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A commitment to play gets PhD student elected to the Board


A University of Auckland PhD student who campaigned on the need for a more playful city has been elected to the Waitematā Local Board in this year’s local body recent elections, winning the highest number of the votes on that board.

Alex Bonham could be described as an activist for urban play, an “art-ivist”, although it was only recently that she considered getting directly involved with local government.

She is studying her PhD through the School of Dance. She isn’t dancer, although she is a trained actor and theatre maker. She has a BA (Hons) in law and Masters in Drama and builds on both for her PhD topic, “How May a Playful Practice Co-produce the Playful City”.

Alex draws an analogy between the play in a theatrical context — a fixed structure which allows for interpretation by actors and directors — and the legislative framework of a city, which also allows for people to add to or recreate their urban environment.

Her aim (in both her thesis, and as Board member) is to find ways to encourage people to collectively create a more playful city, one that has spaces conducive to a variety of experiences, that allow for the possibility of human encounters and surprise.

For the last five years she been a guide with Auckland Free Walking Tours, in which she has used maps, storytelling, and a sense of drama, to evoke and promote the city as a place that is “layered, fluid, joyous, and risky”.

She continued to do so for her thesis which has involved ‘finding the city’ by walking through it, researching its stories, exploring it through our senses of smell, sound, texture et al. “It’s about drawing people's attention to the city, its geographies and histories and current dramas, its Works in Progress, its smells, its textures.

“When you spend time engaging in a place, learning how it works, how it came to be, how things change, and when you start making propositions for changes you find other people want the same things.

“So it wasn't an enormous step to consider standing for the local board of Waitematā. I’m taking a theatrical mindset to new urbanism with the goal to create an all age-friendly city that works for children, youth, parents, seniors, for people’s whole lives not just work lives,” she says.

Much of her thesis has involved creating maps that represent Auckland from different perspectives. She has also curated an exhibition opening at Auckland Central City Library, which runs until 13 November, called Auckland and the Meaningful Map.

The exhibition is a portrayal of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland as created by mapmakers with different perspectives, each creating distinctive and unique impressions of the same landscape.

Visitors to the exhibition can collaborate in the creative mapping resistance by drawing their own maps, adding their perspectives on the city, the places that allow for “chance encounters, thrills and adventures, safe havens, that glorious dreams that have made this city what it is”, says Alex.

We are all actors in the creation of the city, she says. “The PhD gives me the opportunity to adopt a phenomenological methodology to consider a playful aesthetic of leadership, as a way to shape the playful city,” she says.

“It is a terrific opportunity to have the chance to contribute to the planning of tangible urban frameworks from a position of political power, to give people more opportunities to participate in the life of the city both economically and recreationally.

“As we move to a city centre with fewer private gardens, people should know that they are allowed to enjoy and use shared spaces in ways that appeal to them. We need to think about joy and quality of life in our city. We have the right to play, she says. “Engaging in a playful practice has opened up my mind to myriad possibilities. Play is an ever-interesting line of research.”


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