From Pall Mall to the Treasure Hunt Riots: how games have shaped our cities

Boys play football in the streets of the Garden Gloria neighborhood of Praia Grande, Brazil, in 2014. Image: Getty.

The games people play in a city are shaped by that city – and they shape the city in turn.

Most people, if you ask them, can remember a game they played as a kid that depended on the very precise shape of a very particular part of their home town – steps that were the perfect height for jumping into a flowerbed, or a basketball hoop you could just about chuck something through from the library window.

Play isn't just fun, or important for its own sake: it's also one of the key ways that we understand and interact with the world around us, and the games we invent depend on tiny precise details of what that world is like.

So, naturally enough, a hundred or more years ago, the games you could play in London were different to the games you can play there today. Streets were lit by gas, and lamp-posts had crossbars, so that the people who lit them had somewhere to rest their ladder.

That meant that children could throw ropes over the crossbars and use the lamps as makeshift swings. Look back a hundred years before that – or a hundred years before that – and everything was different again.

But the traces of these past games don't just vanish. Take Pell-Mell, a game played in the 1500s and 1600s. Pell-Mell is a bit like croquet, but a lot simpler – there's just one big hoop on a stick at the end of a long alley, and your aim is to get a ball through this hoop in as few hits as possible.

The name comes from the Italian word “pallamaglio”, which means “mallet ball”, and that's pretty much all the game is: you take a mallet and use it to hit a ball. In some versions, when you near the end of the course you're allowed to swap the mallet for a giant spoon so that you can flick the ball into the air.

Pall mall illustrated in Old English Sports, Pastimes & Customs, published 1891. Image: Project Guttenberg.

It was never that all popular as a game, at least in England. But it was still popular enough that there were a few purpose-built courts, and in London, the fancy place to play was a specific alley near St James's Park – just about where Pall Mall is now. Yep, Pall Mall is named after this mallet-ball game; in the 1660s, the road was built on the site of what had previously been a Pell-Mell court.

Sometimes games have a more fleeting effect on their landscape. For example, there's the 1904 Treasure Hunt Riots, which cause a good few ruined gardens but no ongoing changes to city infrastructure.

The Riots – written about at length by Paul Slade here – came about as a result of a promotion by a newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch. The Dispatch decided it would be a good idea to hide medallions all around the country (but particularly in London), and award cash prizes to the people who found them. They printed clues to medallion locations in the paper – keeping it all quite vague, of course; it'd be no fun if people solved the puzzles too quickly. 


The obvious-in-retrospect downside to this was that the huge array of really vague clues turned every paving stone, garden or pathway into a potential treasure trove. Hundreds upon hundreds of enthusiastic puzzle-solvers dug up front gardens, parks, museum grounds, and pavements all across the city.

Rival solvers got into fights, sometimes – with each other, or with the owners of the land they were digging up. There were arrests. There were grave warnings to the paper from the Department of Public Prosecutions. (Nowadays the hundred-year-old damage is, of course, all gone, though we might be down a couple of delicate trees.)

In 18th century Wandsworth, a tiny public common gave rise to enormous fake elections in which – on the day of the general election – 80,000 participants would vote for candidates running, under made-up names like Squire Blowmedown and Lady Twankum, for the almost entirely imaginary role of mayor of Garratt. We make up games to play in the places that we live.

But the places that we live change in response to the games that we invent, too. Sometimes the changes help us to play. Sometimes they hinder us – “NO BALL GAMES” signs, say, or tiny obstructions bolted to street furniture to deter skateboarders (in the nineteenth century, the equivalent was the “hoop nuisance” – angry pedestrians across London complained about children rolling hoops along the pavement).

But either way, the changes happen; and our games, shaped by the city, shape it in turn.

Holly Gramazio is a game designer and half of Matheson Marcault.

The Now Play This festival, a part of the London GamesFestival, takes place at Somerset House from 1-3 April.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.