Street play: I’m an optimist, not an idealist

I was dismayed when Twitter followers recently suggested that I was either a neglectful mother or hopelessly nostalgic in thinking children might still play on the pavements of streets with low traffic levels. These comments were, for me, further evidence that society is too comfortable with the car controlling the street: so comfortable that it has become impossible to imagine anything else.

I acknowledge that it’s not just traffic that has driven adults and children off the doorstep and into more insular ways of living over the last 30-50 years. Changes in working patterns, particularly for women; the rise of suburbanisation and high-rise living in the 1960s; the boom in screen-related activities for children; and a growing culture of fear, or stranger danger, among parents have all played their part. But study after study have shown that the greatest threat to safety and life on streets is traffic.

What’s more, the power that the automobile exerts isn’t purely a material fear of accidents. As I outlined in a previous post, a whole range of cultural and material developments also persuade us that cars rule. Everything from education campaigns, reportage of accidents, lollypop ladies, kerbs, and children’s TV  all cajole us into thinking that streets are unsafe and best for moving through as quickly as possible.

But I’m convinced this mindset can be changed. If we tore streets apart, then surely we can fix them. And I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this. I have been interested in a growing number of experiments and innovations that show an interest in re-imagining what streets are for. Take for example the Paris Plage, where the banks of the Seine are turned into a beach during August, or the Bristol Waterslide that transforms a steep street into a giant waterside during the summer; or PARK(ing) day when people pile money into parking machines to take over and reinterpret parking slots for a day. These are not cases of replicating life in the 1950s, but trying to re-imagine or re-create spaces that demonstrate an alternative.

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Paris Plage (Source: Zoey Hihberger 2014)

This was why I became interested in ‘play streets’ and decided to study this UK initiative for a MSc dissertation last summer. This concept, conceived by two parents in Bristol, encourages residents to apply to their local council to close a street to through-traffic for a few hours every so often. Residents manage the closures themselves and children come up with the games.

I was fascinated by how quickly the idea spread: from one street in Bristol in 2009 to more than 250 streets nationwide playing out regularly today, including around 40 in Hackney. Was this evidence that communities were up for change and for bringing life out onto the street? The play streets I visited (and ran on my street) were positive experiences: adults enjoyed the opportunity to talk with neighbours and children delighted in reclaiming a space that was usually off limits. If any residents had concerns about the scheme, organisers told me that these soon evaporated once the play streets were up and running. I also became convinced that street play was more engaging and more imaginative than play in the playground.

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Our ‘play street’ in 2015

Yet while I think play streets are a compelling demonstration or performance of an alternative, I’m unconvinced of their potential for long-term change alone. It’s a shame that residents have to go to such administrative lengths, erect ‘Road Closed’ signs and wear high-vis vests to enable something that could be everyday and normal. I am also concerned that the initiative reinforces today’s culture of containment in parenting by removing all risks and providing yet another supervised space for play.

This is why I’m also interested in how informal changes can influence long-term behaviours: how small, everyday acts such as leaving a front door open or sitting on the doorstep while children play change attitudes about what can happen in streets.

I’ll admit I haven’t done a great deal of this with my children in the past. Even on our relatively low-traffic street, I have been too wary of supervising three small children on my own. But other children do occasionally play on the pavement of my street. Now my youngest are almost four, I’m hoping they will spend more time scooting and pottering with neighbours on the pavement.

And I’d like to see this opportunity extended to more streets. There are a number of ways of achieving this. Most of all this comes down to communities taking up the challenge, of course, and having the interest and energy to bring life onto the street.

But councils can trigger shifts in mindset and behaviour by enabling low-speed, low-traffic environments. I welcome the roll out of 20mph speed limits and believe this could go even further/slower on residential streets. A great deal could also be achieved through street design. Back in the 1990s, councils redesigned around 100 UK streets under the Home Zones project so that roads and pavements became shared, social spaces. Yet, despite research demonstrating the scheme made significant impacts, the scheme was withdrawn in 2007 largely as a result of the high costs involved.

This is one of the reasons I support a trial of road filters across streets here in London Fields, Hackney (though encouraging a reduction in traffic levels and future-proofing for changes in commuting patterns, aka cycling, are reason enough for me). It might not work: the scheme might be too heavy-handed; it might make streets too quiet and less safe as some fear; it might displace too much traffic onto neighbouring streets (in which case it would need to be changed/dismantled).

But if it did work, if traffic chaos didn’t emerge and overall traffic levels did fall (as research suggests they would), could low traffic levels turn streets into community space again? I appreciate that a few road filters will not build a culture of street play overnight (so this should not be a measure of a trial’s impact). But I’m an optimist and would rather take this opportunity to test an alternative (and analyse and communicate what happens) than stick with the street-fearing status quo.

(Main photo courtesy of Hackney Council)

One thought on “Street play: I’m an optimist, not an idealist”

  1. We’ve had an enthusiastic response in honor oak park to the possibility of trailing play streets. Quite a few residents are keen to explore the idea. I’d certainly never considered it before but what has been great to see is the sense of community the idea brings about.

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