Ten (plus one) steps towards a genuinely child-friendly city (hint: make some space for play)

2 Dec

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.

Children need space to play within the fabric of the city, not apart from it

Children need space to play within the fabric of the city, not apart from it

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.

Plus one…
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.

Adrian Voce


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

PoliPinkW01cy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right
by Adrian Voce (with a foreword by Roger Hart) is published by Policy Press



17 Responses to “Ten (plus one) steps towards a genuinely child-friendly city (hint: make some space for play)”

  1. plexity 2 December 2015 at 4:07 pm #

    Nice one SurAdrian.

    You could add that indicators could be developed along the lines of the PBI…!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bernardspiegal 3 December 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    It’s a good list, but is it a play strategy that’ll do the trick? I have no firm view at this point as to the potential merits of a play strategy, though I’m sceptical about how practically useful it could be. One problem, arguably, is that it hives play off into its own category as if play – as we mean it – can be valued and enabled in isolation from establishing a more broadbased view about the ‘whole child’ – how, as a society, we conceive of childhood, its meaning and its relationship to adult values, endeavours and aspirations. The All Party Parliamentary Group’s recent report talked about a ‘whole child strategy’ and that at the very least is interesting. I’ll say more about this whole child thinking elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. play and other things 3 December 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    Reblogged this on Play and Other Things….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jillian 9 December 2015 at 7:01 pm #

    I find it unfortunate that you would criticize my list as a way to boost your own. Both are very valid and important when it comes to developing child-friendly cities. Play is one aspect and you have elaborated on it quite well here. I like your list and don’t feel you need to devalue the list I created, which focuses on equally important measures like safe streets, bikeability, affordablity, walkability, and access to good education & services.

    Furthermore, I wrote that piece as a mother living in a city and as an urbanist with an academic background in urban issues. My government job has nothing to do with policies around children and does not colour my views of how to create child-friendly city.

    “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”

    Is not a fair or accurate statement of my views.


    • adrianvoce 10 December 2015 at 10:19 am #

      Jillian, Thanks for your comments.

      I did not criticise your list to boost my own (I’m not even sure what you mean by this. There were links to your site from my piece, not vice versa), but because I disagreed with it as an agenda for a truly child-friendly city. I meant no offence, merely to challenge what I see as the assumptions underlying your list and to present an alternative. I cited your position with the Canadian government because you do, on your site; but I am happy to stand corrected that this did not influence your thinking.

      I stand by my argument, however: that children’s play, while always a top priority for them, is too often overlooked by planners and other public realm (including children’s services) professionals – and that it should be a central plank of any policy agenda for a genuinely child-friendly city.


    • plexity 10 December 2015 at 11:28 am #

      Have to agree with Adrian’s response. Unlike many bloggers, he doesn’t appear to be at all interested in click bait. There are no adverts or sponsors on his blog.

      You seem to be taking his critique as a personal attack. Then you mention your academic credentials. He doesn’t mention his credentials. Why not Google him. He has an excellent track record in the field and a certain degree of recognition for his achievements.

      Then you mention you are a mom. Well, he is a dad. So what? What does having successfully reproduced have to do with anything?

      The only devaluing going on here is your defensiveness, paranoia and overreaction. As academic, why aren’t you a seeker of truth and an advocate of debate?

      For the record I think his list is inadequate, as does Mr Speigel, but he hasn’t thrown his toys out of his urban pram.

      I await your reply, which may well accuse me of sexism.

      #criticismiscoolandisntalways attack.


  5. plexity 10 December 2015 at 8:51 pm #

    A pithy meme on this issue of criticism.


  6. Tim Gill 17 December 2015 at 1:21 pm #

    I’m catching up on this exchange, which I see has moved on since Jillian’s post, my reblog of it and your post Adrian. Off the bat, I think your main objection is misplaced. Jillian does mention playgrounds as well as playful features like swings and water parks. On any reasonable interpretation, the statement that “play does not warrant an explicit mention” is plain wrong (though of course there is more to be said about playgrounds, playable public space and other play provision).
    As a set of child-friendly planning objectives and outcomes, Jillian’s list does not look overly modest to me. Maybe you have missed what happens when an administration takes serious steps to promote walking and cycling, for example. Witness the ‘Mini Holland’ initiative in my own local authority Waltham Forest, which has seen vociferous online campaigns on both sides and a demonstration against the project that included a coffin being paraded through the streets. In Enfield the same initiative is now at real risk, and play advocates are fighting hard to save it, as shown in a piece only this week in the Guardian.
    Tone can be a tricky issue online, but I question your choice of tone in this post. Its combativeness, even hostility, would puzzle any reader who is not well versed in debates within playwork. Put yourself in Jillian’s shoes here: she advocates better walking, cycling and public transit facilities, better access to nature and leisure facilities, more fun and magic, and kids roaming freely. She is then in effect accused of being an unambitious, government-employed pragmatist who is “for the adult management of children, more than for children themselves”. It should be no surprise that Jillian was unhappy about this, and defensive in her response.
    My aim in sharing Jillian’s original post was to foster debate between those like you and me who are deeply engaged in thinking about children and play, and those like Jillian who are also interested and engaged, and bring other valid perspectives. I am pleased that the debate has moved on. I also agree with Jillian that your list – which I am broadly happy to sign up to – and hers are hardly incompatible. They point to different priorities and perhaps perspectives, but do not offer conflicting visions.
    However, the fact that this exchange has become personal and negative is unhelpful and unnecessary. Cutting to the chase: in the fight for greater recognition of children’s rights to play, get around freely and enjoy their urban lives, is Jillian really the enemy?


    • adrianvoce 17 December 2015 at 1:41 pm #

      Thanks for your contribution Tim. Jillian and I have corresponded privately and quite cordially. I don’t believe any of my comments, either in my post or since have been personal – and only negative in that I disagreed with her. I have accepted that my speculation about her motives may have been wide of the mark, although I think citing her role with the Canadian government was perfectly valid to provide some context for her piece.

      I accept the broad point that her list is a a good one as far as it goes but my charge was – and is – of the sin of omission. Children’s play is perennially overlooked as an issue by policy makers at all levels and of all stripes. If the child-friendly city movement wants to live up to its name, then in my view we have to challenge this a bit more explicitly than she has done.

      But these are just my views and I perfectly respect her, and your, right to differ. Of course she’s not the enemy. I fail to see how I have constructed her as such, but the blogosphere would be very dreary if we always agreed with one another.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tim Gill 17 December 2015 at 2:54 pm #

        Thanks for this reply Adrian. My central point is that it was a sin – if this even is a sin – of prioritisation, not omission. But I guess we may have to agree to disagree on that.
        I am comfortable with disagreement. However, I do think there are better and worse ways of disagreeing. A heirarchy of disagreement, if you will.
        Looking at that diagram, I note that ad hominem – including questioning motives and authority – is the second-bottom level out of seven, just above name-calling, but just below responding to tone (so that’s me guilty as charged) and well below refutation (in my defence, I had a go at that too).
        Of course it’s just a diagram. Though if you disagree with it, you’re just an empty-headed animal food trough wiper, and I fart in your general direction!


      • adrianvoce 17 December 2015 at 3:25 pm #

        Ha! Omission, prioritisation – I think her immortal soul will be unaffected either way: we are speaking metaphorically of course, but thanks for the earthy insult which I fully reciprocate!

        There is a serious issue here though about language and meaning. For example, you’ll recall, I’m sure, that kids overwhelmingly nominated playing out, seeing their friends and having better parks and play areas their top priority when the UK gov consulted them prior to Every Child Matters around the theme of enjoying their own time. This then became, in gov-speak, ‘things to do, places to go’ and ‘enjoyment’ was conflated with ‘achievement’ to effectively equate to getting on at school.

        My point is that what Russell & Lester, Moss & Petrie and others call the dominant discourse, and Sutton-Smith calls the ‘progress rhetoric’ is quite insidious. Play has been habitually colonised and refashioned by policy-makers to make it fit the agendas that arise from this paradigm: hence ‘positive’ and ‘structured’ activities, ‘outdoor learning’, and ‘creative’ or ‘constructive’ play are all taken to be equivalent terms for simply playing, when of course they are actually loaded with other meanings. That’s what I’m sensitive to (you may say over-sensitive) and I think, if we want to change the terms of the debate, we have to begin with, at the very least, calling play what it is.

        Happy Christmas!

        Sent from my iPhone


        Liked by 1 person

      • bernardspiegal 17 December 2015 at 4:09 pm #

        Adrian (and via here, Tim), Thank you for friendly knockabout. Good way to kick off the festive season. Now, to pick up Adrian’s points about language and meaning, and ‘we have to at the very least call play what it is to beging with’. Well, yes. But how is it, then, that we have shackled ourselves to a seemingly endless quest for evidence that mostly seeks to justify play in terms of its instrumental benefit in practically any area of endeavour you care to name, except the ‘play itself’ that we say we understand and value.

        Whatever the pragmatic reasons for this ( a lot to do with the not always disinterested need to justify funding), it might be thought odd that relatively little effort is directed towards changing the terms of the discussion with public or policy-makers. To change those terms is, admittedly, a long-haul job. But until the terms are changed, we need to face up to the fact that the right to play is but a feather blown
        about by some mighty strong winds.

        Liked by 1 person

      • plexity 17 December 2015 at 4:16 pm #

        Hello Bernard. How are you, and don’t you start. LOLZ


    • plexity 17 December 2015 at 3:57 pm #

      I’m sure Tim, that if you were Adrian’s dad, you would think that you had done an excellent job in terms of the moral education of a young Victorian male child. I’m sure the headmaster of his prep school would agree.

      “However, the fact that this exchange has become personal and negative is unhelpful and unnecessary. ”

      If the ‘fact’ were ‘true’ (we’ve both studied philosophy, Tim) IF it were, that the “exchange has become personal and negative” then perhaps I might agree with you, a little.

      NB: to the less well-versed in playwork reader:
      Tim and I are well-known to each other in the UK play field. I respect his work and his achievements greatly. We don’t agree on less things than we do agree on, though you might not think so.

      Tim, unlike you —I’m making a possibly unwarranted assumption about you at this point, based on our long history of typing to and fro and our and brief verbal interactions— unlike you, I DON’T VIEW CONFLICT AS A TERRIBLE THING TO BE AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS. A good example is the pernicious ‘play nicely’ approach to children’s play. (I can provide references, if needed).

      I view conflict as a valuable aspect of discussion/dialogue/debate. In moderation, now and then.

      There are occasions – for example in negotiations with government, when taking off your shoe and banging the table is a positive action.

      Of course we want to foster debate, promote play yada yada. Of course Jillian isn’t the enemy. Did I miss the school meeting when you were appointed debate monitor?

      Yes, those not well versed in the UK playwork debate would find it puzzling. Are you demanding that we put the needs of casual visitors ahead of our own concerns?

      I read stuff from all over the English-speaking world. And when I come up against a tone that I find puzzling, or a viewpoint that seems weird, you know what? I get curious. I like learning about other viewpoints and I’m prepared to suffer a few scrapes. Playing nicely online might mean the bland well-meaningly leading the blind, not often, but sometimes.

      Not helpful, Tim, not constructive. You are so right that tone is important online. Could do better, see me at break.


      • plexity 17 December 2015 at 4:11 pm #

        just be clear myabove reply is to Tim’s earlier contribution. This reply is to his next contribution, which is in reply to Adrian’s reply. So I’m responding to Tim’s points which start: “Thanks for this reply Adrian. My central point is that it was a sin…”

        I’m going to duck out of the doctrinal debate about sin, Monsignor, and focus on the diagram for a moment. I’m kinda allergic to hierarchy andnotbut, the diagram offers a useful classification. It depends. It’s not that clear-cut. Insult has often had a key role in the noble art of disputation.

        And not but, you both illustrate my point. You both elegantly responded to play cues, in the aftermath of a mild and to my mind, necessary and positive conflict within the flow of a conversational dance, a terminological tango if you will, a moshpit pogo which offered the potential for learning for both, and indeed all, parties. You started playing, eventually, you smiled. Now get back in there and mash it up bigstyle innit.

        Merry Christmas and a Ludic New Fear, guys. Peace out.


      • adrianvoce 18 December 2015 at 11:55 am #

        Thanks for your comments Bernard. I tend to agree, which is why I took issue with the CPPF’s policy asks before the last election. They seemed to me to highlight what goes wrong when advocacy tries too hard to fit existing agendas.

        For my part I have tried to present some serious challenges to the dominant discourse, which seems to value nothing that cannot show evidence of a measurable impact on narrowly defined long-term ‘outcomes’ that are often quite meaningless in terms of children’s lives now. The most obvious example of this was Play for a Change, wherein Lester and Russell, I would argue, put together a scholarly, cogent and detailed critique of the policy-making process pertaining to children’s play, and the tyranny (not their words) of the progress rhetoric.


  7. Tim Gill 17 December 2015 at 5:35 pm #

    Arthur – thank you for the respect and that. On disagreement, I see you have spotted my reply to Adrian’s reply to me. It is true that I prefer to find common ground and build consensus where possible. I have found over the years that when trying to win people over, exploring and building on shared concerns is better than (for instance) questioning motives or misrepresenting positions – and almost always a better place to start. On the whole this has worked well for me (I can provide references, if needed). Though I sometimes take a different tack…
    I hope that your references on ‘playing nicely’ include this: Gill, T (2007) No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. See esp pp 40-45. Available from no good booksellers, because the (second) reprint sold out – but it is downloadable in full for free via my website. Go and boil your bottom, you son of a silly person. And festive greetings.


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