Can the ‘top-ten’ features of a child-friendly city really not include play? Adrian Voce thinks not, and proposes an alternative list.
‘Children in cities need a variety of places in which to play and to learn … an unspecified, outdoor home base from which to play, to hang around in and to help form their notions of the world’
– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
‘(Children) being able to have fun in public spaces and participate in cultural life is one of the hallmarks of a vital and vibrant city’.
– First Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, Guide to Preparing Play Strategies (2005)
A recent blog by the Canadian urbanist, Jillian Glover identified the ten features she believes are the key to building child-friendly cities. Suggesting that with the right kind of planning ‘cities can provide children with a more active lifestyle, access to great amenities, reduced energy and goods consumption, exposure to diversity and better family connections’ she then lists her ‘ten ways to build a city for children’. Fellow blogger on play and other children’s issues, Tim Gill has broadly endorsed the list – and with things like better access to public transport, amenities, schools and childcare, as well as more bike-ability and opportunities to enjoy nature featured, many people will indeed have seen this as a sensible agenda for a more child-friendly urban environment.
Yet there is a glaring omission from Glover’s list. Nowhere, even in the explicatory sub-text after each item, does the word ‘play’ appear. Playfulness is certainly implied in the (tellingly) last item on the list: ‘fun and whimsy’ but even here it is concerned more with ‘things to inspire the inner child in all of us’, than with specifically addressing children’s need for space to play.
Glover is an advisor to the Canadian government, and it is perhaps then no surprise that her list seems to reflect a fairly modest ambition: aspirations that would not seem too radical to a serving administration. One pragmatic approach to policy influencing is to only suggest changes that are likely to be accepted. Proposals for more and better play space for children do not obviously accord with the perennial, future-focused concerns about education, economic growth and sustainability that preoccupy most policymakers.
Nevertheless, if this list is representative of current urbanist thinking about children, many will be alarmed that play does not warrant an explicit mention; and wonder even whether the proposals are really for the adult management of children, more than for children themselves.
To redress the balance, and because a genuinely child-friendly city should first and foremost be a city where they can play, I suggest a different list for a playable, and therefore genuinely child-friendly city.
One – End the domination of traffic
Playing in the immediate vicinity of their homes is the area of children’s play lives that has been most curtailed by the modern world. Research perennially reveals that cars, vans and lorries – moving and stationary – are the greatest enemy of street play. Traffic calming schemes alone do little to reverse this trend. What is needed is a major and long-term rethink of how we conceive streets where people live. The pervading model of roads with dwellings down each side has resulted in whole neighbourhoods, districts and cities becoming devoid of children playing on the pavements or in the ‘shallow sidewalk niches out of the line of moving pedestrian feet’ (Jacobs, 1961), as they had done in previous generations. Street play schemes are a grass roots attempt to reclaim this space from ‘king-car’ but must lead in the longer term to more home-zones, pedestrian areas, and shared space designs – as the norm, not the exception – so that the streets where people live are once again for people of all ages to enjoy, not just for vehicles to drive down.
Two – Adopt playable designs of public space
It is not just residential streets that could benefit from a design revolution to end the tyranny of the car. Shared public spaces in ‘down-town’ cultural and shopping centres are also blighted by the dominance of traffic. Shared space, pedestrian schemes, and the redirection of heavy traffic away from social hubs can transform the life of inner city areas and, along with child-friendly design principles, enable children to enjoy public spaces as much as older generations do . Certainly, public space should afford children of all ages opportunities to play – or have ‘fun and whimsy’, as Glover puts it. But these affordances do not need to be sign-posted as ‘PLAYFUL’. Access, space and permission to use it are more important than explicit play installations. Children need space that simply welcomes them into it and gives their parents confidence to let them play. They will do the rest. As the great American urbanist, Jane Jacobs (1961) said, ‘the requisite for any of these varieties of incidental play is not pretentious equipment of any sort, but rather space at an immediately convenient and interesting place’.
Three – Break the mould – and the hold – of the public playground
By far the greatest investment explicitly in children’s play by any municipal authority is its fixed equipment playground budget. Yet many, if not most, children’s playgrounds offer limited play value, selling children short with their reductionist approach and over-cautious designs. Furthermore, they tend to perpetuate the assumption that children’s play is separate and discrete from wider public life, needing special equipment, fences and flooring. While there have been attempts to reconceive the public playground, the stereotype prevails. A real ludic city, recognising that all its public spaces are part of the child’s domain, will eventually not need them at all; its parks, public squares and ultimately its streets and sidewalks providing children with all the play opportunities they need.
Four – Build and staff more adventure playgrounds
Many dense urban areas, even with a long-term commitment to curbing traffic, are a long way from having the confidence of either children or their parents as safe places to play. In contrast, then, to the general shift away from municipal playgrounds, these neighbourhoods need bespoke play areas, staffed by skilled playworkers and responsive to the culture of local children. The best such provision is the traditional adventure playground, developed and co-created with its young users, always evolving and changing but ever dedicated to nothing but their time and space to play. One of these, wherever there is the most pressing need, would cost a fraction of a city’s education budget
Five – Make parks for everyone, including teens
While the children’s playground (often ill-conceived – see 3 above) is a standard fixture of most municipal parks, they are, conversely, too often lacking facilities for older children and young people. Indeed many parks and leisure departments, though unlikely to admit it, knowingly discourage teenagers in public parks and green spaces, fearing harm to the horticulture or anti-social behaviour towards other users. This attitude should be unacceptable: urban public parks should feature a range of skate parks, games areas and hang-out shelters for young people, who should also be engaged in their conception and design.
Six – Make playwork the required approach for childcare
The cost of city living, changes to urban family life and the growing number of two income households has seen a rapid expansion in school-aged childcare in many modern cities. Yet the quality of such provision is rarely scrutinised, especially in the deregulated, under-resourced world of public service austerity that has prevailed in most countries since the crash. Much after-school care is provided by schools themselves and where cities have authority for education, therefore, they are in position to set the standards for childcare too. These should be based, not on the school regime – as is too often the case – (meaning that many children are effectively ‘in school’ for 8- or even 10-hours a day) but on the quality standards and principles of playwork. School-aged childcare should be run by playworkers, who alone of the children’s workforce are dedicated to and skilled in supporting children to enjoy their own time and space.
Seven – Open up schools for play
For most urban communities, the local school is the greatest resource solely for children. Yet in many, if not most cities, schools are narrowly focused on the curriculum and the school day. Schools, or at the very least, school grounds are potential play spaces for local children throughout the day, and all year round, but are generally out-of-bounds when lessons have finished, other than for registered childcare and after school clubs. With a more outward-looking, community-focused approach, these under-utilised public assets, which absorb the majority of a city’s investment in its children, could become local ludic hubs. As long as the roads are still such a threat to street play, this would go a long way towards ensuring all children have somewhere to play near where they live.
Eight – Review the policing of children
A society that proscribes hopscotch (BBC News, 2013), ball games and young people simply hanging out together in public, while accepting a daily toll of death and injury to children simply trying to get from one side of a street to another, really should examine its priorities. Anti-social behaviour laws are generally the province of national governments, but their interpretation and application is the job of the police, usually under local control. City authorities should adopt more sensitive, enabling approaches to the policing of children and young people and train their police forces accordingly.
Nine – Develop safe routes to school
One oft quoted measure in the UK of the declining ‘licence to roam’ – to have the independent mobility which is a good proxy indicator of the freedom to play out – has been the proportion of children walking unsupervised to school. A study of road safety for the Policy Studies Institute (Hillman et al, 1990) found that this figure fell from 80% in 1971 to a mere 9% by 1990. One way to return children to the outside world and again give them the confidence to play there, would be to make sure that the one journey they have to make, five days a week, is safe for them to make alone.
Ten – Embed thinking about play within planning policy
To the extent that cities have authority for planning policy and planning decisions they are directly responsible for the future shape and nature of the built environment and how it responds to people. Spatial development plans should specifically identify space for children’s play as a planning priority, while planning guidance for housing in particular should specify minimum standards – quality and quantity – of play space in new developments.
The need to play is so universal, its manifestations so diverse and the barriers to it so complex that, as our list implies, a co-ordinated, long-term approach is needed. Crosscutting play strategies should be adopted by city authorities – with the political leadership and interdepartmental cooperation necessary to make them effective.
As the great British play pioneer, Lady Allen of Hurtwood (1968) urged almost 50 years ago, local authorities need to employ play specialists to work across ‘housing, education, parks and health …’ and for planners ‘to bring more sensitive awareness into the places where people live and where they bring up families, so that children and their parents can feel they belong to a community that is intimate’.
Lady Allen knew that only with this specific, strategic commitment to enabling children to play within the public spaces of their communities, will we be moving closer to the genuinely child-friendly city.
BBC News, 2013, Ramsgate girl’s hopschotch grid ‘sparked Kent Police warning’, 9 May, available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-22475517
Hillman, M, Adams, J and Whitelegg, J, 1990, One false move, London: Policy Studies Institute
Hurtwood, Lady Allen of, 1968, Planning for play, London: Thames and Hudson
Jacobs, J, 1961, The death and life of great American cities, New York: Vintage Books
Mayor of London, 2005, Guide to preparing local play strategies: Planning inclusive play space and opportunities for all London’s children and young people, London: Greater London Authority
Policy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right
by Adrian Voce (with a foreword by Roger Hart) is published by Policy Press