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Game on: the Play conference 

Can Halifax come out and play? A two-day conference at Dalhousie's School of Planning looks at the benefits of building fun urban spaces.

Michael Gordon, a senior city planner from Vancouver, isn't your typical government bureaucrat: He skateboards to work, thinks parkour is cool and wishes kids could play more in the streets. The Dalhousie School of Planning is bringing this free-thinking government employee to Halifax on March 19 in hopes that he can teach us a thing or two about building public spaces we can actually have fun in. He'll be the keynote speaker at a free two-day conference in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning building, exploring how we can integrate our need for "play" into city planning.

Though Haligonians may be playful people, our city planning and bylaws don't always reflect that: skateboarding is technically illegal on streets and sidewalks; there's a zero tolerance policy on graffiti and it's even tough to smell the flowers in the Public Gardens, as signs discourage us from trampling the grass.

It's easy to see why Gordon believes that "modern life is relatively joyless, compared to what it could be," which he blames on car culture, as "most cities dedicate up to 40 percent or more of their space to cars." He is currently co-writing a book about the "ambient sense of homelessness" we feel when we live in environments that don't satisfy our need to fully express ourselves. "What we're arguing is that there's a real homogeneity in urban environments and yet in terms of how people like to use urban environments, there's a real heterogeneity," he says.

In Gordon's perfect world, cars would make way for kids playing street hockey, there would be more outdoor markets, buskers and block parties, and rollerbladers, dog walkers and skateboarders would move with ease down widened sidewalks. In short, people would be able to live, shop, eat, work and play in the same neighbourhood.

You may call him a dreamer, but Gordon's advice has beneficial economic implications. Cities that allow their citizens to enjoy informal forms of fun are breeding grounds for more creative individuals. Gordon adheres to Richard Florida's school of thought, holding that cities that nourish creativity will prosper economically. "The interesting thing about skateboarding," says Gordon, who helped legalize the sport in Vancouver, "is that it really encourages young folks to look at things differently and creatively."

Dalhousie instructor Heather Ternoway and master's student Stephanie Chai helped organize the conference. The duo cites plenty of creative ways other cities integrate playfulness into city planning---Chai speaks excitedly about Seattle's Gum Wall, which brings in major tourist dollars as one of CNN's top five "germiest tourist attractions." Ternoway references a Swedish project: Artists transformed a subway staircase into a giant keyboard, emitting a different note each time one's foot hit a stair. After the makeover of the stairs, fewer people chose to ride the escalator, proving that playfulness can also have positive impacts on our health.

Ternoway and her planning class employed unusual methods themselves when trying to get Haligonians to consider their need for play. They fenced in a human-sized beach ball in front of the Architecture and Planning building. The occasional child tried to open the fence and play with the ball, until sadly giving up. Some even kicked the immobile beach ball in frustration. Ironically, the ball ended up exploding when Chai "tried to play with it."

Play: Faculty of Planning conference
March 18-19

Faculty of Architecture and Planning building,
5410 Spring Garden Road

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