Speaker Series #2 – How to Finance for Play and Placemaking in Cities

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Cities on the Frontline Speaker Series

#2 – How to Finance for Play and Placemaking in Cities

Building the city of the future requires first and foremost that children of today are empowered and prepared, not only to survive but to thrive in the face of adversity. Play is essential for children’s health, physical, and emotional growth, and intellectual and educational development, it also helps children to acquire social and behavioural skills and build resilience. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on children, disrupting their schooling, affecting their well-being, social contact, and even nutrition. The second session of 2022 of the Cities on the Frontline Series focused on the importance of financing for play and placemaking in cities by sharing innovative approaches to finance projects and initiatives that build resilience through encouraging play.

Simon Henzell-Thomas, Global Head of Public Affairs & Advocacy for Ingka Group (IKEA) and keynote speaker for the session, opened the session by stressing the overwhelming positive effects of play on children. From instance, he pointed out, research shows that play outside has decreased by 50% in the newer generations, but that creation of play spaces decreased local antisocial behaviors by 90%. The Real Play Coalition, created in partnership with the LEGO Foundation, National Geographic, Disney ARUP and UNICEF, has the objective of embedding play-based principles into urban design and planning as this, in Simon’s experience has been most systemic and effective way to finance play. As a gateway to the first presentation of the session, Simon posed the question: How can these innovative partnerships and stakeholder collaborations, rather than exist in silos, become sustainable and scalable to complement more systemic urban planning?

Paul O’Hara, founder and CEO at ChangeX, took on Simon´s question and shared the work that ChangeX is leading. One of the things that Paul noticed in his past work experiences, was that initiatives often remained in the regions that they were created in and very rarely were scaled to other parts of the world. Therefore, the objective of ChangeX became to get finance and proven, innovative, packaged and adaptable ideas directly to anyone ready to lead impactful projects in their communities. Some of the examples of active work that Paul shared included Community Play Challenges in London and Brazil and the First LEGO league in partnership with the LEGO Foundation. As a final note, Paul enforced the importance of true collaboration between innovators, local communities, to make this type of projects possible.

The session also showcased the perspective of two Real Play Coalition ambassador cities from the Resilient Cities Network, Milan in Italy with Ilaria Giuliani, the deputy CRO for the City of Milan, and City of Houston’s Director of the Mayor’s Office of Education, Olivera Jankovska.

Ilaria Giuliani, shared Milan’s experience with play by reflecting on their funding strategies and case studies of innovation in play financing. Ilaria began her intervention by emphasizing the steps that were necessary to develop a framework for play in the city, these include the City Masterplan (PGT Milan 2030) and the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy that created in response to the pandemic. Based on the priorities defined in these documents the areas of environmental challenges, adaptive public space and play dedicated spaces were pulled out as key in reference to the need to implement play and placemaking in the city. This initial framework allowed them to start working on implementing the pilot “Playstreets” in collaboration with the Real Play Coalition and with an internal local budget from the city of Milan. “Playstreets” consisted of temporarily closed streets near schools to increase the supply of play spaces for children and residents. However, while the initiative had a great response from the community and marked the city’s first play related initiative, Ilaria indicated that a big task remains, after such success, how will the city act to make this an ordinary activity with a permanent budget?

Olivera Jankovska wrapped up the session sharing the perspective of another city working on strengthening play. To frame the conversation Olivera discussed the difficulty of accessing play in the city of Houston as this large city is resource rich but access pour with a lot of opportunities that are scattered and hard to find. Based on this reality, Olivera shared two concrete actions that the city is acting on to make play more accessible. The first one is the creation the “Out to Learn” program in collaboration with nonprofits which consists of a database to collect all activities in one single website where people can easily find the right ones for them. The second one is the launch of a program with corporate partners, tentatively named “Adopt a Park” that challenges corporate partners to work in a public private partnership to deliver play in communities, these range from small actions like hosting a community event, to bigger more permanent ones such as supporting the renovation of an entire park responding to local community needs.


Simon Henzell-Thomas,
Global Head of Public Affairs & Advocacy for Ingka Group (IKEA)

On the question of financing, for me, the most systemic way that we can achieve that is by making sure we embed play at the begging of all urban planning and design.


Paul O’Hara
founder and CEO at ChangeX

I always thought it was so wasteful that proven solutions which are relevant to other parts of the world were not getting out there. The idea behind Change X was can we package all of the global proven social and environmental innovations and make them easily accessible in communities elsewhere.

Paul O’Hara‘s Presentation


Ilaria Giuliani
Deputy CRO for the City of Milan

Our main challenge for the city of Milan is to shift from a scenario where we have been able to develop just two pilot projects to a more structured scenario where we can organize Playstreets as ordinary activities with our own budget.

Ilaria Giuliani‘s Presentation


Olivera Jankovska
City of Houston’s Director of the Mayor’s Office of Education

Every city of course has a limited budget, and we always struggle to figure out what the priorities are there. One of the creative ways we figured out we could help play was to launch a program that asked corporate partners to sponsor a renovation of or an event at a small neighborhood park to reinvigorate play in local neighborhoods.”


Watch full session here:

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Speaker Series #2 – How to Finance for Play and Placemaking in Cities