Playful urban spaces: a lesson from Bilbao

I was in Bilbao a few weekends ago and spent several evenings in Plaza Nueva, a square in the old town and a popular weekend meeting place for local people. While grown-ups enjoyed drinks and tapas (or to use the Basque term, pintxos) in bars under the elegant colonnades, the central area was humming with children playing. Ball games, scooter races, chalk-picture-drawing, heely tricks (remember Heelys?) and chit-chat were just some of what was in the mix.


Early on in the evening (in Spanish terms, that is: up till about 10 pm) most of the children out playing were aged between 4 and 10. The level of high-energy play – impromptu football matches, fast scooter rides and chase games – was striking. At times, footballs flew over the ironwork and hit a table, or a scooting child zoomed down a slope and weaved past a pedestrian. These potential irritations were almost always greeted with a smile, if not simply ignored. I did not see a single argument, far less a security guard, the whole weekend.

But the affordances of the space were not only of interest to younger children. Around 10 pm, a group of teenagers came into the central area, stood in a circle and started playing a chase game. Others of a similar age sat watching the proceedings.

Children playing at Plaza Nueva after dark

The presence of adults, far from being a deterrent, was in fact crucial to unlocking the space’s play potential. This was dramatically shown when I passed through on Sunday night. All the bars were shut, and the square was completely deserted – even though there was no obvious reason why children could not have come to play unaccompanied.

Of course, anyone who has enjoyed spending time in the sun-baked squares and piazzas of Southern European towns and cities will know the diversity of play, social contact and conviviality that they foster. But what unfolded in Plaza Nueva was as powerful an act of collective generosity towards children as I have seen: all the more so for seeming so effortless.

The spectacle impelled me to ask: why here? And to also to ask: why not back home? I could not recall seeing anything remotely similar happening anywhere in the UK.

It was plain that the location, architectural qualities and business uses of Plaza Nueva – the happy combination of place, design and function – were crucial to its success in nurturing playful and sociable dispositions.

Some details about the physical space – the smoothness of the paving, the height and coverage of the seating and ironwork surrounding the central area, the empty space left between this barrier and the bar tables – made it work particularly well in ‘holding’ children’s more vigorous activities.

The way that commercial activities impinged on the space was telling. The ground floor was all retail, and there was no shortage of customers for the bars and shops. But you did not have to be a customer to come into the square, nor to linger there. There was free seating enough for all (as long as you were happy to look out for passing balls and children). Would any new public space in London, Manchester or Birmingham allow for such apparently uneconomic activity?

Weather and climate are doubtless relevant (although the Southern part of England at least is no stranger to warm, dry, sunny evenings). It is also tempting to speculate on the divergent cultural attitudes on display – on how much more child-friendly the Southern Europeans are than we Anglophones. And it is true that no less a body than the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has criticised the UK for our “general climate of intolerance and negative public attitudes towards children.”

Yet to put the contrast down to cultural differences is too quick. We Brits flock to Spain and Italy in our millions, in part because of their residents’ relaxed approach to the enjoyment of their public places. Architects and urbanists from Jane Jacobs through Holly White to Jan Gehl have celebrated the social life of urban spaces. The lively, playful, diverse, self-regulating, economically active urban square is close to being the holy grail of city planners the world over. Indeed my nearest square, whose playful fountains I profiled here a couple of years ago, is hesitantly reaching towards that goal, helped by a newly opened Spanish café (appropriately enough).

My hunch is that if Plaza Nueva were magically teleported from Bilbao to (say) London it could still thrive as a joyous place for people of all ages, backgrounds and classes – but only if the powers that be were brave enough to resist the temptation to regulate, control and squeeze every last square metre for commercial gain. In other words, our failure to create such spaces is not down to a hostile culture. It is down to a failure of vision, and of nerve.

10 responses to “Playful urban spaces: a lesson from Bilbao

  1. Ah Tim, this is really interesting! We were in Woolwich at the weekend and the square, which we assumed was a relatively new space, was functioning very much as you’ve described here. If a little tentatively. We sat at about 4 on sunday afternoon to eat icecreams and all around were groups of people sitting, different people (families, groups of friends, a gang of elders) and young people played scooter/kick about/poke the pigeon. Around the corner a group of older young people were skateboarding. And it was lovely! What’s more there appeared to be some high vis’d officers looking after the space and they were actually pretty hands off and left us all to it.

    • Thanks Lyndsay, that’s interesting and encouraging. Can you tell me the exact location – was it the new Woolwich Arsenal development?

      • Yes Tim, the square by Woolwich Arsenal (low paved walls, different levels, grass wedges etc. and some excellent mound ridges for playing on). We commented on how oddly nice it felt to be in the space.

        • Unfortunately those mounds and grass are temporary until the developer gets together some more money to build more flats… But the square should be staying at least!

  2. The beautiful Plaza Nueva in Bilbao would be a great example for playful spaces for the Piece Hall in Halifax – with both of them as difficult to find for non-locals!

  3. Hi Tim! Really interesting blog that is resonant with my own comparative research between Spain and England that looked at multigenerational collective spaces. The Southbank Centre is a great example of an well-utilised intergenerational space especially in the light of our (usual) inferior weather to Bilbao.

  4. Lovely description Tim and I agree Lindsay – multi-generational playfulness is everywhere, or at least just under the surface waiting for the sun to come out. I asked a Spanish friend once if he thought the cultural difference was intrinsic and he said it was the weather, or rather the ability to predict the weather that was at the heart of it. He might be right, Sweden is freezing and dark for much of the year but predictably so, which makes investment in warm clothes and learning to skate worth it and so coming out to play in the ridiculously cold weather quite normal. Knowing that it will be sunny (or snowy) tomorrow and the next day and the next must make a big difference to how we plan and think about public space. The open layout of the public square in Bilbao demonstrates an expectation of public sharing and an understanding that it is people rather than architectural features that make a space public. The geographer Doreen Massey calls the public realm a ‘collective achievement’ that requires a continual ‘practice of sharing’ – in this country we don’t get enough of this practice (and perhaps this is the real cultural difference) but the desire is there and all it takes is a one sunny or snow day to unleash our communal playful spirit.

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  6. Tim I enjoyed reading this post. Back in the day, when I was a kid, I lived a short hop, skip and a jump down the road in Vitoria for 5 weeks or so. It was an exotic world for a 12-year-old transplanted Canadian. There was a similar square there, the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca – Lots of activity – food, cafés, ice cream, kids, commerce a place to chill. We loved going there and even in the era of Franco it was a lively place.

    We have a central public space in Halifax behind city hall called Parade Square and although there are many event related activities there, it’s rare to see le quotidien – the regular, everyday thing with adults, kids and merchants hanging to enjoy the weather, the outdoors. ¡Bravo España! we can open our eyes to a thing or two about urban living, design and community.

  7. Tudor, Chris, Hattie, Alex – thanks for the comments. Tudor – Piece Hall was the closest British example I could think of in architectural terms. I wonder if such a playful vision could take hold there (what with the Yorkshire weather apart from anything else)? Chris – yes I recall your PhD study and the evidence of differing cultural attitudes around child-friendliness. Do let me know as and when you publish anything from it. Hattie – nicely put. I would say that location, ‘official functions’ and physical design create the room, but it still needs people to fill it, and a shared set of social values to make it playful. Alex – I can see the similarities with that space. I agree that it’s the everyday that matters. Charles Landry in The Art of City Making talks of ‘ordinary desire’ being about places that ‘fulfil the need for just being’ – and picks out Plaza Nueva as a place that fulfils this basic need.

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