Room to Play – The Missing Link in Asian Cities

Filipino youth practice muay thai in Malabon, Metro Manila.
Filipino youth practice muay thai in Malabon, Metro Manila.

By Shruti Mehta, Joris van Etten

No matter the urban pressures in Asia and Pacific, governments and their partners must provide spaces for communities to play and interact. 

Play is fundamental to human civilization. There is strong evidence that communities that have opportunities to play together, experience social and economic progress.

Yet with the huge pressure to provide space for living, working, and public infrastructure, public spaces—including parks and community squares—have largely disappeared from the cities of Asia and the Pacific.

As urban populations grow in the region, what can governments and their partners do to ensure urban spaces provide communities with the opportunity to play and interact? Here are three observations from across the globe that demonstrate the value of investing in spaces for citizens to play.

First, play improves health and builds life skills.

Physical inactivity is a looming threat to health, well-being, and quality of life. A 2017 ADB Institute study found that weight issues including obesity cost Asian countries 0.78% of their annual GDP, or $166 billion. The study calls for urban planners to consider building parks and amenities that encourage physical activity, since play and sport build key life skills and improve mental health.

Recognizing this, a project spearheaded by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in collaboration with the Philippine Muay Thai Association transformed a dilapidated community space in Malabon city in Metro Manila into a multipurpose sporting ground, allowing youth to play basketball and practice muay thai. This entire project was led by the community itself.

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Second, play increases social inclusion.

In 2005, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) began to acknowledge the potential impact of sports on everything from youth employability, violence prevention and gender equality, to education and health. Through innovative public-private partnership models, IDB invested in a project, Paving the Way for the World Cup and the Olympic Games: Alliance for Sports and Development, with private sponsors (FC Barcelona, National Basketball Association, Visa, and Colgate), the municipality of Rio de Janeiro, and community organizations.

Rio’s Secretariat of Sports for Development assumed the lead role, but the alliance also coordinates with other sector secretariats like Education, Housing, and Health.

The alliance’s goal was to involve 4,000 disadvantaged children and youth in Rio’s favelas in sports programs. This model highlights the potential to bring together diverse partners to fuel innovation.

The leadership of a multilateral development bank also translates into policy influence and connections to key government agencies. The strong focus on monitoring and evaluation provides further scope for future expansion.

Third, play and sport enhancing employability.

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Sport-based approaches to employment training, entrepreneurship, and enterprise have emerged. These need to take account of opportunities within the broader economy to maximize their potential.

A good case in point is the work undertaken by a civil society organization in India, Magic Bus, which engages children and youth from slums in sports to impart knowledge in leadership. It supports participants after they have completed the program until they are connected to livelihood and vocational opportunities.

ADB has provided platforms for organizations like Right To Play and the Special Olympics to share their knowledge on the role that sport plays in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. These initiatives demonstrate that there is a willingness to rethink the way in which multilateral development banks contribute to how cities are designed. However, much more will need to be done to encourage physical activity in cities – not only through sport and play but also by creating a conducive environment for pedestrians and cycling commuters.

So, as ADB is finalizing its Livable Cities 2019-2024 Operational Priority Plan, how can its urban development operations make a positive contribution to create cities where there is space for sport and play?

Involving young people in the design and implementation of urban projects will be crucial. Through collaboration with initiatives such as the Youth and Sport Task Force led by UNESCO, young leaders have initiated crowdfunding initiatives like Crowd Sukan that mobilizes communities to crowdsource funds to provide sporting infrastructure based on the needs of the communities. Moreover, organizations like ADB can adopt the concept of “play champions” who can facilitate a healthy dialogue on the importance of play in our everyday lives.

Play is something that provides us a retreat from everyday hardships and brings happiness. It should be something that everyone has access to – if only there are the suitable spaces.