provides more of an opportunity for connection. People live their everyday lives in a habitual routine which is often tied in with place and place attachment, whether or not that is consciously recognized. In “Place and Placelessness” (1976) Edward Relph coined the term existential insideness: A situation where one feels so completely at home and immersed in a space that the importance of that place in the person’s everyday life goes unnoticed unless the place dramatically shifts in some way. This concept greatly explains what my feelings are towards place attachment in NYC. Since New York City is constantly changing and shifting, there’s an inherent need to connect to others around, even if it’s just upon the surface and this alone can create a dire response stemming from the very conviction of human condition. Some people live in apartments and never make the effort to see who lives across the hall, or even next door; but there is a small exception for those who do.

In reference to Relph, perhaps a good place-based example for New York City regarding this notion of existential insideness, quite momentously, is the sense of place-attachment and connection of community that assembled throughout the city after the 2016 election. The morning that the 2016 election results pooled in, there was an initial sense of sadness throughout downtown Manhattan (where I was living at the time) that was also simultaneously blending with a sense of newfound comradery. There were groups of people crying in the street, folks holding doors open for people that normally wouldn’t think twice about having it close on the following persons’ faces or feet. However, this was also a time where I noticed significantly more street-level interactions between New Yorkers. More people began to take their time to appreciate the place where their once so habitual lives seemed to drastically change as the shift in politics also changed. I saw this in many more ways than one— more folks stopping to say hello to the man in the Halal carts in the morning, more interactions with the folks who used to go unnoticed everyday. Slowly, as things returned to “normal” New Yorkers seemed to maintain these interactions, which ultimately lead to a nuanced sense of place for these people or a true embarkment of place-attachment.

So, at large, though NYC may seem like such a huge, almost isolated place for humans, the sense of place that we find on our everyday walks to work, school, or the grocery store truly connect us with the faces we see daily. NYC is much more tightly knit than Hollywood may perceive it in movies and TV shows. It contains people who are unconsciously very place attached because of its entropic fluidity. So completely at home and completely immersed in the city. The dire need to connect to others in an urban context and establish a sense of placeattachment is precisely why Urban Joy is of utmost importance. Moments of Joy and Play in the city have the ability to spark interaction between citizens. Bringing people together and combatting existential insideness.


NYC is viewed by outsiders as a large, ever-changing city that never sleeps. There is a general notion that people are constantly coming and going from all ends of the world and that it’s virtually impossible to have a true sense of community or, better yet, a sense of place attachment. However, as a life-long New Yorker, to tell you that though this may be the generally conceived flow of this city, it is not necessarily the case for every day-to-day New Yorker. Of course, each place in NYC and every person has their own experiences that may lead to alternative views and conclusions, but speaking as a Staten Island native, I have come to see each and every corner of New York City as its own community and each of these communities as connected populaces.

Hide & Seek

Playing in the streets of Cairo


Article by Omar El Feki. (Thesis Topic)

For many, the streets of Cairo can be too much. Herds of stampeding cars leave behind dust and exhaust smoke. The sounds of constant honking mixed with music, laughter and fighting drivers. The array of smells from coffee and food to exhaust smoke and cigarettes. A sensory overload. However, there is another side to the streets of Cairo. Still as busy and exciting but more approachable and fun. I grew up playing in the streets of Cairo. Shooting around a ball with friends, climbing trees, chasing cars and playing Street Hide and Seek. Many of my most joyful childhood memories are from that time.

This is one of the many stories I have from playing in the streets of Cairo. It is a story of Play. How it can happen anywhere.

It is a story of Perspective. Seeing the fun around us. A story of Unpredictability. Going with the flow.



Chapter 1: The Traffic Officer

Illustration by Omar El Feki

I was hiding behind a white rusty Fiat 128, that had Even though I didn’t want to lose to my brother, it been parked there for days, if not weeks. would probably be better than being spotted by the officer..... A choice had to be made. As far as hiding spaces go, it was an OK spot. I was well hidden from Youssef, my younger brother. SCREEECH. In this moment of hesitation, a car, However, this was Street Hide and Seek and my braking behind me, grabbed his attention. He brother was not the only person I had to hide from.... turned around and saw me. “NOT AGAIN” he I was one “look over the head” away from being yelled and proceeded to let loose the daily dose spotted by the traffic officer. of flying spit, curses and reprimand. “Go play in a garden or somewhere. The streets are no place to If he saw me, it would be game over. He had already play”. I was on the run, the officer chasing me and yelled at us 3 times that week for playing in the my brother close behind. street and “disturbing” the traffic flow. Pfft, what flow? The traffic was as still as a statue… He was Yet another day of Street Hide and Seek...... standing 10ft away. Waving his hands shouting at a delivery truck driver for leaving his vehicle in the middle of the road. Clearly in a bad mood.

“The streets are no place to play”

The biggest obstacles to Urban Joy and Play are (in my opinion) 1. leaving little room for interpretations and 2. the banishing of fun to certain “acceptable islands”. Overplanning and overregulating our public spaces are manifestations of what Marc Breviglieri calls the Guaranteed City. This refers to the planning assumptions that predict a fixed and anticipated pattern of behavior in public space, thus removing any means of creative expression or experimentation that can lead to new patterns of use. Cities, however, are messy places. It is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to plan for the unpredictability, spontaneity and dynamism that occurs in the public realm. As Quentin Stevens discusses, in his book “The Ludic City”: “The ways in which people experience their surroundings are not merely instrumental. They are often exploratory, whimsical, and unsystematic.” It would be an oversimplification to limit play activities to only the spaces that have been specifically designed to serve the “function of play”. As planners we should not only be concerned with emphasizing efficiency and functionality.


We should rather allow the city to emerge and use “Play” as a platform to UNLEASH the UNSCRIPTED potentials of public space.


Chapter 2: Hiding behind Cars

Illustration by Omar El Feki

I was so close to homebase. Yet so far. The seeker was standing in my way to safety, a win and bragging rights. I could see him through the windshield. I looked at the car mirror, trying to scope out where the others were hiding. I saw my cousin, on the other side of the street, tiptoeing next to a moving car, trying to sneak to homebase. Risky move! Vrooooom. The car accelerated. Exposing my cousin. The seeker was onto him. My path to homebase was free….

A maze with moving walls

For the outsider or observer, we were just running around the street. For us it was OUR maze. Only we saw that. You only understood it if you were part of it.

A street by nature is flat, straight and open. Not the ideal place for a game of “hide and seek”, but we made it work. The lack of hiding spaces meant we could only hide behind cars. Afterall, this was Cairo. If there was one thing we had in abundance, it was cars. This made the game more fun. In our minds, hiding behind the cars turned the street into a dynamic maze with moving walls. This is an example of what James Gibson called “environmental affordances’’. Quentin Stevens discusses how children (and adults) discover affordances for play everywhere in their environment. Children, however, are more inclined to act on these affordances. The ability to look at a street and see a “maze with moving walls” is what I call the PlayRadar. A tool (I believe) city planning desperately needs.


The PlayRadar allows us to see the potential playfulness of all objects and spaces around us. Integrating this into the city planning and public space design processes could help us plan/design for diverse and creative use of public space. Increasing the “looseness” of space and achieving more playful and joyful cities. This is by no means an easy feat. However, it is only possible once we embrace the unpredictable and allow the city to emerge. It can not be attained through normative planning practices and sitting behind our computers. We need to go out and experience these spaces for ourselves. We need to give ourselves permission to act on our playful intuitions and follow our PlayRadar.


Children’s Right to the City

Children have as much “right” to the city as adults. Unfortunately, the default urban planning position “banishes” them to child-designated areas restricting their interaction in the urban sphere. Additionally, safety measures in these child designated areas enforce certain types of play and restrict opportunities for creative expression. Adventure playgrounds break this narrative and provide a platform for children to run free. One such example is play:groundnyc on Governors Island in New York City.

play:groundnyc is non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the city through play. Reimagining the urban environment as a place for all children to play, create and explore, regardless of demographic status. play:groundnyc uses the playwork approach to support children’s play. We sat down with Yoni Kallai co-founder and head playworker at play:groundnyc to talk more about adventure playgrounds, the playwork approach and children’s right to the city.


Article by Yoni Kallai & Omar El Feki


“Mischievousness and sneaking around were criminalized in Nazi occupied Copenhagen, Adventure Playgrounds were born as a response”


In the 1940s the Danish authorities commissioned landscape architect, C. Th. Sorensen to design spaces for children to play “ in response to increased levels of child delinquency during the German occupation.” Sorensen’s first step was to examine playgrounds he had previously built. He discovered that they were almost always empty and barely used. Further digging revealed that the children were instead playing in the wreckage of bombed out buildings. This inspired Sorensen to design spaces that captured this essence of fun and freedom. The first adventure playground.

Above  Kids playing in the site of a bombed church, 1948. Photo by Times Educational Supplement Right  A collection of images of kids using tools and playing in “The Yard”, Governors Island, New York City. Photos by Omar El Feki

Adventure Playgrounds:


play:groundNYC defines adventure playgrounds as junkyards for the youth. Where the youth have ownership over how the space is built, altered and enhanced. Yoni believes that adventure playgrounds are places where kids are empowered to create and change their own environment. They are filled with “junk” materials over which they have complete control - to build or even to destroy. Complete Freedom. In essence Adventure playgrounds are “A free place. You can do anything. You’re just free”. Play can happen almost anywhere with almost anything and adventure playgrounds capture this essence. You can start off by sawing off a loose piece of wood and hammering nails to it, move on to rolling car tires down a hill, jump off a stack of wooden pallets, build a fort and defend it against “foreign invasion”, then destroy the fort and use the broken parts to build a swing. You can pick the grass and create art with the blades. Spend hours walking around unnoticed and lost in your own world. The possibilities are endless.

“Junkyards for the youth”

“Better a broken arm than a broken spirit.”


Yoni noticed that “almost everyone that passes by our playground takes a moment to pause and look inside, appreciating it and commenting they think it’s great or cool”. However, he also noticed that “many people out there think it’s dangerous” and that “many of the people that do think it’s great are still hesitant about it”. He comments that they often hear people saying “it’s so cool but I can’t imagine doing this”. This presents the biggest threat to adventure playgrounds. Yoni believes that “Public perception about adventure playgrounds as well as children’s capabilities needs to change.” He strongly advocates for having more playscapes that support risky play options, in order to “start normalizing it and to serve more people”. As part of play:groundNYC’s mission, reimagining the urban environment as a place for all children to play, they host “pop up play” events at various parks all over New York City. To spread the message and raise awareness. These events are free and passers by of any age are welcome to join. Many of the kids coming to play are joined by their parents, Yoni noticed that “many of the parents seem hesitant and reluctant at first, but then see their kids having fun and slowly start to stand back, relax and let go”.

This may be down to the fact that “the parents realize that their kids are capable of identifying and assessing different types of risks and dealing with them accordingly.” It is important to differentiate between risks and hazards. Risks such as climbing a tree, using a saw or hammer “are things kids need to conquer themselves”. Hazards, like a nail stuck in a piece of wood or a loose wooden platform, need to be eliminated. Identifying and eliminating hazards are not the kids responsibilities, rather they are a part of a playworker’s duties.

Above  Kids enjoying a “Pop-Up Play” Event at Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn, New York Photo by Omar El Feki Top A boy climbing a tree in the “Pop-Up Play” Event. Photo by Omar El Feki Right  Children are capable!! A sign at “The Yard” Adventure Playground, Governors Island, New York Photo by Omar El Feki

“Important to differentiate between risks and hazards”

The Playwork Approach

The term playwork is deliberately oxymoronic. It is a craft filled with paradoxes. The playworkers are aware that in an ideal world they should not need to exist. They manage the spaces for children’s play, but this work needs to be as invisible and unobtrusive to children as possible.

The playwork approach is central to the concept of the adventure playground. It challenges the underlying perceptions of how to interact with kids and aims to give them as much freedom and control as possible. play:groundNYC has created a 3 day immersive training, under the guidance of Yoni, for new playworkers. The training for new employees gives them a foundation and idea of the approach so that they are ready to enter the real training of working with the kids alongside more experienced playworkers. A lot of this work is inspired by Penny Wilson’s pamphlet “The Playwork Primer”. The pamphlet describes the ideal playworker as:

Similarly, play:groundNYC stresses this idea of the “playworker cloak of invisibility”. In the playworker training sessions Yoni stresses that playworkers “ should intervene as subtly as possible in order to keep the play flowing”. Placing extra nails close to a kid using a hammer, or redirecting the attention of a kid throwing stones to aim for a target away from where others are playing etc. Playworkers should be considered more as enablers of play rather than enforcers of rules.


The ideal playworker leaves the children free to play for themselves but intervenes in carefully measured ways to support the play process.They are aware of her own playfulness, but does not impose it upon the children. They must necessarily be devoted to the playing of the children, but shun the popular role of the Pied Piper. Play is the children’s business.


Adventure playgrounds and the playwork approach provide a good metaphor for placemaking and city planning. By not creating spaces that are “too restrictive or over-regulated” and enabling play we can allow Urban Joy to emerge. Yoni sums up this nicely by saying: “The most important element is the human element: the city and everything around it are meaningless without the people who make it. If you want a place full of joy, you have to have people that permit, promote and celebrate joy.”

“The most important element is the human element” Play:groundnyc in 2021:



Kick Flips, Drop Ins & Varials

An Anatomy of Community Governance, Risk & Harmony within Skate Park Design Article by Alice S. Marcus Krieg


Creativity & inclusivity are important aspects in the celebration and promotion of Urban Joy. In this excerpt from her graduation thesis (June 2020), Urban Placemaking and Management Graduate, Alice Krieg shares her take on this by discussing how skaters’ unique and playful vision of the world allows them to create fascinating places. She also discusses the existing tensions between skaters & municipalities. Recommending a switch in the process, perception, policy and model behavior towards civic action that unites skaters and municipalities towards a shared understanding of public space.

How can municipalities alleviate the perceived risks of skate park design and activation? How is a traditionally under-served demographic—the skate youth community—cultivated through skate park design and how can that cultivation itself be an answer to liability and risk. How can the idea of risk be changed from a negative liability to a positive asset that sets a standard for the planning process? How might the planning process meet the resistance and negative perceptions of third place and abandoned space activation to create skate parks that serve a growing population of skateboard participants? These are questions this thesis aims to address.


In 2019, as a mom to a skateboarder, I was asked to sign a petition in support of building a new skate park in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which would serve as a memorial park for pro skater Pablo Ramirez. Prospect Park is the landmarked “crown jewel” of Brooklyn parks, and with my professional background in garden design and 25 years of building gardens in New York City for both public and private clients, I understood the obstacles this petition would encounter. Breaking ground within a landmarked and beloved historic park for the installation of a new skate park is an administrative request that is not high on the list of needs for Brooklyn park managers.

Above Pro Skater Pablo Ramirez Photo by Mark Mahaney

I signed the petition because I believe in both the power of skate parks and the power of skaters as community members and as agents of social change through disciplined, practiced, and thoughtful creative energy. As a mom, I understand the skater mindset of viewing the world as a place to practice risk, jump, fly, roll and transcend architecture for personal gain. Skaters view architecture with an opportunistic perspective of risky creativity and physical prowess as a mission. “As such, skateboarding helps to rethink architecture’s manifold possibilities” (Borden, 2001, p. 99).   Above Skateboarding over Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic Architecture Photo by Borden, I. (2001). Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body. Berg Publishers (Bloomsbury).


Dropping in on a twelve-foot bowl; twisting upside down with one hand on a rail and the second hand grabbing a sixteen-inch board where feet are gripping only board and wheels with the hope of reconnecting feet to corporeal earth; and trusting that a two-foot-high jump on a board with wheels will land solidly square are all acts of faith, practice, and determination. Thus, my central question for this project is: How can that faith and risk be translated and activated within our public realm for future design, policy, politics, and the betterment of humanity? Skateboarding “produces space, but also time and the self…it requires a tool (the skateboard), but also absorbs that tool into the body” (Borden, 2001, p. 99). In order to answer this question, this study examines skateboarding and the body politic—the town decision makers who hold the keys to the public accessing this creativity and youth development for the greater purpose of community growth and improvement of place.   Top Timelapse Trick Photo by Gravette Pro Spotlight Above

Drawing by Andrew Harrison


The study examines two key questions. The first is: how can traditionally stigmatized abandoned spaces be re-conceived as places where risk is safely encouraged and cultivated? With this question, I define “risk” as “the spice that makes some aspects of recreation so pleasurable and the life itself more meaningful; “Life without risk is like life without life” (Hronek & Peterson, 2011). In researching case studies of municipally designed skate parks, I am fascinated with the perception of skateboarders and with the places they either create or that are created for them to practice their craft. Skaters, in the public realm, make “Place” by definition; they skate the streets, the plazas, the curbs, the parks, the roadways, etc…anything and everything is skate-able to a skateboarder; the cement world is for their pleasure and challenge. This unique vision of the world is a playful, spontaneous, and creative view of architecture. Skate parks can encourage such perspectives and foster this creative spontaneity.

Top  Skating everywhere Photos by The New York Times

“anything and everything is skate-able to a skateboarder; the cement world is for their pleasure and challenge.”

Peace between municipalities and skaters depends, to some extent, on a shared understanding of our public spaces. The public skate park movement has been largely successful to date, there are many and varied parks that currently exist, but they are not all created equally. The unifying commonality, however, is the usership and strong community—I believe this stakeholder group to be the key to more parks and informed management of skate parks.

“Peace between municipalities and skaters depends, to some extent, on a shared understanding of our public spaces”

Above   Skaters vs Municipalities Photo by

Taylor, M. & Khan, U. (2011). Skate-Park Builds, Teenaphobia and the Adolescent Need for HangOut Spaces: The Social Utility and Functionality of Urban Skate Parks. Journal of Urban Design, 16:4, 489-510. DOI: 10.1080/13574809.2011.586142.


Historically, municipalities site skate parks apart from traditional parks via unused space: under highways, away from town centers, on the margins of a town. Such placement deepens the stereotype of skaters as devious and risky peoples engaged in risky hobbies. Taylor and Khan describe how skate park placement perpetuates this perception: “It is hypothesized that the social marginalization of skateboarders within the community underpins the current poor provisioning of skateboarding facilities’’ (2011). Borden describes skateboarding “as a production of space, time and social being as well as architecture” (2001). This thesis examines the decision-making process of planning a skate park. The second question thereby follows: how can we manage this risk, avoid litigation, and normalize ordinary and reasonable care concerning rules for a recreational activity that defies logic? The first question presented here concerns the ends and presents a recommendation towards vision, the second question is about the means and the manner of implementation. The goal of this thesis is to provide an argument for the beginning of a national standard of design for skate parks. No such standard guideline exists. I argue for the creation of a standard design guideline that employs citizen partnership as a mandatory and necessary first step, and best practice for governance and stewardship of skate parks.


Skateboarding is now an Olympic sport; it is here to stay. It is now only a matter of time before every town and city embarks upon building its own skate park for their citizens. The sport is rapidly growing in popularity and industry dollars. The design and building of such amenities requires a thorough understanding of the sport and culture. The public acceptance of risk, as a municipal standardization, and as itself a goal, is a worthy attribute towards the changing of negative perceptions in a familiar, traditional and conventional pattern of planning. The essence of skateboarding is the physical quest for movement and creativity. But a skate park, as a built amenity within the public realm, is a challenge that requires creativity of spirit. The eternal quest for a better place to skate is inherent to the practice of skateboarding; there is competition for skate Place, which can be the solution for municipality-built parks—the public, private, community-led partnership fills the void for government funded projects and community advocacy can lead the way. The challenge is how to make skate parks plentiful across the United States and globe, but not lose their niche third place quality and ethos. How do we make municipalities comfortable with the perceived (larger than real but still real) risks, but not dumb them down until they are risk-free (as per supervisors, controlled hours, less challenging courses). Community engagement, and the potential for community operation, are the means to this end. These go hand-in-hand with alliance building and community organizing. Indeed, an unintended positive outcome would be that the skate park effort can lead to other benefits, similar to how community gardens, food coops, etc. have spurred productive communitarianism. There is a transcendent quality to many sports. Baseball and corporate culture (everyone should have the job they do best); soccer and nationalism (countries have almost gone to war over it); golf and the game of gentlemen (and those who crash it). One of the unique things about skateboarding is that it is about individual expression, typically as watched by others also seeking such expression. Illustration by Omar El Feki

Recommendation 1: Recruit Allies: Process Recommendation 2: Honor skate parks as Third Places: Perceptions Recommendation 3: Look to Park Conservancies and Volunteer Programs: Model Behavior Recommendation 4: Brooklyn Skate Garden: A Model for Governance Through Citizen Participation Recommendation 5: Employ Workshops to Promote Skate Park Advocacy Recommendation 6: Implement a National Standard of Design for Skate Parks that is firstly community driven.


Based upon my research and case studies, there were six recommendations that this thesis advocated for. All recommendations concern a switch in process, perception, policy and model behavior towards civic action. Learning how to skateboard can be as risky as agreeing to a skate park. Both the skater and the town manager must stretch themselves emotionally, physically, and mentally to achieve a new trick, a new amenity, a mitigation technique from which to grow. When a stakeholder repeatedly hears “no,” and similarly when a teen encounters negativity or rules that are limiting and too cautionary, creativity is squashed and voices are unheard resulting in missed opportunities. The missed opportunities, in reality, are symbolic of the true “deviant” behavior that must be changed. Searching for, and making heard, the voices that repeatedly ask for amenities, creativity, places and spaces, is the work of Placemakers; these six recommendations detail the process, perception, policy and modeling that can serve to increase the number of successful skate parks and give voice to a skate community that is asking for Place. In understanding the “no’s,” the “yeses” present themselves as opportunities for intervention. These recommendations broaden the field of available recreational amenities in townships and illuminates a creative vision for Placemaking with a stakeholder group that has been largely ignored. A community partnership is the sum aim of my recommendations.

What it takes! How Little Island Came to Life. PLACE DIALOGUES -35- URBAN JOY

Article by Professor Signe Nielsen

As prospective placemakers and city planners many of us dream of taking on big projects with massive budgets that have significant impacts on our cities.

The GCPE at Pratt equips us with the academic and practical skills to help us pursue these dreams. One of these skills is the understanding of what goes into creating such projects Their everchanging nature, the ups and the downs and the patience required to see them to the end. Professor Nielsen tells the story of how Little Island came to be and shares with us what it takes to see through such projects.


Pier History:

Little Island is a 2.4 acre, $260M park on a new pier located in the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan next to the Meatpacking District. Both the Downtown Whitney Museum and a slice of the High Line are visible from the park.

The pier replaces former Pier 54 where the Cunard Line maintained its primary docking facility for passenger ships. It is best known for receiving the survivors of the Titanic and from where the Lusitania departed on her ill-fated voyage. The pier eventually fell into disuse but when Hudson River Park Trust took control of the abandoned pier in 1998, Pier 54 became a place for events. The pier eventually fell into disuse but when Hudson River Park Trust took control of the abandoned pier in 1998, Pier 54 became a place for events and concerts. Hurricane Sandy severely damaged the pier and it was demolished in 2015 while early plans were in the works for its replacement as Little Island. All that remains of the historic pier is a large arch that heralds the south bridge entrance to the park and creates a dramatic threshold juxtaposing old and new. Below  2004 Pier 54 Aerial Photo by MNLA Right  The Lusitania Photo by


Bottom  View of pier 54 from the water Photo by MNLA

Above  2014 Arch Photo by MNLA


Above  Pier 54 removed Photo by MNLA

Project Inception:


When our firm (MNLA) designed the master plan for Hudson River Park which stretches from Chambers Street to 59th Street, Pier 54 was designated as a public performance pier because of its central location within the linear park, easy access to mass transit and absence of residential buildings nearby that could be disturbed by loud events. The 1997 master plan was approved through an extensive public review process that resulted in New York State passing legislation called the Hudson River Park Act. Because of this prior public approval, the proposed design for Little Island only went through the community board review process. During the early planning stage in 2012, the donor (Barry Diller of the Diller-von-Furstenberg Family Foundation) in partnership with Hudson River Park Trust embarked on the unique opportunity to re-imagine an entirely new type of public space that would create an immersive experience by weaving together nature and art.

“Re-imagine an entirely new type of public space”

Left  MNLA master plan for Piers 54-56 plan Photo by MNLA Right  Pier siting and orientation to street grid Photos by MNLA


However, because of federal and state environmental regulations, the new pier could not increase the amount of coverage over the water than the former Pier 54. Heatherwick Studio, based in London and led by Thomas Heatherwick, proposed a square shape, rather than the traditional rectangular dimensions of a typical pier, as being more conducive to performance spaces and a park-like experience.

Response to Climate Change:

The new pier is set away from the esplanade by roughly 180 feet and is accessed at both the north and south by sloping “bridges” (actually pile-supported gently sloping ramps) that elevate the pier well above storm surge and future sea-level rise.


These two approaches mediate the low elevation of the esplanade (elevation 6.5 above MHW) nearly ten feet (elevation 16 above MHW) at a comfortable gradient.

The pier’s placement in the river is a calculated balance among length and slope of bridges and depth to bedrock, a critical factor in determining the length of the supporting piles and their associated costs. Thomas Heatherwick likens these to cruise liner gangplanks that inspire a sense of leaving the city and being transported to a magical place.

“Inspire a sense of leaving the city and being transported to a magical place” Top  2014 rendering of pier in context Photo by MNLA Above  Section showing pile-supported “gently sloping ramps” or “bridges”connecting pier to mainland Photo by MNLA Right  People on a gangplank “leaving the city” Photo by MNLA

The very pronounced undulations of the tulip-shaped structures (pots) sitting atop concrete piles is more than an architectural gesture. The southern two corners are lifted above the water, as much as 62 feet, to allow the low angles of morning and afternoon sun to reach deep under the pier for the benefit of marine life.

Left  Twinmotion pier view from esplanade showing the southern two corners lifted above the water Photo by MNLA

water-borne transport and cranes, prohibition on use of chemicals in the landscape that drain directly into the river, and selection of native and pollinator plant species.

Above  Collection of images showing the measures taken to mitigate climate change Photos by MNLA


As the project evolved, many additional measures were taken to mitigate climate change impacts including locally-sourced materials and fabricators,

Structural Design:

The 280 piles capped by pre-cast “tulip-shaped” pots are tied together by a structural slab upon which the landscape sits. Each pot is comprised of five “petals” that are tied together internally by a star beam; these in turn, are nested in a column head that sits on top of a pile. The pier structure represents roughly half of the total construction budget and therefore was closely monitored throughout the project. Once the structural engineers settled on a concrete slab strategy to tie all the pots together as a single unit, MNLA’s task was to balance the soil depth requirements for the various trees and plants with the load-bearing capacity of the piles. Right  Concrete slab over pots Photo by MNLA


Bottom  Star beam reinforcement Photo by MNLA

Right  2015 Load Analysis Photo by MNLA

“The pier structure represents roughly half of the total construction budget” PLACE DIALOGUES -44- URBAN JOY

Below  Pot Components Photo by ARUP


Project costs kept escalating, and 3 years into the project, the design team was charged with proposing major cost reductions. This resulted in reconsidering the pier’s design by reducing a significant number of custom pre-cast concrete molds for the pots and reverting to conventional flat-deck pier construction within the interior and deploying the pots around the visible perimeter. This value engineering exercise reduced the number of pots from 280 to 132, a savings of more than $20M.

Above  2016 Value Engineering Flat Deck Photo by ARUP Bottom  Pot 3d Views and Pot Type Distribution Photo by MNLA


Further savings were achieved by redesigning the pots to have more replication of petal shapes. Additional savings in both time and cost were achieved by constructing pots off site and barging them down the Hudson to the site. Rather than having to install one petal at a time, the pots could be craned on to their piles as a single unit. Some of the pots weighed as much as 70,000 pounds and required use of the largest crane available on the east coast.

Top  Individual petal and foam forms Photo by MNLA Above  Barge loaded with preassembled pots Photo by MNLA

Top  Crane lifting pot 5 Photo by MNLA Above  Crane Photo by MNLA

Topography and Circulation:

Topography is a landscape architect’s dream. Grade change in the landscape offers the opportunity to create visual and choreographic experiences that enhance a user’s perception of place. Little Island challenged our skills in many ways. The primary challenge was achieving path layouts and gradients that met accessibility standards as they navigate the elevations of the park’s overlooks. At the outset, Heatherwick proposed an overlook in the southwest corner at 72 feet. MNLA was unable to design a suitable path layout to achieve this 56-foot grade change from the plaza to the overlook in a gracious path alignment and recommended a lower elevation that would allow for universal accessibility.


Above  2014 views study Photo by MNLA Right  Circulation analysis and path slope accessibility Photo by MNLA

While manipulating the topography to accommodate circulation, we were also charged with grading the lawns to provide maximum visibility to the main plaza for optimum viewing of performances. Countless hours were spent studying slopes, sight lines and audience capacity.


Above  Lawn Slope Proposal Photo by MNLA Right  2014 Lawn event seating capacity Photo by MNLA

Above  2014 Lawn slope section Photo by MNLA

“Topography is a landscape architect’s dream.”

MNLA became concerned that the single paths up to each high point would become congested; widening the paths would only exacerbate the slopes uphill and down, so we settled on an eight-foot path width.


Right  2014 path section dimensions Photo by MNLA

Ultimately we were successful in introducing alternative routes, including stairs and boulder scrambles, to provide multiple routes up and down the slopes. Our inspiration was the simple children’s board game of Chutes and Ladders. These circulation options have proven to be very effective in offering people diverse park experiences and mitigating the feeling of crowds, a problem keenly felt on the High Line where visitors have to walk along a single route, north or south.

Top Boulder Scramble Render Photo by MNLA Above  Stairs as an alternative route up the slope Photo by MNLA Left  Pathway Render Photo by MNLA


However, the topography offers some intentional advantages, for example, to shield an 850-person amphitheater from view, buffering winter winds, and screening views of the adjacent highway. Much like a Japanese strolling garden, the choreographed serial visual experience while moving through the park reveals both intimate internal views of the park and distant vistas to the skyline and New York harbor and Statue of Liberty.

Top View of Little Island from Pier 57 Photo by MNLA Above  View of water from pathway Photo by MNLA

Landscape and Topography:


The topography was the starting point for the landscape development. The dramatic topography posed additional challenges and opportunities beyond those already described. Early on, we analyzed the site by combining environmental factors of solar exposure, wind and slopes with human experience of views, usage and elevation, which resulted in nine distinct zones within the park. However, we needed a strategy to visually unify these discrete zones, so we developed the bloom sweep concept. The notion was to create a band of seasonally evolving color at the park’s lower elevations that would read cohesively from any viewing angle.

Left  2014 planting concept zones Photo by MNLA Above Bloom sweep diagram Photo by MNLA Below   Bloom Sweep built Photo by MNLA

Then as the visitor traverses the different routes, the plant palette takes on distinguishing characteristics in each of the quadrants. For example, the northwest corner faces the sun all day so the plant palette focuses on strong colors to withstand the harsh light, whereas the southwest slopes upward to the south casting shade on the landscape in combination with many canopy trees, so more pastels and white flowering plants are used. . Another subtle planting strategy is that the proportion of perennials to ornamental grasses changes from 90% perennials in the bloom sweep to 90% ornamental grasses at the edges of the

“a band of seasonally evolving color”

Above  Summer path render Photo by MNLA Right  Northwest Grassland Built Photo by MNLA


Right North West hot color pallete Photo by MNLA


Walls help to mitigate the steep slopes and retain soil for large trees. Initially the idea was to use large slabs of stone set vertically; this proved both expensive and too heavy for the piles. The next strategy was smaller boulders- less costly and lower weight but very space consumptive to retain soil. In reassessing the need to find thin, structurally viable, less expensive, lightweight, pre-fabricated retaining walls, MNLA recommended weathering steel sheet pile- a typical material found in marine bulkhead construction. This idea was enthusiastically endorsed by all and set the tone for the materiality and warm color palette for the other park elements.

Above  Design alterations 2015-2018 Photos by MNLA Left  2021 plants on sheet wall piles Photo by MNLA

Installation of the landscape was an enormous challenge, largely because of the topography that precludes access by construction vehicles. A third of the 114 trees planted on the pier range from 8-inch to 12-inch caliper (30’-40’ tall), with some weighing as much as 20,000 pounds. All the trees were craned into precise locations with pre-installed tie-down cables ready to receive the rootballs. Once the trees were positioned, then began the placement of soil that was pumped up to the high elevations using a telebelt. More than a thousand shrubs followed by perennials, grasses and vines and capped off by 66,000 bulbs were planted in that sequence.

Above  Hoisting 12” Cal Maple tree, Tree tie down on rootball and telebelt operations. Photos by MNLA

“The monumental task of planting nearly 100,000 plants occurred over the course of 10 months” Above  Cavanos perennials and grasses Photo by MNLA Right Professor Nielsen demonstrating the distance to the end of the pier Photo by MNLA


Because of the enormous diversity of plant species, the landscape contractor elected to contract grow the more than 300 different species and cultivars of the plants that form the colorful and richly textured tapestry of the ground plane. This greatly facilitated timely delivery of plants once an area of the site became available for planting. The monumental task of planting nearly 100,000 plants occurred over the course of 10 months, with daily oversight by the landscape architects. The reader may question the wisdom of such a complex public landscape but from the outset of project, the donor agreed to generously fund 20 years of on-going maintenance for the park.


Little Island has been through many transformations during its nine-year journey from design to opening day (2012 to 2021)- some more tumultuous than others. One of the more obvious is the name change from Pier 55 to Little Island, but that is more branding than substance. Many factors caused changes or shifted direction including escalating costs, law suits that nearly halted the project, and the pandemic which threatened to stop construction.


One of the most interesting, however, is how the donor’s emphasis on featuring performances throughout the park’s multiple venues evolved to being much more concerned about the user experience. The design team spent years designing and redesigning lawn slopes for optimum viewing of performances, but after a law suit hiatus, the donor directed the design team to focus on the visitor, to bring delight and wonder, and to not over-program the park. Since the park’s opening on May 21, 2021, one can observe many people enjoying the park, alone or in groups, creating their own experiences and memories.

Photos by MNLA


Urban Joy Across Cultures PLACE DIALOGUES -57- URBAN JOY

Article by Amira Badran, Elisabeth Stieger, Ryan Swanson and Omar El Feki

How do culture and context affect our perception of joy in our cities? What do Cairo and Berlin have in common? How do Berlin and New York City differ? Or is joy an international language? These are some of the questions raised in this article. To answer these questions and to gain a crosscultural understanding of Urban Joy we reached out to three global and active practitioners in the public space and urban design realm. 1. Ryan Swanson. Founder, The Urban Conga. New York City, The United States of America. 2. Amira Badran. UPM Alum. Founder, LifeToSpaces. Cairo, Egypt. 3. Elisabeth Stieger. Designer and Project Manager, Plancontext Landschaftsarchitekturbüro. Berlin, Germany. Each of these experts has a special focus and a unique perspective on Urban Joy as it pertains to their specific cultural and regional contexts. The interviews reveal how adaptable a tool urban joy is. How it can be used in different contexts to solve different problems. Although, Joy may mean different things in different places, one thing that stood out across the board was the importance of the “Human Element”. All three experts mentioned that the main driver of joy in cities is how people interact with their environment and how people “make” the joy.

New York

Illustration by Omar El Feki



Ryan Swanson. Founder. Instagram: @theurbanconga Facebook: @ theurbanconga E-mail:


Brooklyn, NY, United States

The Urban Conga is an international award-winning multidisciplinary design studio made of a diverse group of creatives focused on sparking community activity and social interaction through openended play. We achieve this by designing, fabricating, and installing interactive installations, custom playable products, and immersive environments that are inclusive, engaging, and site-specific.

As Plato once said “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation,” and these are the exact moments we strive to create and advocate for all demographics to share through our work. Our work explores the idea of a “Playable City” as an ecosystem of multiscale playable opportunities for all demographics intertwined within the existing urban infrastructure. Investigating the idea for play to exist in everyday spaces, and encourage people to think about these spaces that could become PLAYces: like a crosswalk, park bench, street light, building facade, sidewalk, bus stop, or just the everyday space in-between. Looking at how these often once boring or underutilized situations can turn into stimulating creative outlets for social interaction and community activity through open-ended play. To create these PLAYces we utilize participatory design methods, a variety of multi-sensory technology, and both qualitative and quantitative research on the impact of the work in the community. Through this work, we have collaborated with organizations, businesses, municipalities, universities, and more worldwide delivering workshops, lectures, urban interventions, playable products, custom installations, development plans, and public policy recommendations. Through our work, we continue to push the power of play for all within the development of our built environment.

PLACE DIALOGUES -60- URBAN JOY The Urban Conga Entangled Photo by Christopher Brinkman

Amira Badran. Founder. Urban Placemaking and Management M.S Pratt Alum Instagram: @lifetospaces Facebook: @lifetospaces E-mail:


Cairo, Egypt

LifetoSpaces aims to transform underutilized shared urban spaces into lively places. We are doing this through providing technical assistance to cities and developments who would like to activate their community spaces as well as through designing and producing flexible and multifunctional urban furniture products. Our ultimate goal is to work in the public sphere of the streets and squares and create those small scale gathering spaces as we spread awareness about placemaking and public space activation and management in Egypt. To cross this line, it would take years and years and we would have to work really closely with the community. It has to be community led to be successful. Right now, we are happy to work with developers, universities, school campuses and other semi-public entities that do have a huge share of the public but at the same time have their own community where we can create spaces for them.

Journey: My thesis was about a community led placemaking model in 6th of October city – one of Cairo’s desert cities. Syrian immigrants brought life to an alley between two buildings and created a beautiful community. I’ve always been interested in activating spaces at this scale. In 2017, I joined the mobility team at UN Habitat in Cairo Egypt. Our aim was to provide more sustainable tools for transportation – so we worked on a bus rapid transit, bike lanes, bike sharing and did a lot of capacity building of the Egyptian government staff. It was really enlightening after doing my master’s at Pratt and working with Gehl to be able to work on the ground in Egypt. In 2021, I decided I would like to launch the lifetospaces project, I was really excited about the idea of introducing this field to the Egyptian market and start building awareness of this need in Egypt. The questions remain: What do people need? How to make the quality of our public shared spaces better? How to demonstrate the huge potential of activating dead spaces through a context based approach to the space? And many others that LifetoSpaces will be trying to reflect on and hopefully resolve in the projects we work on. The journey is still very long and of course challenging but also exciting!

Life to Spaces


Elisabeth Stieger. Designer and Project Manager Facebook: @plancontext E-mail:


Berlin, Germany

Elisabeth Stieger studied landscape architecture at the Fachhochschule Erfurt University of Applied Science. She then went on to complete her Master’s degree at the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB). She is currently a lead designer and project manager at Plancontext landscape architects in Berlin, Germany. Working on multiple public space projects, Elisabeth believes in a participatory process, creating inclusive public spaces and “leaving no one behind”.

PLACE DIALOGUES -64- URBAN JOY Plancontext Landscape Architects Spielplatz Else, Berlin Photo by Lichtschwärmer, Berlin

Q: How would you describe your city as a Person? Ryan:




If I were to describe New York as a person, it would be as a supportive friend. Someone who is always there when you need them and who is willing to push you in the right direction even if at first it is unclear. New York City can be an overwhelming place, but when you break it down into layers you recognize the many ways the city brings people together. Much like that supportive friend, bringing the group back together after a disagreement or time apart. The more you open yourself up to the city and explore beyond your routine, the more the city has to give you. I love interacting with the city in this way of exploration and discovery. If I am speaking about Downtown Cairo, which completely differs from Suburban Cairo, I would describe the person as creative, active and action-seeking. It always impresses me how the streets of Cairo are so multifaceted, multi-layered and full of action. Cairo is also a chaotic person, doing too much at once. It is very difficult to comprehend all the activities simultaneously happening in one street. Planned and Unplanned, there is never a time when Cairo isn’t busy. These two sides of Cairo make it a very lively and interesting city/person, always having a story to tell. Berlin has two sides. I would describe it as the life of the party. Happy and playful around people but hiding some sadness behind its cheerful smiles. Berlin is home to many beautiful parks, the publicly accessible waterfront of the river Spree, a number of open plazas, numerous free and public sports facilities, countless open museums, scores of street art and Europe’s (if not the world’s) biggest party scene. There is truly something here for everyone. Or almost everyone. These spaces do not just accommodate their intended activities. They are also “home” to many of the city’s struggling and unhoused people. Struggling to make ends meet, these people don’t have access to simple joys because they must address the more urgent need of survival.

PLACE DIALOGUES -66- URBAN JOY Top  Party in Berlin Photo by IPSE Above  New York Street Corner Photo by SecretNYC Right  Cairo Traffic Photo by Andy Serrano

Supportive Action-Seeking Life of the Party

Q: What does a joyful city look like?





A more joyful and happy city looks like a more playable city to me. A playable city is an ecosystem of open-ended playable opportunities intertwined within the existing urban infrastructure that encourages communal activity and social interaction as a part of people’s daily routines. It’s not about creating destinations but about activating the in-between spaces with these moments of spontaneous play. Often the term “play” is absent from significant discussions surrounding urban development, public space development, public space design, and city change. Much like the street performer does daily, architects, planners, and city officials should be prioritizing platforms for play and random joy to exist. The activities taking place and the way people creatively interact with the built environment create moments of delight. The streets are not usually designed to make you smile, but the people find a way to create joy. For example, in Ramadan, weddings etc. people start hanging colorful decorations and lights, they play music, the community creates a festive mood, and it’s unplanned. Which is really interesting and happens naturally because we have been doing this for years and years. I think that the cities that we consider happy or joyful are the cities that are full of surprises.

Like Berlin, a joyful city is adaptable, it is green, and it has a mixture of different opportunities and spaces for everyone. When there is a wide diversity of activities and places to engage with the city, everyone can find their personal delight and develop a relationship with the city. Creating a joyful city is about providing these potential moments and opportunities for everyone to establish their own connection with the city.



Top  Egyptian family on one vespa Photo by Alahram Newspaper Above  Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin Photo by Cicero Magazin für Politische Kultur Right  The Ribbon, The Urban Conga. Long Island City Photo by Savannah Lauren

Full of Surprises

Opportunities for Everyone

Q: How can planners and designers create more joy in our cities?





I believe urban joy looks different for everyone within the urban context. I get joy out of spontaneous interactions with strangers in the street, however for others, this could be more of an annoyance. So when we think about designing urban spaces to foster joy , we should be thinking about creating open-ended spaces for these moments to happen in a variety of ways. It is vital to foster inclusivity and create opportunities for the community to make space their own. I believe the implementation of more spaces for play within our urban context can spark moments of joy.

In Cairo, the surprises you come across in the street are mostly community-led informal practices. Planning the unplanned and formalizing the informal is not the way to promote and preserve Cairene Joy. Our role as planners or “creators of joy” in Cairo should only be to create a platform where the community can contribute. The first step in a developing country like Egypt, where most people are struggling to make ends meet, is to make their life easier and build on from there. My research interest lies in edge- based placemaking, using the edges of cities (streets, squares, edges of gated communities) that are unutilized to bring a sense of joy, safety and comfort. Just provide activity and activate these spaces, what we can do is create these opportunities and then the community can build on this.

A more joyful city is about ‘ leaving no one behind’ , creating spaces that are not just for one group. Rather spaces that can be adapted by a large range of people. We need to change the way we view the planning process. Thinking more about inclusive ways rather than exclusive. Accessibility is a key theme here. Not just physical accessibility, but also i) access to basic services and housing, ii) access to information, iii) access to activities and discussions and finally iv) access to the decision making process. Public spaces exhibit different shades of accessibility that influence the degree of their inclusivity (or exclusivity) .


Open-ended spaces Leaving no one behind Platforms for Community Contribution





Q: What makes you smile when walking in your city?

Randomly running into street performers always brings a smile to my face. There is something special about the spontaneity of walking around a corner and seeing a band playing on the sidewalk or being on the train when people begin to dance. It’s these moments that make this city so special to me. You can design a city to provide all the necessities, but it’s the people that give it energy and life. I am excited whenever I see people using space in new ways.

In Cairo you bump into things that are really funny, things you wouldn’t imagine people doing in the streets, sometimes it makes me laugh. Sometimes it makes me frown as well. In general just watching people using the street in their own way and seeing couples enjoying the sidewalk (what’s available of it) makes me happy.

Smiling people, kids having fun, the tiny new space with a small garden I didn’t know before. The edge on which you can balance. It doesn’t take much to make people happy. There are many possibilities for small interventions that can have a great impact on our physical and mental well being. This is exactly why public spaces and promoting Urban Joy is so important.

PLACE DIALOGUES -72- URBAN JOY Top  Berliners enjoying Monbijou Park Photo by JUMP Berlin Above  Cairenes enjoying the sidewalk of Qasr el Nile Bridge Photo by CNN Arabic Right  Street Performer. Washington Square Park, New York Photo by Popsugar

Spontaneity Smiling People

People using the streets in their own way

Q: What makes you smile when walking in your city?


Place Dialogues:

In this issue of Place Dialogues we invite everyone to think of what makes them smile in their cities. We invite you to share your thoughts with others. More importantly, we invite you to ask others and listen. To try to understand what makes people enjoy public spaces.

It is safe to assume that anyone reading this publication has an interest in public spaces, cities and/ or planning. It is up-to us to advocate for and pursue Urban Joy. Not just for ourselves, but for the people we are planning/designing for. We hope that this publication can bring to the forefront a conversation about more Joyful Cities. Thank You.

PLACE DIALOGUES -74- URBAN JOY Flying Kites over Cairo Photo by

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