Image by Sean Carroll
'Together,' located in Pittsburgh, Penn. is a series of undulating surfaces in recyclable aluminum, installed late last year and serving as a table, bench, walkway, place to rest, a stage; you name it. Right next to the Highland Park pool and Lake Carnegie, it was developed through a series of conversations within that community. 'It's always fun to see the unique ways people decide to use our work,' Swanson said. A Live Action Role Play (LARP) club has started to utilize it for their meetings.

Urban Conga Breaks Down Social Barriers with Playful Installs

April 3, 2023
This Brooklyn-based firm is reminding the post-pandemic world that fun can transcend any barriers we might encounter on our way to more meaningful human connections and the thriving societies that rise from them.

Multidisciplinary Brooklyn-based studio The Urban Conga has been caravanning their concept of “playable cities” around the country for almost a decade now. These are ecosystems of opportunities for citizens to explore within a shared experience, woven into a city’s infrastructure for all demographics—not just a select few.

The idea began in Founder and Creative Director Ryan Swanson’s college days in Tampa, where he and his colleagues became passionate about activating underutilized spaces in neighborhoods with pop-up installations that made for some unlikely bedfellows.

Somewhat makeshift at first (like the giant 12-ft beachball they rolled down the street and watched a family and homeless man play with together for almost an hour), Swanson quickly realized it wasn’t about the actual piece of work. It was about the activity and moments they were creating.

“I saw social barriers like that one break down, and these moments began to repeat themselves as we kept doing these interventions,” he explained. “And we saw more and more how the value of play began to elevate itself. It’s such a natural, universal human driver to explore. We don’t even need to speak the same language to play.”

So they developed five play methodologies to use as a tool kit when building foundations for each project: gamification, social, constructive, movement and explorative. However, the studio comes in with no preconceived notions of what they will create. Engaging a community and harnessing their voices into a design that gives them some ownership over the places they call home has become the most important part of The Urban Conga’s process.

Today, that design can vary from temporary activations to more permanent custom-based installs such as “Together” (left) and “The Bay,” most fabricated at their warehouse in Florida. Check out the captions to learn more about how those projects came to be and visit the studio’s website to view their line of “playable products” including chess tables, musical benches and ping pong tables. In the future, Swanson hopes their work can expand into master planning, developing better ways to engage citizens in that process as well.

They’re finding that community members aren’t always heard properly when it comes to achieving equity in public space, and getting clients to invest that time and money into a proper pre-design development phase (ideally one year depending on the project) and post-installation evaluations to see what worked and what didn’t has been their biggest hurdle as a firm. “The longevity of the work goes a lot farther when that process happens properly,” Swanson explained.

“One of the very few positive things that came out of the pandemic was that people are now paying more attention to equity and creating a sense of social connection. Hopefully this isn’t just a phase for municipalities and it actually becomes part of their process.” The Urban Conga is placing much of their focus on figuring out how best to collect qualitative and quantitative data that shows the importance of their work and which can eventually affect policy that would make sure it does become commonplace.

About the Author

AnnMarie Martin | Editor-in-Chief

AnnMarie has been covering the commercial design space since 2005 and has been on the editorial staff at i+s since 2011. Her style and vision has helped the brand evolve into a thought leader in purpose-driven design and cultural movements shaping the way we live and work. She returned to the role of editor in chief at the start of 2023 and her journalism and fiction writing background have helped to craft bi-monthly issues that don’t just report the latest industry news, but tell a cohesive tale of some of the biggest topics facing designers today.

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