Last week I was tipped off about an intriguing job opportunity: a street play research officer. Which global city, you may wonder, is showing such a strong interest in this topic? Mumbai, perhaps? Nope. Rio de Janeiro? Wrong again. The answer is New York City. It’s just one sign that street play, often consigned to the black-and-white memories of baby-boomers, is enjoying something of a renaissance.
In the UK, momentum is building behind a community-based movement to reclaim streets for play. The Bristol-based group Playing Out – name-checked several times on this website – has been organising road closures for play since 2010, and dozens have now taken place across the city. In one street, the group has been running once-a-week after-school road closures for three months now, with the blessing of the local Council.
Here in London, the charity London Play has been helping hundreds of communities to organise street parties. The idea – cleverly timed for the Olympics and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – is that these events could be the catalyst for longer-term community action to bring residents together, foster community action and help make neighbourhoods more child-friendly.
Around the world, cities are witnessing a wave of playful street-based interventions. Some of these projects are part of a wider reappraisal of the way cities work: to promote walking and cycling, reduce the impact of car growth and make urban areas more liveable. One recently published guide to ‘tactical urbanism’ included play streets alongside ‘weed bombing’ and the World Park(ing) Day initiative that turns car park spaces into temporary micro-parks.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is in the Colombian capital city of Bogotá. Here former mayor Enrique Peñalosa created a vast network of public spaces, simply by closing main roads to car traffic on Sundays and holidays. These ‘ciclovias’ are now a central feature of everyday public life in the city for people of all ages.
Why is this happening? For many parents, the goal is simple: to get their children away from screens and out of doors, where they can play freely with their friends. In many urban neighbourhoods – especially where green space is in short supply - streets are the closest and most convenient communal space for play. Parents do let their children out, as long as they feel reassured that the danger from traffic is managed. (How they gain that reassurance is a topic for another time.)
And let’s not forget: despite the post-millennial stereotype of the “wired child”, children themselves support the goal of creating what one American blogger calls 'Playborhoods'. Given the choice, a clear majority would rather be outside than in.
Growing numbers of politicians and health professionals share this interest in outdoor play. One key trigger is child obesity, and the role of play in tackling it through boosting activity levels. Dr. William Dietz, a leading American public health official, has stated that “opportunities for spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children need to increase their physical activity.” One thing is for sure: urgent action is needed. As this series of maps shows, in many developed countries, levels of overweight in children have more than doubled in just twenty years.
Urbanists and policy makers are also beginning to ask questions about the emotional and social health of children. Last summer’s riots in English cities painted a grim picture of how some of urban children and young people feel about their neighbourhoods. The causes of these disturbances are complicated, and it is important to remember that even in the worst affected areas, the vast majority of young people were not involved in any way. Yet according to a pivotal Government-funded report published only yesterday, one factor is that many young people do not feel any great stake in society. This should be no surprise, given that they have so few opportunities to forge meaningful connections with the neighbourhoods in which they live.
Fifteen years ago I was one of the leaders of a national campaign to introduce continental-style ‘home zone’ street designs to the UK. Since then, perhaps a hundred or so have been built. Many are successful and popular on their own terms, and affirm the vision of people-friendly residential streets. However, hard-nosed evaluations show that full ‘home zone’ makeovers are too expensive for mainstream expansion in existing streets. The charity Sustrans took up this challenge with its 'DIY Streets' project, though the jury is still out about its impact. (New developments are another matter. Here, the marginal extra costs make them much more viable.)
The goal of reclaiming streets through ultra-low-cost, bottom-up, community-focused initiatives is realistic and achievable. It fits well with these economically depressed, culturally and socially turbulent times. It also fits with falling traffic levels, and with the future travel patterns of young people themselves, who are clearly falling out of love with the car.
In talks with urban designers and activists, I invite my audience to ask themselves what a child-friendly neighbourhood might look like. The answer, I argue, is that it looks like a liveable neighbourhood. Those worried about the health of children, and of cities, want the same thing: lively, sociable, playful streets.
What examples do you know of street reclaiming projects - large and small? And if you are interested in that street play job, you have until 9 April to apply. Good luck, and keep me posted.
Update: the American urbanist and writer Kaid Benfield has coincidentally just posted an article on The Atlantic Cities website entitled The True Cost of Unwalkable Streets. Warning: do not read this if you are of an anxious disposition.
Update 2: a video promoting play streets has just been uploaded to youtube. It was produced by the non-profit Partnership for a Healthier America, whose honorary chair is Michelle Obama. Serendipity, I guess!