Clearwater plays it forward with Urban Conga

Most adults usually don't think of urban planning and satisfying their inner child at the same time, but providing fun and free opportunities for spontaneous recreation can add a much-needed element of fun and social interaction in public spaces -- an idea that has gained traction around the world and in a wide variety of formats.

Tampa-based play pioneer Ryan Swanson, Founder of The Urban Conga, has ventured across the bay to work with the Clearwater Redevelopment Agency on approaching new ways to play in the city’s downtown.

“Let’s Create a Playable City,” currently on exhibit at Clearwater’s Second Century Studios, educates the public on how recreational installations can make hanging out downtown a more pleasurable experience. 

The venue at the western edge of downtown has featured groundbreaking, interactive exhibits in the past -- most recently “Our Perspectives, Our Cultures, Our Community” and the “Dreams of Dali” virtual reality exhibit.
A reception/event titled “City Change Through Play” will close out The Urban Conga exhibit on Friday, Nov. 22, at 6 p.m. The event features Founder Ryan Swanson and his collaborators leading a talk about new approaches to urban play. Doors open at 6 p.m.; speakers begin at 6:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.
Swanson, through The Urban Conga, has installed weather-resistant Ping Pong tables, Xylophone benches, and other imaginative recreational equipment in Tampa’s urban spaces and elsewhere. He spearheads the Clearwater exhibit with fellow members of the Creative Producers International program, an organization Swanson has worked within England and other parts of the world.

His collaborators include Anel Moldakhmetova and Leticia Lozano. Moldakhmetova is from Kazakhstan and a creative producer at Cityzen Space studio. Lozano is from Mexico and co-founder/director of MACIA Estudio, a transdisciplinary practice challenging the boundaries between architecture, experience design and applied research. They are also part of an international speaker series sponsored by The British Council.

According to Swanson, Lozano brings aspects of how to implement a government system of temporary activations (a marketing term Swanson uses to suggest putting ideas into action).

Moldakhmetova lends expertise on how we can create play through event planning and find other ways to get conversations started. “We want to help cities worry less about liability restrictions and other barriers of red tape,” Swanson says.

In the meantime, the Clearwater exhibit greets visitors with a colorful wall-sized, city-scape platform. Visitors can touch and engage with elements of the colorful illustration. They demonstrate how activations could exist within the city and reveal information in whimsical, unexpected ways.

Also included: Swanson’s “Kit of Imagination,” which provides a bunch of generic giant puzzle pieces that work like a LEGO set, which people can build from and create different things and start thinking about how their infrastructure can become more playable. 

Activating public spaces

The Urban Conga Founder adds that “Let’s Create a Playable City” looks at the idea for play to exist in everyday spaces like a park bench, bus stop, crosswalk, street lamp, or just your everyday space in-between.
“We are looking at how these often once boring or underutilized situations can turn into stimulating, creative outlets for social interaction and community activity for all demographics through open-ended play,” he explains. “We want to find ways to get people out of their cars and invite them to linger downtown a while.”

While Swanson says he has no specific recommendations for Clearwater points of interest, he’s hoping the exhibit will initiate conversation between residents and stakeholders.
Rosemary Armour, Public Relations and Programs Manager for the CRA, says “Let’s Create a Playable City” is a first-of-its-kind for downtown Clearwater. Admission is free.

“We at the CRA are always looking for ways to engage folks in downtown,” Armour says. “A huge component of this is through public spaces, and how we can make them more vibrant and fun. And The Urban Conga is a perfect fit for that.”

The CRA, which has leased Second Century Studios through January 2020, worked with The Urban Conga earlier this year for a three-week installation of “Oscillation,” interactive structures that use light and sound and respond to movement, at Station Square Park in Downtown Clearwater.

A reception/event titled “City Change Through Play” will close out the exhibit on Friday, Nov. 22, at 6 p.m. The event features Swanson and his collaborators leading a talk about new approaches to urban play. Doors open at 6 p.m.; speakers begin at 6:30 p.m. Light refreshments will be served.

Adds Armour: “Folks will get an understanding of how “play” can impact a city’s social infrastructure, as well as make a city successful.”

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Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.