Is street play coming back into fashion?

PLAYINGOUT LOGO colour

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.

Other examples include the creation each summer of miles of beachfront along an urban motorway in Paris. According to this website, there are 70 similar initiatives in North America alone.

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.

world obesity rates for girls pre 1990

world obesity rates for girls 1990-2000

World obesity map for girls after 2000

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!

14 responses to “Is street play coming back into fashion?

  1. Pingback: Ciclovía / Recreovía (Bogotá): la ciudad, a disposición de la actividad física de los ciudadanos « active urbes

  2. I hope so I used to play outside as a child

  3. A big part of re-invigorating street play is parents and children staking a claim on streets. This means walking on them, playing on them, and putting up moveable barricades there from time to time. Waiting for governments to satisfy demand for streets that’s not readily apparent is ultimately futile, in my opinion.

    Yes, my recommendation will lead to some conflict between pedestrians and cars, but I think this is the only way to reclaim streets. San Francisco’s Critical Mass bicycling movement (http://www.sfcriticalmass.org/) sometimes gets too militant for my tastes, but in general, I applaud their approach.

    Here are a couple articles of my own on this subject:

    Occupy All Streets
    Streets Are for Kids, Too

  4. As a child we played in the streets all the time, there were a lot less cars and traffic, but not being able to play where one wants is another sad thing about modern childhood.

  5. We live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Carlton North, where the sidewalks are narrow and devoid of plant life but many of the streets have generous central median strips, grassed and treed. These strips are regularly used by the residents for picnics, sunbathing, parties, garage sales and even the practice of tightrope walking. Such activity provides strong evidence that the quarter acre block, long the collective Australian suburban dream, can be replaced by something better: tight, medium-density terrace housing with small private courtyards augmented by readily accessible, communal green spaces.

    • Hi Panfilo – I have visited Carlton and seen some of the streets you refer to. I’d love to see them being used for social activities. I am going to be in and around Melbourne between 18 and 24 May or thereabouts. If you hear of any events in this period, do get in touch.

      • I’ve been waiting to see if any particular events might crop up, but no luck. If it’s nice weather though, you need not go far before stumbling upon impromptu picnics and garden parties. The Rathdowne Street village is a fantastic place for breakfast too – if you have the time, Black Ruby or Paragon do some mean poached eggs.

  6. My Dad, Rich Kaufman, used to regal us with stories of what they could do with a ball in Philadelphia in the early 40s and 50s.

  7. Street Hockey is perhaps Canada’s true national sport, but not so long ago a father actually got fined for playing hockey in the street with his kids in a Montreal suburb. The case was eventually thrown out (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/03/10/street-hockey-fine-overturned.html), but it is indicative of how far we have ceded our public places to the car….

  8. Thanks for the comments – and Mike, thanks for the links to your articles. I agree that households need to take action themselves to reclaim streets, and that if we wait for official action it will be too little, too late.
    Zvileve – did you know that the city of Kingston, Ontario has passed laws safeguarding the playing of street hockey? Local lawmakers can make a positive difference!

  9. To answer my own question: it really does seem as if street play is coming back into fashion. What other conclusion can be drawn, when it is announced that First Lady Michelle Obama is promoting them?

  10. Pingback: Traditional outdoor games: why do they matter? | Rethinking Childhood

  11. Pingback: Seattle blazes a hopscotch trail | Rethinking Childhood

  12. Pingback: Street play: can you have too much of it? | Rethinking Childhood

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