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An ethical framework means we need not fear the political fray

28 Mar
A controversy over “child-friendly” planning in Europe is an opportunity to review our ethical framework for play advocacy, argues Adrian Voce

A recent on-line debate around the child-friendly city movement reminded me of a, partly but not entirely, rhetorical question a colleague of mine recently posed: “to be a play advocate, do you also have to be a socialist?”

My immediate answer was “no, but…”

If advocacy for children’s play provision is accompanied by a broader set of political aims, there is a danger that the primary purpose is diluted or that an important part of the intended audience may stop listening[1]. Practically, too, single-issue pressure groups attract supporters and staff from a broad political spectrum. Overt political bias may alienate or discriminate against those who hold different views or allegiances. And, of course, if the legal structure for the advocacy work is a charitable one, then overt political campaigning is not allowed.

Savage cuts

But…these are tactical or practical reasons that don’t really answer the fundamental question (which arose, of course, in the face of the savage cuts being faced by many play services as the Coalition government rolls back whole swathes of the public sector in the name of deficit reduction). Although posed in simple terms, the question is a complex one: when does the professional become political? Can an ethical basis for our movement stand separately from the big political choices? Can we campaign for greater investment in a type of public provision without also coming out for the kind of economy and the kind of government we want?

As individuals, these questions are not hard. We answer them at least every time we vote. But in the professional arena they are not so easy. Many of us work for – or with – the arms of whichever government or local government happens to be in power. Overt political positions for the roles we play here are simply not on. And yet, as we try to develop strategies to cope with the effects of policy decisions that are damaging to so much of what we have worked for, the questions are nevertheless unavoidable.

A consideration of the Rotterdam controversy provides a different context for these questions and, being further removed from our own challenges, may allow the objectivity we need to find some answers.

Is Rotterdam's child-friendly city policy ethical?

Is Rotterdam’s child-friendly city policy ethical?

People familiar with the child-friendly city movement will know that Holland’s second city, host of the 2008 international Child in the City conference, is celebrated for its approach and its achievements in establishing a planning and urban renewal strategy that has (apparently) produced some genuinely playable, child-friendly spaces, integrated within the public realm rather than fenced off in a corner of the park like so many European playgrounds.

Tim Gill, along with many others, has spoken glowingly about Rotterdam, highlighting these developments as examples of what is possible, even in big, crowded cities, when children’s needs and perspectives are properly considered in spatial development and planning policies at a strategic level.

Yet Tim recently featured the city in a different light. A circular about his latest Rethinking Childhood blog asked, rhetorically, if we weren’t in fact now seeing, “the dark side of Rotterdam’s child-friendly city programme?”. The cause for him rethinking, not childhood on this occasion, but child-friendly cities, was a paper by Marguerite van den Berg of the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, which appeared in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Trojan Horse?

Entitled City Children and Genderfied Neighbourhoods: The New Generation as Urban Regeneration Strategy, the paper looks at Rotterdam’s urban renewal process and suggests that one of Holland’s poorest cities has essentially used the child-friendly city approach as a Trojan Horse for a gentrification programme that is driving out poor families from traditional working class areas.

A feminist critique is central to Van den Berg’s thesis (as the paper’s title indicates). Women’s voices, with their natural empathy for children’s rights, she suggests, have been appropriated to the programme in order to make it seem more benign. In fact, she argues, a policy of replacing existing urban dwellings with new, larger and more expensive ‘family-friendly homes’ is central to the project and this is a deliberate attempt to introduce more middle class families into the inner city residential areas at the expense of poorer families who cannot afford the new dwellings. Her analysis is that that the municipality “appears to be deliberately and actively marginalising poor families, in the pursuit of an image and ambience that will appeal to more affluent and desirable residents” (Part of this marginalization is the framing of children and young people from “troubled”, working class families as villains of the peace, a source of anti-social behavior and criminality. Sound familiar?)

Presenting the gentrification programme as a policy to create a more child-friendly city, is thus, in Van den Berg’s view, a disingenuous cover for a more cynical political objective: stimulating economic growth on the back of displacing the very children and young people who most need to benefit from it – and destroying traditional working class communities in the process.

Citing a lack of local knowledge, Tim Gill has remained on the fence in the debate that this paper has provoked (“given my distance…it would be foolish for me to pass final judgment here”) although he is keen to hear what others think, challenging, as it does, some of the assumptions we may have made about “playable public space”. I have considerably less experience of urban renewal in the Dutch inner cities than Tim and so also claim ignorance as to the merits or otherwise of the Rotterdam policy. But it does cause me to think about the political dimensions of play advocacy. Two different presentations at the recent Playwork conference in Eastbourne are useful here.

Playwork ethics

In “the only way is Ethics” Wendy Russell suggested that a proper code of practice – one essential element in the establishment of playwork as a mature profession – would require a clear and robust ethical framework. This begged the question for me: where does one turn to find the moral basis for an ethical code? Morals are not absolute. Different faiths and cultures may take a different moral and therefore ethical standpoint on a range of the same issues. How then to create a framework that respects individual ethics and yet commands the universal recognition throughout the profession that would be fundamental to its workability? These are questions which have no doubt been debated and to a great extent resolved within more established professions. Wendy brings her own unique – ludocentric as well as academic – rigour to the issue (it is the subject of her PhD) in a way that should serve the profession well for years to come.

Much of the emerging ethical framework will deal with the playworker’s response to individual or groups of children. Questions of integrity, confidentiality, regulatory against personal responsibility, when to intervene and when not to, honouring the play process whilst safeguarding appropriate boundaries: these are issues where the playworker may find an ethical code helpful in addressing daily dilemmas in the play space.

But the playwork principles apply beyond the play space. Indeed, “the prime focus and essence of playwork is to support and facilitate the play process, and this should inform the development of play policy, strategy, training and education”. The practitioner’s role is not limited to face-to-face work, or even its planning, but is also to “advocate for play when engaging with adult led agendas”. Thus, our ethical framework must inform not just our playwork but how we engage with the policy, planning and funding arenas that will determine or effect the provision and opportunities that children are to be afforded.

This brings us back, slightly circuitously, to the politics question. Play policy cannot be developed in a vacuum, but will, wherever it takes hold, be part of a broader agenda that is inevitably determined by a political ideology or programme. What is the ethical framework that will allow us to most effectively engage, as play advocates, with this political process? We can be less equivocal now, I hope, that the answer cannot be Socialism (whose prime focus and purpose is certainly not the play process!) any more than it can be Capitalism, nep-Liberalism, Marxism or any other political ideology. This does not mean to say that we may not find more common ground – and therefore more opportunity for play policy development – within some parts of the political spectrum than others. But we must start from a different place.

Here, another presentation at the Playwork conference provided a timely reminder of not just the right ethical framework for play advocacy, but one that has the status of International Law. I refer, of course, to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The right of all children to play

Gerison Lansdowne gave Eastbourne delegates a preview of the General Comment on Article 31 of the UNCRC, which explicates in more detail than ever before what steps member states should be taking to ensure children’s right to play under the Convention. It is clear that governments should promote and educate their adult populations in the value and importance of play; legislate and fund sufficient play provision and playable space; and protect the access and inclusivity of this provision and this space for all their children with particular attention to those for whom economic, physical or cultural barriers are greatest. Also underlined by the general comment is the important principle that all articles within the Convention must be mutually enabling. (My fuller look at the new general comment can be found here).

So it is that questions about Rotterdam’s possible hidden agenda in creating a child-friendly city can be addressed with a clear eye. Play advocacy, taking its ethical lead from the UNCRC, would not endorse an approach that saw the creation of beautiful play areas and child-friendly streetscapes if the policy that enabled them also made them exclusive to middle class children, or caused hardship to poorer families.

It is worth repeating that the Rotterdam controversy is one that I have no particular perspective on, but the principle is clear. And closer to home article 31 of the UNCRC, as now expanded upon, should allow us to say, without fear or favour, that cutting play services, with no evidence that they are more than sufficient, is an abuse of children’s rights and a breach of international law.

That’s not socialism. It’s ethical playwork.

Adrian Voce

[1] Many of us recall how difficult it was to gain the serious attention of the Labour children’s minister in the late 90s, Margaret Hodge, after she had been barricaded into her own town hall, as leader of Islington Council some years earlier by a demonstration against play cuts in which the local Socialist Workers Party had a prominent profile.

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