Udine's Transfer Story - How Udine improved the Playful Paradigm and addressed COVID-19 challenges

Edited on 24/05/2021

An article written by Bruno Grizzaffi, Project Coordinator; Raffella Lioce, Project Coordinator and Stefania Pascut, Good Practice Expert

From the Ludobus to new digital urban games, we retrace the steps of the City of Udine in its implementation of the playful paradigm approach as a flexible and innovative tool to improve the quality of life in cities.




Where, When, and Why the Playful Paradigm was born...

Udine joined the WHO Healthy Cities European Network in 1995 and is a member of the political vision board of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network, and the lead city of the Italian Playful Cities Movement. From 2013 to 2015, Udine was the Lead Partner of the URBACT Healthy Ageing Project. During all these years Udine has strongly committed to make health central in the vision, strategies and policies of the city, and health objectives integrated in the social, economic and
environmental goals regarding the whole community. The long experience of membership in numerous networks (WHO Healthy Cities, WHO Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, Covenant of Mayors, Mayors’ ADAPT & COMPACT, Covenant on Demographic Change, Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, etc.) and projects at regional, national and international level has offered unique opportunities of learning, exchange of good practices, knowledge and tools. The result at the local level is a number of successful middle-out initiatives that have been co-created and undertaken in Udine in the last decades, achieving healthier lifestyles, better solidarity among citizens, ownership of long-term social programmes and city branding. 
The Playful Paradigm good practice is one of these initiatives and stems from the idea of using ‘games’ as a flexible and innovative co-creating place-making tool, as a way to actively address the needs of health promotion, active ageing, healthy lifestyles, community participation and as a chance to increase awareness of environmental issues, inclusive and equitable society. Acknowledged that it is easier to learn and establish relations through playing, because cultural differences or physical and cognitive deficiencies, or mere unawareness, can be easily compensated by emotional reactions, Udine started to make use of Play and games to promote social inclusion, remove disparities, overcome barriers and build bridges between people, generations and places, thus advocating more easily for change and innovation, and fostering social inclusion. This was helpful also to engage communities in rethinking the places where they live in and to provide hints for a smarter and sustainable integrated urban development. Primary examples of playful places in Udine are the CamminaMenti community centres, the Municipal Toy Library and its public park, the Energy in Play annual fair, the Travelling ToyBus, the city squares during the World Games Day, Pi Day, Darwin Day, The Night of Living Books, etc. This paradigm allowed Udine to boost and enhance several existing grass-root initiatives which promote sports, physical activity, healthy and eco-friendly lifestyles, channelling them towards the overall health and sustainability goals of the municipality and involving all citizens, not just practitioners.
During the years, the practice has thus achieved a vertical integration between different levels of government establishing relations and partnerships with stakeholders from the city, the region and the international context. 
The phenomenon of gamification has been explored through various processes and on different scales within the urban context. The central idea driving the application of gamification is that the mechanisms fostered by this approach can be explored to support collaboration, participation and decision in planning and policy making, thus raising the hypothesis that games in general and their mechanics can function as a support for more inclusive processes of socio-spatial transformation or urban planning. In this sense, they can stimulate the re-appropriation of public spaces by citizens; can involve communities in giving new meaning and use to abandoned places and can advance play-based solutions to increase the awareness on the need of a much more inclusive, smart and green society.  

A never-ending story, inspiring new solutions of Play to encourage inclusion, education, place-making, and promote well-being, happiness, participation. 

In a time of colliding megatrends such as urbanisation, population ageing and climate change, cities are facing serious challenges, but also unique opportunities for achieving sustainability and enhancing the quality of life and well-being of communities. The Playful Paradigm Transfer Network demonstrated how much play can help cities to become more and more mediators and facilitators, improving their capacity to leverage on city health and social innovation and to turn into wellbeing and environmental brokers. Many European cities, as those in the Playful Partnership, have important gaming traditions which are yet unexploited. The Playful Paradigm Network demonstrated the great potential of games as place-making tools, promoters of dialogue, participation and education. 
The process of transferring within the network started with the Ludobus, a colourful bus carrying games from the Ludoteca (the games library) all around the city and wherever there was a possibility or a need to use play as a way to improve the citizens’ quality of life. Udine showed to the partners how the Ludobus represented a strategic means to play around, to play for education, to play for inclusion, to play for place making. The awareness of the importance of play for the wellbeing of urban communities led cities to create and manage public spaces more effectively, as well as to improve the greening of the urban connection networks, and therefore to create real places for the happiness of people. On one hand, the cities of the Playful network have understood the importance of becoming promoters of gaming initiatives for everyone or for specific target groups, but at the same time, they have re-acknowledged the value of ecosystem services, green spaces, playgrounds and areas intended for free play in urban contexts. 
The transferring journey has enriched Udine, which was able to observe multiple declinations and facets of the initial good practice, thanks to the process of learning and sharing with partners. In the Playful Paradigm project, the transfer journey has become a great opportunity of exchange, which has made it possible both to improve the way to integrate plays and games into different urban policies, but also to jointly depict the vision of a Playful City which has led to the co-creation of the Manifesto for the European Capital of Play.

Yet, at a certain point … The COVID came and everything seemed to stop

During the Pandemic the partners of the Playful Paradigm, as all the other cities in the world, faced new challenges: social distancing, sense of loneliness and abandonment, discouragement in the face of a too uncertain future, rich in fear, anxiety and concern. The partners deeply explored how the playful approach could represent a possible solution in helping people to get through this pandemic crisis.
They understood that the Playful Paradigm could be adapted to tackle a changing world: they strongly believed that this paradigm could generate a new shifting and sustainable perspective and provide cities with tailored solutions to make communities much more resilient. It could have brought important benefits to people both in terms of mental health and emotional well-being; it could have created the precondition to restore the sense of belonging posed at risk by the pandemic. Various playful solutions have been tested by the partners starting from the rental of games to families, to the development of neighbourhoods’ challenges through for example online quizes and contests. 
It was in this time of social distancing that Udine, together with the URBACT Local Group, not only promoted online games, but began to experiment the integration of the digital environment with the built, physical one of the city. By means of diverse applications Udine offered citizens, as soon as it was possible, the opportunity to get away from home over 200mt, to play around, discover and virtually ‘live’ the city, feeling part of a community within a shared urban game, playing together along the streets, squares and parks while remaining at that physical-temporal distance allowed by technologies and by the digitized games within the urban environment. 


The Project final event in UDINE

By the end of the project Udine tested a new mechanism to explore and revitalize the city, engaging citizens and the first small groups of tourists. 
This virtual urban game can become a powerful and novel way to increase the knowledge and experience of cultural heritages and those historic urban places, more or less visible, which witness the history of a city/region/country, and also a way for the city to face the dramatic pandemic crisis, meaning the risk of disappearing in the face of the new, unknown emergencies and its consequences, i.e. the lockdown, lack of tourism, etc. Moreover, it is a means to rediscover the unchangeable bond of friendship with places, history and with all the city actors. 
This digital urban game was a sort of a treasure hunt developed on a web platform accessible from any mobile device with geolocation and without the need to install external applications. It was set along the streets of the center of Udine and consisted of 7/8 stages. The game has been co-designed by the Municipality, the ULG and other relevant cultural stakeholders as a common thread. The narrative guide which brought the players around the city was originated with the intention of enhancing the value of Cultural Heritage, especially regarding the painter Tiepolo’s works. The game stops are located in settings connected with Tiepolo and with places which have a special meaning and importance for the city.
At each stage the participants have to solve a quiz or answer a question, which may concern various topics from a cultural, health, environmental, historic, educational field, thus the game proves to be much more exciting for people. Once you answer a question, it is necessary to solve a further enigma that brings you to the next stage. Furthermore, along the path, participants are enriched with several additional contents and calls to action and this creates fun but also the opportunity for sharing and cooperative learning. It is usable and shareable by anyone and open to all. It was firstly designed to address families and groups, but it was used by single individuals during the pandemic lockdown. It is a perfect tool also for disabled, older and frail people, who cannot move from their homes and play around the city. 
The game was a sort of skein unrolled through the city and this is not an accidental coincidence. In fact, the idea originated from an ancient game with dice and pawns which is exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of the city and was part of the funerary objects of the Roman necropolis of Aquileia kept in the rooms of the Castle of Udine.
"Thread" that unravels through the streets, historic places and events, anecdotes, curiosities, leading us to Casa Colombatti-Cavazzini, renovated according to a design by the architect Gae Aulenti, and hosting the Gallery of Modern Art. In this building there is a room whose walls retain the decorations by the young Afro Basaldella from 1938, dedicated to country life and life in the city, between occupations, leisure and entertainment. In particular, there is a scene in front of the entrance, in which some children are portrayed intent on playing, in particular two young girls playing "headbands".
The topic of the skein unrolled through the city was also used in 2019 in the occasion of the XXI IFOTES-International Federation of Telephone Emergency Services congress, which took place in Udine. The Congress addressed different aspects of loneliness as well as possible ways for individuals and communities to deal with the condition. The city of Udine has always been a laboratory for social connections and creativity, a place to inspire people and strengthen the commitment to the field of social health and well being. In this occasion, a video was produced with a ‘fil rouge’ unrolled through the city, representing the leitmotiv of relationships, which create networks, which create partnerships, which create the social life in the city. This leitmotiv is fundamental in our city which has a long tradition of co-created initiatives, involving citizens, voluntary associations, inter-sectoral partnerships, inter-institutional alliances, mutual solidarity networks.

The project has just ended, but the story continues because Udine is a Playful City, caring for citizens’ health, happiness and well-being

Play is one of the possible threads that bind individuals, generations, territories, cities and cultures, and can support us in every phase of our life. Starting from this premise, the experience of the Playful Paradigm project wanted to explore, among the many interpretations, how playful activities can promote identity values, places, monuments, stratifications that arise from urban transformations and, last but not least, investigate the use of spaces in which people live, love, learn, work, and play. Udine, as many other cities in Europe, joined the Copenhagen Consensus of Mayors of the WHO Healthy Cities Programme, through which mayors commit to take action together to improve the health and well-being, also by ensuring healthier, sustainable environments. “A healthy city leads by example by emphasizing a human focus in societal development and by prioritizing investment in people to improve equity and inclusion through enhanced empowerment. A healthy city leads by example, with the social, physical and cultural environments aligned to create a place that is actively inclusive, and facilitates the pursuit of health and well-being for all.” The Playful Paradigm is key in pursuing these objectives.
Living the places, “living the city”, means developing motor, sensory, cognitive, emotional skills, in order to promote knowledge, perception, participation, identity, belonging, inclusion. Games allow to activate urban co-design processes, involve people at risk of social exclusion, engage local communities in urban regeneration processes, map urban resources, and look, perhaps with greater distance or more understanding, at the more contradictory situations of our cities. This can ensure that the vision becomes a sort of redesign, whose purpose is also to perceive and understand the relationship between us and the reality, the interaction between the individual and the space, and thus find sustainable solutions to urban challenges.
During the project the city became a playful living lab where it was possible to experiment, to play and to generate new capacities and skills, to engage different stakeholders and citizens in placemaking activities. We understood that building a city does not means investing in new buildings or restoring them, but it means creating inclusive and smart communities, regenerating and innovating urban public shared places, thus to enhance a real sense of belonging, ensure safety, health and wellbeing for all.
A city is a factorial product that multiplies and overlaps a multitude of urban narratives which, if properly integrated into new perspectives with a play-based approach, can guide city leaders towards unexplored horizons where sustainable and human-centered cities can grow.
The future holds new challenges for the city, in terms of sustainability and resilience of the entire urban community. The paradigm that enhances participation through play has proved its effectiveness in triggering a responsible change in urban policies and in the design of places and not just of spaces. We understood that play-based solutions are a mean for social inclusion, that overcomes barriers more easily and builds bridges between people, generations, supporting changes and innovation; but they are also a strategic tool for city marketing and branding, for the enhancement and acknowledgement of local tradition, culture and heritage.
Udine looks at play as a sound thread for participating and implementing policies for sustainability and health in the next future: indeed, in a playful city all interested parties, public and private - profit and non- collaborate to build new urban ecosystems. Gamification is used not only with the intention of urban planning re-design and regeneration but also as an innovative transformative approach for safe, inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies. It is not just a question of the quality of the built and natural environment, but it is a question of the quality of life and happiness of citizens.

… The game must go on!

Bruno Grizzaffi, Project Coordinator
Raffella Lioce, Project Coordinator
Stefania Pascut, Good Practice Expert

Submitted by CREAA on 17/05/2021