Antwerp’s Play Space Web: smart, child-friendly neighbourhood planning in action

When it comes to making Antwerp more playful and child-friendly, Wim Seghers is the man with a plan. His role is to develop the city’s playgrounds. But his award-winning approach is to start not with the play space, but with the neighbourhood beyond, making full use of Antwerp’s world-class data in the process.

Wim – my host for the first leg of my European study tour of child-friendly urban planning – explained to me last week how his city’s ‘play space web’ (‘speelweefselplan’ in Dutch) approach works.

It starts with the 60 or so neighbourhoods that Antwerp’s 500,000+ inhabitants live in. These neighbourhoods are well-defined and well-understood by residents, officials and politicians alike. For children in particular, the neighbourhood is much more concrete than the city as a whole (as I saw in my conversation with a group of 11-year-olds in Kleine Muze school, located in a diverse, inner city area of the city).

Whiteboard showing children's views about their Antwerp neighbourhood

Children’s views about their Antwerp neighbourhood

Hence these neighbourhoods are also at the heart of city planning and service delivery, supported by a vast, user-friendly open databank and a skilled data analysis team.

The importance of this democratic municipal resource cannot be overstated: in Wim’s own words, it was a game-changer for the city’s approach. It means they can start by drawing up a kind of masterplan for the neighbourhood, including the parks, playgrounds, public spaces, sports facilities and schools, and also the cafés, shopping and other key features.

Play space web for one Antwerp neighbourhood

Play space web for one Antwerp neighbourhood

The project team then familiarise themselves with the area, and gather intelligence about it from sources including the police and civil enforcement. They also work with colleagues in the city’s public participation team to find out local views and concerns, using web-based, proactive participation methods. While these are not restricted to young people, the materials tend to focus on children aged 6 – 14 (often through sessions in schools). The reason is that – to quote participation officer Roel Camps – “if an 8-year-old child understands it, then almost everyone will”.

The aim is to get a minimum of 100 public responses for each project. It’s an impressive piece of the jigsaw: the youth service has completed over 100 participation projects in the last 5 years.

All this information leads to what Wim calls a ‘programme of demands’ for the neighbourhood: broad proposals covering both the public spaces and the routes that connect them. These proposals are refined through further participation, before being built out.

The whole play space web process can take a year or more. The fact that it has reached around a dozen of the city’s neighbourhoods proves its robustness. One strength is that it can be packaged and defined as a clear task, with a budget.

So what difference has it made? Data from the city’s GIS databank shows that access to play space has improved measurably over time. Wim also feels that the projects themselves are getting better with practice. He cites the example of one neighbourhood where football-playing children were constantly being moved on by the authorities. The process picked this up, with the result that football facilities were improved by converting part of a car park into a ball court.

Ball court in Antwerp social housing area

Ball court in Antwerp social housing area

It is not plain sailing. One of the biggest challenges is lack of space, especially in the older, more central parts of Antwerp that are home to around half the population. Space shortages are only going to become more acute in a city whose numbers are growing and becoming younger.

This shortage of space explains another of Antwerp’s child-friendly policies: street reclaiming. It was one of the first cities to take forward play streets back in the 1990s. There are now well over 100 across the city.

More recently, the city has been developing new models, including school streets (a model that has just been introduced to London by Hackney Council) – and garden streets. A ‘future streets’ initiative has been testing new models.

Antwerp school street

Antwerp school street

At a political level, the challenge is of competing priorities. A helpful trend has been a growing interest in public space across the Flanders region. One expression of this was “Park Spoor Noord”: a major new park completed in 2008 after a ten-year gestation, in a poor area of Antwerp that had very little green space.

Park Spoor Noord, Antwerp

Park Spoor Noord, Antwerp

This public space focus has led some municipalities to try to tame the impact of the car. But in Antwerp this clashes with the view of the current political coalition. Despite a poor record on congestion and air pollution, the coalition’s view is that walking, cycling, public transport and private car use should all be supported.

Measures that restrict cars, such as circulation planning, face political resistance, even at the neighbourhood level, let alone citywide. Indeed the coalition’s adoption of increased norms for parking flies in the face of urban planning orthodoxy. It is a big contrast to nearby Ghent (of which more in a future post).

All of which shows how unavoidably political this topic is. Nabilla Ait Daoud – the city’s Alderman for Youth – admitted that mobility was an obstacle to making the city more child-friendly, while studiously keeping to the party line on transport policy. Even so, she proudly told me how the play space web project had been awarded a Flemish traffic safety prize in 2016. She also sees the work as a key tool in persuading families to put down roots in the city, rather than moving to surrounding areas (taking their energies and their taxes with them).

Another challenge is that the play space web process is highly dependent upon Wim and his personal commitment, energy and enthusiasm. Of course, as a collaborative approach, it is bolstered by the support of colleagues in urban planning, data analysis, participation, civil enforcement, sports and mobility. And it helps that these teams are mostly in the same overarching department: City Development. But Wim was honest enough to recognise that the approach is not yet part of the mainstream in the city administration.

Ter Heydelaan playground: Wim on a zip wire

Ter Heydelaan playground: Wim checks the results of his efforts!

What does the future hold for Antwerp’s good work? Drastic change is unlikely, for small-p political reasons. Belgium has some of the highest levels of public taxation in Europe and a powerful public sector, often working closely with social/not-for-profit agencies. Budgets are well-protected. For example, the head of Antwerp’s parks maintenance team stated – in a downbeat tone – that she has had to make 10% cuts over a 12-year period. In England, where some municipalities are preparing to reduce their parks budgets to zero, officials would be weeping with joy at such a prospect.

That said, with municipal elections this October, change could be in the air. Whatever the poll results, Wim, his colleagues and his political leadership are likely to agree on one thing: with a growing population and an ever more youthful age profile, Antwerp’s children will continue to be a focus for urban planning in the city.

6 responses to “Antwerp’s Play Space Web: smart, child-friendly neighbourhood planning in action

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