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The playful paradigm

Using ‘games’ as a flexible and innovative way for healthy and sustainable place-making.
Udine / Italy
Size of city: 
100 032 inhabitants


Stefania Pascut
Healthy City Office
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The City of Udine (IT) meets head-on the challenges of an actively ageing population, of climate change and energy efficiency. Top-down policies are not enough, so Udine has implemented a paradigm which leverages participation and gaming to trigger responsible change. 'Make the healthy choice the enjoyable choice' is the inspiring place-making principle. Playful activities and games promote social inclusion, overcome barriers and build bridges between people, generations and places, thus advocating more easily for change and innovation. All stakeholders, from the public sector and from profit and non-profit associations, need to share the ownership of social progress. Playful places such as the Municipal Toy Library and its public park, the Energy in Play annual fair, the Travelling ToyBus, World Games Day and Pi Day, have contributed to the improvement of urban places and raised awareness of health, energy and sustainability issues.

The solutions offered by the good practice

Udine 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.
The good practice stems from using ‘games’ as a flexible and innovative co-creating place-making paradigm, in addressing the needs of an actively ageing (Udine has an old age index of 217), energy aware, equitable and democratic society. Evidence shows 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. Playful activities and games 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.
The Playful Participatory Paradigm can increase the capabilities of urban areas to answer to local challenges, promoting intergenerational solidarity and fair behaviours as well as a smart integrated urban development.
Primary examples of playful places 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, ecc

Building on the sustainable and integrated approach

Health, energy and literacy awareness are pursued through inclusive initiatives aimed at developing a sustainable urban living, fostering learning attitudes, and enabling citizens regardless of age, ethnic origin, income, gender orientation or ability. The ecological place-making paradigm, which integrates top-down policies and spontaneous bottom-up actions called middle-out approach, triggers collateral initiatives akin to co-generative welfare. Citizens, relevant stakeholders and public authorities work in peer as members of the Local Support Group to manage the co-creating process of urban gaming. The holistic feature of games naturally induces an integrated and participative approach. This paradigm has allowed Udine to boost the many 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 militants.
The practice has thus achieved a vertical integration between different levels of government. Health and sustainability have become the 'lingua franca', i.e. the universal language, for carrying out city health and energy diplomacy, thus establishing relations and building partnerships with stakeholders within the city (non-profit organisations and public-private sectors), but also with other cities and regional and national authorities.

Based on a participatory approach

Over the years, Udine has implemented an integrated strategy for promoting physical, mental and relational well-being as well as ecological awareness, thus creating healthy and sustainable environments through the health, green approach in-all-policies. The middle-out approach has been applied, which boosts the impact of traditional top-down actions by capitalizing on spontaneous bottom-up initiatives, and allows for building trustful alliances and partnerships within the community. In middle-out strategies, cities do not only act supportively of bottom-up suggestions and initiatives, but as catalysts of a broader societal engagement, so that in a participatory and more empowering and enabling way, proposals and needs are catered for. The Municipality of Udine plays the role of social broker and mediator, facilitating networking among local stakeholders, and gently nudging their often idiosyncratic vision into a more coordinated, systematic and strategic framework. City health diplomacy plays a crucial role in this process, negotiating different interests towards a common goal, thus also avoiding the silo syndrome. The intersectoral participatory process is witnessed in Udine by the comprehensive programmes developed and co-created over the years, catalyzing and engaging a great number of different stakeholders. The whole-of-government, whole-of-society and health-in-all-policies approaches promoted by WHO within the Healthy Cities Movement was the inspiring principle.

What difference has it made?

Results have contributed to the improvement of urban places, and to awareness about health, energy and sustainability. Programmes have been co-created by using playing as the main paradigm such as the Energy In Play annual fair. Associations from the private and public sector are engaged to co-design and raise awareness on energy efficiency, reducing CO2 emissions through initiatives in the main squares of the city. At our community centres, Move your minds (CamminaMenti), university, public library, municipal Toy Library, non-profit and for-profit organizations offer music therapy, laughter yoga, anti-ageing games and creative thinking for combating cognitive decline and solitude. World Games Day: over 50 associations, small enterprises revolving around playing in all its different facets. Pi Day begins a little before 16.00 hrs on March 14 and brings together associations, individuals, schools to foster mathematics and scientific literacy. "You don't stop laughing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop laughing": workshops for health/social professionals improve the quality of life of elderly people. Energy at school, healthy eating, food waste programmes: school programmes for educating children on sustainable consumption, carbon-blue-water-footprints, healthy food. Eco-orienteering: different population groups experience the city by exploring cultural, social and historical aspects of places through treasure hunting. All these initiatives engage more than 3000 people per year.

Why should other European cities use it?

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 well-being and resilience of citizens. City administrations need to become more and more mediators and facilitators, improving their capacity to leverage on city health diplomacy and social innovation and to turn into health and environmental brokers.
This practice can greatly contribute to achieving this goal since it develops new innovative approaches to core issues such as health, resilience and sustainability. In this sense, it can be a significant step towards providing an answer to the above challenges, and towards the development of a more resilient, safe, sustainable, inclusive and equitable urban future.
Cities need new tools to face an increasingly complex society, such as the lengthening of generations strains, the increase of non-communicable chronic diseases, the need to tackle solitude and isolation, especially among older people, to promote social inclusion and contrasting health inequities.
Many European cities have important gaming traditions which are yet unexploited. Besides the innovative and positive place-making paradigm based on games, dialogue and enjoyable participation, the good practice could be of great interest to many of them.