The disappearance of children from many public spaces in the last 40 years has been stark. They have been corralled into fenced off play areas where once they were free to play in the street and in the spaces within the built environment. Now, ‘no ball game’ signs, the dominance of the car, the filling in of so many spaces and the ever more high-rise nature of development has squeezed out today’s kids.

“Most of the children of our generation played out, most children now do not,” says Alice Ferguson, co-director at charity, Playing Out. “Play has become very contained, it is meant to happen in a few dedicated places.” She feels that children’s dedication to screens for so much of their entertainment is a symptom of this, not a cause.

Along with other mums, Ferguson decided to do something about this and worked with the city council to temporarily close the road in Bristol where they lived so that it could be taken over for a day by the residents. The closure of the street was managed by the residents and was a great success. In fact, says Ferguson, it turned out there were more children living in the street than expected, different ages of children mixed and played together, and it also benefited the other residents, particularly the elderly, bringing them out as well from behind their front doors.

That seed led to the creation of Playing Out, a charity that seeks to help other communities to reclaim their streets. It is a bottom-up, grassroots, parent-led initiative and, says Ferguson, is hopefully a catalyst for longer-term change. Bristol City Council has led the way, with a proactive policy to allow other streets to do this that, including defining a “Temporary Play Street Order”.

The International Perspective

As Adrian Voce, president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities, points out, the right to play is embedded in international legislation such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and, in particular, the UN Child Friendly Cities (2013) scheme, which is managed by Unicef.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

There is now a Child Friendly City-designation, with the accreditation managed by Unicef, but Voce describes it as a lengthy administrative process. The important aspect, he feels, is “to be true to the spirit of the UN charter”.

Cities he lists as at different stages of meeting this spirit are Tirana, Leeds, Vancouver, Bogota, Pontevedra in Spain, Rotterdam and Ghent.

Among the approaches that Voce suggests are opening up under-used resources, such as schools, as public assets; providing safe routes to schools and parks; and, where there are play areas, letting children design them and ensure they work for all age groups, including teenagers.

Dinah Bornat, director of ZCD Architects, adds that it is really important where you put play spaces, with a need for car-free access and direct sight-lines to homes. If there are kids out playing, then this will draw out more kids. In London, she adds, so much focus is now on building high and on gated courtyards which become very dead, quiet spots. In many ways, she feels today’s developments are making the problems worse.

Bornat believes that most developers and local authorities are interested but “they just don’t know how to do it”. In the London Borough of Hackney, work is underway to build evidence to support child-friendly city strategies, within a “Making Hackney Child Friendly” initiative.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Hopefully this will achieve more than past strategies. In the UK, a decade ago, there was a spate of play strategies, points out Voce, largely because there were two large tranches of funding available. “But a strategy is only as good as the intention behind it… everything else is a set of platitudes really.” In reality, those strategies mostly saw a lot of money going to manufacturers of fixed play equipment – “a piece of equipment that does one thing, which is such an insult to children”.

Reasons to be Hopeful

The debate on child friendly cities came at a fringe meeting at the recent Green Party Conference in, fittingly, Bristol. That such a debate is even needed could be construed as a depressing sign of our times. Something that was part of growing up for previous generations becomes something that needs legislation, activists and policies to nurture.

Charities such as Living Streets and Sustrans are also doing important related work. And, while the bigger issues are being address, Playing Out is chipping away one street at a time while ever more UK councils are adopting street play policies or are at least piloting them. The model is also gaining interest from other countries. In the US there are now temporary street play schemes in several cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Portland.

So although there is a long way to go and much more needs to be done to retrofit playing for existing developments and embedding it in new ones, there are reasons to be hopeful.

All images courtesy of Playing Out