A comic strip illustrating the contrast between the cities we live in and the places we make as children

Shivani Pinapotu

making pla(y)ces: softening the city through play

The places we make as children express our intuitive, direct, and unselfconscious relationships with space and each other. These spaces embody softness in the way they are malleable and adaptable, imbuing the ordinary with imagination. In contrast, the cities we live in instruct and codify through intentional planning and design, hardening function to place. Such strategies induce a hyper-functionality that robs us of our child-like instincts of place-making and play

This thesis learns from our innate understanding of architecture and play by positioning the child as the user and designer, and develops a vocabulary of softness that creatively transforms underutilized public spaces of the city into urban playgrounds for all ages. In doing so, it makes places that inspire the kind of memories and experiences that foster and encourage community and a sense of place in all users, thereby rekindling our relationship with the city and its people.


A comic strip illustrating the contrast between the cities we live in and the places we make as children

can we learn of softness from children?

Cities that grow naturally over time integrate spaces of gathering that allow for serendipitous happenstance. However, the cities we design today instruct and codify through intentional planning and design; they assign use, hardening specific function to place. Such strategies lead to spaces devoid of spirit, creating a sense of disconnect in the city-dweller from the city.
In contrast to this, the places we make as children, express our intuitive, direct and unselfconscious relationships with space and one other. It would, therefore, be imperative to look at the places we make as children and the places children play in to find the fundamental language of place identification and spatial organisation that underpins all architecture. By studying examples of some of these places, we can become aware of what is universally important and instinctive to us all and our aspirations when we seek to make a place.


a table illustrating common play environments and the action verbs they activate, with concepts of forms and activities corresponding to each

verbs of play

Children are primal beings. Without the benefits and restraints of experience and instruction, children make places unselfconsciously and engage their imaginations to associate with their immediate environment. Children employ this ability based on sensorial cues and perceived actions. This capacity of place-recognition involves our intuitive cognition and our ability to recognise place opportunities, such as a ledge to sit on and a wall to lean on, all of which involves no verbal or mathematical reasoning but an instinctive understanding of object and space.

The diagram here breaks down common play environments into action verbs that offer recur in the places children make and engage in to understand the world around them.


Four boxes illustrating the four strategies of softening explored in this thesis, with model images and sketches to exemplify each

softening the city

Children are masters of building soft places, but how do we soften the city? Pla(y)cemaking is envisaged as a series of strategies that collectively build a vocabulary of softness with which to respond to the language of hardness evident in the cities we b
The diagram here illustrates the four broad themes that can be softened to create a sense of play in the city-dweller. 


An illustration showing the network of sites with an image for each, along with information on the user groups accessing the space, the hardnesses of the places and key words on how to soften them

site cluster, new york city

The city of New York -specifically, the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, is taken as a test site. Within it, this thesis explores the hardnesses of Privately Owned Public Spaces, also known by the acronym POPS. These are spaces dedicated to public use and enjoyment which are owned and maintained by private property owners, in exchange for bonus floor area or waivers. POPS have transformed the city's public landscape, becoming a pervasive form of public space as bland corporate plazas, problematizing the notion of freedom in the public realm. 

The four sites chosen are right around World Trade Centre Subway Station: Zuccotti Park, Aivin Garden, Fosun Plaza and Louise Nevelson Plaza. The plaza is not POPS but stands as a non-place in the vicinity, extending the bounds of this thesis to hardnesses beyond those imposed by POPS. 


A collage stringing together images of the four chosen sites in New York City with an overlay of drawings of children

bringing kids in!: workshopping places into pla(y)ces

A group of gradeschool children were given images of the sites to respond to and scribble their imaginations over. The leading prompts were- “What do you like about this space? What do you dislike? How will you play here?” The responses helped initiate and strengthen the softening of the sites into workable interventions.


A collage stringing together images of the four chosen sites in New York City with an overlay of conceptual sketches of probable interventions, creating a network of play throughout the site cluster

making pla(y)ces

A series of interventions are imagined that respond to the site and borrow from the responses gathered from the workshop with children, to create a network of environments that activate specific verbs of play and moods to create a cohesive experience as one walks from one point of the network to another. 


Conceptual hand-drawn sketches illustrating breaking down the elevated plaza into a sloped walkway to evoke a sense of walking through an urban oasis, punctured at several levels through playful scaffold structures that engage the users and allow access into the Noguchi Garden

energising zuccotti park



Conceptual hand-drawn sketches and a site plan illustrating simple gestures such as offsetting scaffold roof surfaces to let light into the plaza, as well as blurring the landscape to allow access to users, thereby activating it

humanising fosun plaza



Conceptual hand-drawn sketches illustrating a tree-house scaffold structure in Zuccotti Park that engages the passer-by in activities and memories reminiscent of childhood

revitalising aivin garden



Conceptual hand-drawn sketches illustrating raising the surface of a triangular plaza to create a sliding mound and an screen to walk under, to enhance the pedestrian experience

reconnecting louise nevelson plaza



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