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Title: Urban Play

Authors: Fábio Duarte and Ricardo Álvarez

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2021

ISBN13: 978-0-262-04534-6

Length: 224

Price: $30.00

Reviewer note: I received a promotional copy of this book.

Cities are often characterized as factories of innovation and productivity, with the implication that an urban setting will take on a directed, almost mechanistic role as an economic engine. What this conception of the city leaves out, notes authors Fábio Duarte and Ricardo Álvarez in their book Urban Play, is the sense of play that adds joy to an otherwise uninspiring existence.

Creativity and innovation often result from improvisation, but the authors draw on Huizinga’s definition of play as being voluntary, having no aim other than the play itself, and that it is different from everyday life. This construct excludes work-driven creativity, but adding playful environments and experiences improves city residents’ quality of life and offers indirect benefits to economic activity.
Augmented reality games such as Pokémon GO and Node Runner (the latter encouraged players to visit as many wi-fi hotspots as they could) provide recent examples of how cities can serve as a background on which a game is overlayed. Those games, created by Nintendo spin-off Niantic Labs and Starbucks, respectively, are commercial endeavors that encourage play. With that said, the projects use the city in innovative ways and could serve as a model for civic projects.

Among the examples the authors describe, I think most highly of the playful nature of skateboarders and parkour practitioners, urban water park installations (you have probably seen the sprinklers mounted on the crossbar of a swing set that turn off the water stream so players mostly avoid getting wet when they pass through the water’s path), and streetlamps that display the shadows of individuals who previously walked under the lamp. Each of these examples shows the promise of urban environments that can become playgrounds with thoughtful augmentation and use.

I believe Urban Play is a good book that’s well worth reading, but the discussion of the theory of play at the start of the book and lengthy technology review in the later chapters (including a substantial chapter on video games) surround relatively brief coverage of actual urban play projects created at city scale – most of the other examples are exhibits and smaller projects in the early stages of full development. It’s likely world events prevented further efforts from coming to fruition and limited the authors’ ability to analyze the state of current practice. Even with that caveat, the framework Duarte and Alvarez establish will serve as a secure foundation for future work.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for He received his undergraduate degree in political science from Syracuse University and his MBA from the University of Illinois. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.


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