Could street play hold the key to creating more sustainable, livable cities?

This week marked a milestone in the UK street play movement, with the publication of three new reports.

The first is an evaluation report by Bristol University [pdf link], published by Play England, which looked mainly at the health outcomes for children. The second is a report [pdf link] from Playing Out, the Bristol-based national hub for street play, of a survey of people directly involved in street play sessions. The third, written by me [pdf link] and also published by Play England, explores the issues around taking street play initiatives forward in disadvantaged areas.

This blog post from Playing Out gives a helpful overview of the three reports (as well as a flavour of the high level of press interest).

Boy lying on skateboard in street with child cyclist behind

All three reports focus on the model of regular, resident-led, temporary road closures in residential streets. Taken together, they show that street play can have a profound and lasting impact on both children and the wider community. The model is also low-cost, sustainable and widely applicable (though there are challenges in highly disadvantaged areas and/or housing estates with non-traditional road layouts).

Hence it is hard to argue with the statement from Playing Out that the model is “any policy-maker’s dream come true” and that there is an urgent need for both national and local government to “provide the policy and practical support needed to make it easy for residents anywhere to initiate and sustain it.”

It is telling that one of the areas where the model has been most successful – the London Borough of Hackney, where the current total is round about 50 streets – is also an area that has become dramatically less car-dominated in recent years. Statistics from the 2001 and 2011 censuses show:

  • The proportion of trips made by car halved
  • The number of walking commuters doubled
  • The proportion of people with access to a car fell by over 20%
  • More residents cycle to work than any London borough, while more residents cycle (15.4%) than drive (12.8%).
Hackney travel transport changes 2001 2011

Hackney travel mode changes 2001-11

In truth, these changes are happening all over London [pdf link], though at a slower rate than in Hackney. Across my home city – and in many other cities around the world, including Calgary, Lyon and Melbourne [scroll down] – cars are vanishing from neighbourhoods.

This poses the question: what might residential streets become, once they are no longer the sole preserve of the car? What Hackney shows is that many could become places for play and community life.

There is little doubt that the dominance of the car is the biggest barrier to making cities more sustainable and livable. But equally, many urban residents need access to cars, and are hostile to changes that may make their lives more difficult. Tackling car dependence is perhaps the definitive wicked issue for urban policy makers.

This is where play streets come in. They show ordinary people how their lives would be improved if their neighbourhoods were less car-dominated, building support for policies that make cities more sustainable and liveable for everyone. They help people join the dots between big, complex topics like pollution, transport planning and community cohesion on the one hand, and everyday life in residential streets on the other. And they help to create virtuous circles that build sustainable lifestyles and attitudes across the generations and over the decades to come.

This is not just speculation: revealing personal accounts from street play advocates show the process in action. To take a few quotes from the Playing Out survey:

  • “I feel more empowered to make positive change in my community and feel l can positively impact the street where I live. I feel a greater sense of ownership of my street. I feel more confident at giving my daughter independence.”
  • “I feel inspired that there are things that can be done to help not just kids play outside but everyone to experience the city without fear of traffic.”

Let’s be clear: play streets are not a silver bullet for making cities more child-friendly. Much more is needed: more investment in walking, cycling and public transport, smarter ways to tame traffic in residential streets, more attractive, better-managed parks and green spaces (and better access to them), and better-designed housing estates and new towns. (My Churchill Fellowship will explore how different cities have pursued these goals.)

That said, I still believe that resident-led street play is the most promising child-friendly idea to have emerged in the last 20 years. The reports published on Monday prove the difference play streets make to children, families and communities.  They also show the power of a vision of less car-dominated, more child-friendly neighbourhoods.

5 responses to “Could street play hold the key to creating more sustainable, livable cities?

  1. Creio que essas ações devem acontecer em toda parte das cidades, mesmo nos bairros nobres, onde as crianças vivem enfurnadas em casa, jogando os malditos joguinhos!!

  2. I’m so thrilled to read about all of this street play. This summer I launched a summer job program called Play Captains with the goals of increasing play on the “play streets”, where the free summer meals are provided (in Philadelphia, PA).

    There are nearly 900 designated Play Streets in Philadelphia, which are part of the Free Summer Meal Program, overseen by Parks & Recreation and serve as a safe place for children to receive two free meals a day during the summer.
    • The Play Streets are closed off to cars between 10am-4pm.
    • A resident on the block applies to be a Play Street Supervisor and 70% of the block needs to sign on their approval for the Play Street.
    • Not all the Play Streets as ’playful’ as they could be.

    Coined after the Block Captain and Jr. Block Captain roles, Play Captains will be a summer job for teens who will be trained and supported to create meaningful, age-appropriate play experiences during the summer. In 2017, we are piloting on 2 Play Streets in Kensington, North Philadelphia and 3 Play Streets in Mantua, West Philadelphia between July 28th and August 18th. A total of 14 teens ages 14-18 participated in 20 hours of training prior to being hired as a Play Captain. They continue to receive at least three hours of professional development each week.

    The Program Goals are to:
    • Create a meaningful summer job for teens;
    • Create leadership opportunities for teens;
    • Empower teens to be change agents in North & West Philadelphia by training them to use facilitation, leadership and play as a civic engagement strategy.
    • Increase utilization of the Play Streets; and
    • Work across City agencies and youth-serving systems to leverage resources, meet common goals and to support Play Captains.

    I’d love to chat more; you can find me at
    Thank you, Rebecca

    • Hi Rebecca and sorry for the slow reply. I was in Philly in July – what a shame we didn’t connect! I did hear about the city’s play streets programs. Sounds like a more structured model than the one I describe here – but it’s good to see how different models work in different contexts. I’m interested to hear about your Play Captains program. Here in the UK playwork is the discipline that aims to support children’s free play. There is some interest taking ideas from the UK playwork sector over to the US – one example is the play:ground NYC program on Governor’s Island, and there are others. A good starting point for this is the website of Pop Up Adventure Play (google is your friend). If I’m ever heading to the city again I’ll try to get in touch – and in the meantime, I hope the program went well.

  3. Pingback: Street play the key? | Old School Garden

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