Department of Play uses temporary play zones to connect people through imagined urban planning

The Boston-based arts collective Department of Play first started as an inkling of an idea when co-founder Kate Balug was studying interrogative design with artist Krzysztof Wodiczko at the MIT art department while earning her Masters of Urban Planning at Harvard. Having attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for her undergraduate degree in studio arts, she found Boston to be a vastly different city, culturally.

“Boston is very formal and rigid,” Balug says. “There is some long history going back to the pioneers of this blue blood mentality that makes everything here seem fixed. In L.A. everything is so much more fluid; it’s a very new city. Here it is so much more rigid. I wanted to interrupt the rigidity of public spaces.”

A couple of years passed, during which time Balug lived in Mexico City. She returned to Boston with a continued interest in activating public spaces and engaging people in more active ways, but imagined the project as more of a collective, existing outside the domain of a public institution.

She and her friend Maria Vidart-Delgado, a Doctor of Anthropology and (at the time) a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, liked the idea of developing temporary play zones in outdoor public spaces that would inspire intergenerational play and allow people to create fictional worlds through which they examine their relationships to our very real world. Together Balug and Vidart-Delgado formed the Department of Play in 2013.

They were interested in what they call the “border zones” of the city, the divisions in the city “that often go unspoken but are felt by the people.” Boston is a city of divisions, not just racially and socioeconomically but also the divisive mentality of “Old Boston” versus “New Boston.”

An influx of immigrant populations from Haiti, Cape Verde, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam settling in areas with older Irish and predominantly white populations has created further culturally-defined divisions. With these diverse populations colliding with each other in different neighborhoods, Balug says, “There are either points of tension in between these groups, or they’re just ignoring each other.”

Balug and Vidart-Delgado identified three geographic areas of focus for their work: Fields Corner, Andrew Square, and Savin Hill, all located within a mile and a half of each other and each very diverse internally and similarly diverse comparatively, but with no interaction with one another as different neighborhoods or even internally within each neighborhood.

The work of Department of Play is to create connections where there are otherwise divisions through imaginative world-building and intergenerational play. It is a way to gather members of the community together to address the issues facing their community in a way that is fun and accessible, “not in a tense community meeting format where everyone comes with a proposed agenda.” Balug say, “We’re playing together in a way that addresses these issues we’re all experiencing.”

Their first project was on a “dreary December day” in 2013, an event designed with a large group of friends that started with a felt flower-making workshop and “flower-bombing” Boston’s Chinatown during the day, followed with shadow puppet-making at a busy intersection at night using cars’ headlights as the primary light source.

“It was very spontaneous and very quick and dirty,” says Balug. “We wanted to see if we could engage people or if they were going to think we’re crazy.”

But people got into it, she says, with cars honking and turning on their high-beams to be a part of the “show.”

“That first project was really for us to figure out what we’re doing, what it takes in a place like Boston to stop people on the street and get them to play in some way, and maybe do it with a stranger.”

Their second project, held on a busy Saturday in October 2014 and called “BLOCK PARTY,” was to build prototypes for the first city on Mars using custom-made foam blocks.

“People jumped right in; they got it,” says Balug. “From kids from barely able to walk to much older people, they were all jumping into play. That’s where we started the idea of world-building. It’s easier to engage with your hands and then talk about some of the problems you’re facing. The things you want to see on Mars are often the things you want to see right here. Creating that distance helps people to talk about those things when they might not have the words otherwise, just the feelings.”

Balug and Vidart-Delgado refer to Department of Play as a “lost city department,” framing urban development as an ongoing process that any resident can participate in and impact by using play as a common language for participants to share life experiences and knowledge, envision alternate futures, and collaboratively create.

Because of her own background in urban planning, the concept of “master planning” is one that is near and dear to Balug’s heart. “I’m passionate about how can we rethink planning,” she says. “As we do our projects we’re trying to create the city we’re looking for. After the 1960s, the model of modern master planning was seen as a failure. There has been a shift away from that authoritarian model to a need for more participatory, small-scale planning, looking at how to include public instead of placating them.”

When the Department of Play first formed, the City of Boston hadn’t introduced a comprehensive master plan since 1965, which laid out general processes, policies, and provisions for the city through 1975. No new master plan had been introduced until last year, when Mayor Marty Walsh announced plans for Imagine Boston 2030, a new roadmap for projects in housing, transportation, urban design, arts and culture, and environmental sustainability. Prior to that, each neighborhood had been on its own…for better or worse.

“Boston is a city of neighborhoods, but each neighborhood was allowed to create their own master plans,” explains Balug. “Development has been happening very sporadically and there has been a lot of displacement as it becomes more widespread. Residents like seeing improvements but are terrified of being displaced.”

Because many Bostonians have never in their lives experienced “planning” in any kind of meaningful way, Department of Play uses play to examine questions like what is a master plan and who does it serve, creating a master plan of their own through play. The Imagine Boston 2030 plan serves as something of a real-life mirror to Department of Play’s own discussions and projects.

The 2030 master plan’s deadline is a mere 14 years away, but Balug and Vidart-Delgado know how slow some changes can be and that there is a limit to the kind of system-wide change that can be implemented in such a relatively short timeframe, so, in a project called “Boxtopia,” Department of Play looked not at the year 2030, but at 2130.

“How do we think about the big picture about what we want for the city?” asks Balug. “We’re thinking more holistically about where we want to be.”

They went to a vacant lot in a residential neighborhood in Dorchester owned by a neighborhood development corporation. The commuter rail used to travel right through this neighborhood; now it stops in it. It is an area with historically poor transportation and limited resources, in an urban environment with few green spaces. Department of Play brought 400 large cardboard boxes to the vacant lot and over seven hours people in the community were encouraged to build the Boston they want to exist in 2130.

Department of Play also worked with a costumed actor playing the time-traveling Minister of Play from the year 2130, who came to the temporary play zone and rode the Fairmont commuter train the next day in an effort to engage people to share what they want the City of Boston to be in 2130.

Boxtopia was an important learning experience for Balug and Vidart-Delgado. After using this vacant lot in a way that actively engaged community residents, questions were asked about why these residents can’t use this space for other community activities.

“We didn’t have the capacity to follow through on those questions and those are the real questions that emerge from a project like this, looking at what is and what could be,” Balug says. “On that day the residents had a new way of relating to this space and wanted to keep doing it, but couldn’t. That’s when we realized how important our community partner is. If an organization is open to rethinking itself then that’s a great partner for this play experience.”

Initially Department of Play just did self-funded one-off projects. Now, thanks to a grant from ArtPlace last year, they are able to engage in larger, longer-term projects.

They are working with community partners like VietAID and the Cleveland Community Center, both youth centers in Fields Corner that serve completely different populations: VietAID mostly serves the Vietnamese population, while the Cleveland Community Center mostly serves Caribbean and Black youth.

“They’re across the street from each other but they don’t collaborate at all. They each do their own thing inside of their buildings.” So every other week, Department of Play brings about 15 kids total from each of the centers together in a public library – a neutral space – to develop a play zone in Fields Corner.

“We introduce them to one another and form a cohesive team with a larger goal to get people from the larger area of Fields Corner to think about what they want it to look like and how they want to engage with the city, then looking at building these ideas and how we can bring them to life.”

Another current project is in Andrew Square, a mixed residential and industrial neighborhood undergoing rapid redevelopment.

“We have been going to various community meetings to see how the information is being shared by the developers and how they are engaging the citizens,” Balug says. “A lot of the feeling we have from these meetings is that people have been told that participatory development is being done but the ways the public can participate is very limited. The residents are very open to development but they want to make sure that, as new people move into the neighborhood, there is still a place for them.”

Temporary play zones will occur in both of these areas this summer. After that, Department of Play will focus on bridging these two areas through temporary play zones. “They are totally not in dialogue with each other even though there are a lot of shared issues in redevelopment, like concerns over it not being in their control and having a stake in it.”

Balug says these projects are by far the biggest projects they have done so far, and they will rely heavily on their community partners for the long-term continuation of this work bridging these separate communities.

“We are an art collective. We’re coming in as artists, not as community organizers,” says Balug. “The question is, where does an artist’s responsibility start and where does it end? The goal is to make ourselves obsolete – for us to come in and create a space, reimagine and rethink the way things are done, and maybe our newness helps to infuse some new ways of engaging and bridging connections, so that by the time we leave the process is going on through local partners who are making it theirs. We can only introduce and open up the space; then if it works, our partners can take it and run with it.”