“When playing with shadows is useful”: how York's streetlights became something playful

Shadowing in action in York. Image: screenshot from video, Chomko & Rosier.

In 2014, eight streetlights around Bristol were augmented to record and play-back shadows.

The lamps were prototypes designed by my design studio Chomko & Rosier in response to Watershed’s Playable City competition, which asked for ideas on how the “smart city” could be turned into the “playable city. The project, titled Shadowing, made a simple statement: that cities are about the people in them. After a two month installation in Bristol, the lamps are now on exhibition at the London Design Museum, and across the city of York.

There was no clear municipal purpose to Shadowing – yet there it was, embedded within local-authority maintained streetlights in eight street settings. It showed us how a purely utilitarian public resource can evolve into something interactive, playful and even beautiful.

Shadowing (and similar projects, like Hello Lamp Post by PAN Studio, the inaugural Playable City Award winner) feed into the potential role of technology in promoting education, playfulness and artistic appreciation within the public realm. 

Shadowing from Chomko & Rosier on Vimeo.

That role has been explored since at least the 1960s, when projects such as the “Fun Palace”, an automated and adaptable public space for entertainment, art, theatre, and learning was proposed by British architect Cedric Price and theatre director Joan Littlewood. The Fun Palace, although never realised, demonstrated a municipal application of technology that would support public life in all realms.

Price and Littlewood proclaimed the freeing potentials of automation, saying it would allow people to “[choose] their own congenial work, [do] as much or as little of it as they like, and [fill] their leisure with whatever delights them." They were not alone: architects, academics and politicians prophesied the wonderful capabilities of technology.

This future in which technology would enable freedom from work has clearly not materialised. One could argue that we’ve seen the opposite, with work pervading all parts of life.

But designers of urban landscapes have long understood the necessity for spaces that promote leisure and interaction. The Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck built over 800 playgrounds across post-war Amsterdam, believing that multi-functional public spaces for play, meeting and relaxation were essential in rebuilding torn communities. Using low-cost materials and multi-purpose designs, Eyke demonstrated that municipal intervention could make the street the cornerstone of public life. Software, operating through ever more available technologies, and applied to spaces and objects often already built, presents even greater opportunity for multi-faceted experiences within our urban lives.

The Playable City movement is reinserting this idea that technology in public space can support leisure as well as the operational needs of society. As cities become “smart”, computation pervades public space. These projects simply ask that this computation reflect and support the reality of the urban experience, which blends work with play, bringing a human perspective to the increasing economic and functional design of urban space.

With Shadowing the municipality was still providing the public with the required levels of lighting – but technological intervention had allowed this utility to simultaneously form an unlimited and bespoke source of public entertainment, interaction and even fun. The choice here wasn’t utility or leisure, practicality or art.

The recent “Back to the Future” Day ended up as a celebration of our dissatisfaction with the technological applications we have arrived at in 2015; "Where are the hoverboards?" the internet cried. The futures of the past, it seemed, were not being satisfied by our glowing handheld machines.

Society probably doesn’t needs hoverboards, nor street lights that capture and playback your shadow. Then again, the urban plan never demanded plentiful and carefully landscaped parks, nor swings, grassy verges and open-entry art galleries.

But it is the enjoyment and proliferation of such public interventions that has continued to make cities places to not only to function within, but also to live.

Matthew Rosier is co-founder of London-based design studio Chomko & Rosier.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.