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What is a play street?

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

Last week Alice Ferguson, co-founder of Playing Out, shared with me a question often posed to her by an architect, which went something like -- 'what does a 'play street' look like to a developer?'

Of course, when it comes to the work of 'Playing Out' and the play streets they support, a play street doesn't neccesarily look any different to any other street, its just temporarily closed to through-traffic and there is an invitation to 'come out and play'.

A girl stands in the foreground on a rubber wobble bridge, behind are shrubs, grass, trees and a play boat. They are located between two rows of houses, where a road might be typically found.
Crouweldijk, Utrecht. A permanent play street?
On a tour of some of my favourite child- and movement-friendly environments in Utrecht, I took Alice to Crouweldijk, a street I think might provide at least one answer to her question.

Of course, re-designing our streets to be permanently movement-friendly ‘active environments' will be a long, and expensive process, and

4 steps - from re-imagining play to re-imaginging streets

A model at the centre of my thoughts is an adaptation of tactical urbanist models I've seen applied to active travel, but re-imagined for active environments. Here's how it might apply to play streets -- with a couple of my favourite examples, I'd love to hear about others.

Step 1 - Demonstration (The Big Lunch)

In the U.K, the King's coronation weekend will be accompanied by 'Big Lunch' street parties supported by a former employer of mine Eden Project Communities. Neighbours are encoraged to organise street games as part of the festivities and for one day nieghbours experience the joy of reclaiming the street to be sociable.

Demonstration might last only an hour, it might last a day, its unlikely to last more than a week. It's a 'pop-up' event, a potential one off done at low cost. These are ideally community-led, but from a professional perspective they would be relaxed, informal outreach to increase awareness of activity and to engage the public.

Step 2 - Pilot (Playing Out's Play Streets)

Playing Out began as a demonstration on one street in Bristol in 2009 when Alice and her neighbour Amy collaborated with neighbours to close their street to traffic and open it up for play. With short, regular road closures, Play streets have spread across the U.K. and typically see children cycle, scoot, skate, chalk, skip, hopscotch, kick a ball around and make up games on their doorstep.

The timeframe of a pilot stage will typically last between a month and a year (though many play streets have lived on beyond that) with a view to influencing the future of the built environment. Tactical interventions such as those promoted by Playing Out are an important step in helping to re-image our doorsteps as a place for play, not just a Prius.

At this stage you are looking to capitalise on engagement and test how activity might fit within a space. This is an excellent opportunity to gather genuine contextualised input into consultation.

Step 3 - Modification (the potential of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods)

Having lived on the borders, and within a new 'Low Traffic Neighbourhood' (LTN), the delivery of planters and bollards as quick, cheap alterations to the built infrastructure of the streets saw more people of all ages, and backgrounds cycling and walking past my house, but instances of street football and chalked games of hopscotch on the pavement started to appear, play was returning to the street.

Modification is a stage that recognises re-designing the public realm is a slow, and often expensive task. It should focus on addressing the physical and social barriers people face in using the environment for physical activity, but should continue with the 'test and learn' mindset established in steps 1 and 2.

The vandalised traffic filter on Rymers Lane in Oxford. Cars are parked on double yellow lines, bollards have been placed on the pavement to prevent cars from driving around the filter and young cyclist and walkers make use of the route.
The vandalised traffic filter on Rymers Lane in Oxford.

Unfortunately, most LTNs are implemented by traffic engineers as an engineering problem solely with the task of preventing motorised through-traffic. The materials used enable the narrative created by 'anti-LTN' lobbies of 'barriers' in the community.

What would happen if their brief focused on the wider social context of what they could enable -- such as play and physcial activity -- that's something I wrote about here.

Step 4 - Regeneration / Re-imagination (Permanent Play Streets)

Two streets spring to mind. One is Crouweldijk, Utrecht.

A map of Crouweldijk in Utrecht.

The street is one end, of a cycling corridor that runs through the Leidsche Rijn neighbourhood. Crouweldijk itself has some small bollards that suggest the enabling of special access, and two roads open to motorised traffic that run across it. Crouweldijk is also sat within a broader neighbourhood that is designed to prevent through traffic and makes it very easy for children and families from neighbouring streets to access it. You'll see parking is largely hidden in internal lots.

Maxima Park on the edge of Leidsche Rijn, Utrecht

And for those who criticise play streets that appear nearby existing parks -- I know you exist -- Crouweldijk sits on the edge of Maximapark, Utrecht's equivalent to Regents Park, London and with a number of others close-by.

Parks don't offer the same opportunities to everyone. Crouweldijk is essentially a miniture linear park, between two rows of houses and on a busy cycling route, both of which provide excellent oversight and safety -- physical and social.

The second is Nørrebroruten in Copenhagen,

There's chance you might be familiar with at least part of this street -- 'Superkilen' the linear park designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and the Superflex artists collective in a collaborative process of civic participation.

Instead of catelogue, or bespoke designer street furniture, neighbours from more than 50 different countries were asked to suggest objects they missed from their home countries, which were place in one of three zones.

This resulted in the 'Black Zone' -- an outdoor living room were neighbours gather around the Moroccan fountain, children play on the Japanese Octopus slide, play chess on Bulgarian tables, as meats are grilled on Argentinian bbqs underneath a the replica of a dentists sign within large cresent moon from Qatar.
The Black Zone, Superkilen

This resulted in the 'Black Zone' -- an outdoor living room were neighbours gather around the Moroccan fountain, children play on the Japanese Octopus slide, play chess on Bulgarian tables, as meats are grilled on Argentinian bbqs underneath a the replica of a dentists sign within large cresent moon from Qatar.

A girl on the swings looks on at two female roller skaters, also sat in the swings in front of the cycle lane, skate park and leisure centre.
The Iraqi group swings in the Red Zone

The Red Zone around the leisure centre, library and skate park invites legitimate peripheral participation, with a Thai boxing ring, Ukrainian slide and Iraqi swings. The Green Park, provides grassy knolls with more barbeques, swings and spaces for families to picnic or relax.

But really the Superkilen is just part of the Nørrebroruten, a cycling corridor that connects a series of parks including Nørrebroparken, Hørsholmparken and Brohusparken. Just as Crouweldijk acts for Leidsche Rijn, Nørrebroruten is the central route through the neighbourhood of Nørrebro. Access roads run parallel and perpendicular to the street but flats, cycling paths or both provide 'eyes on the street' that create a spine to these active neighbourhoods.

This 4 step process can be used in a bottom-up way by community groups or advocates to build momentum and make the case for the value of, and investment in, movement-friendly or in this case play-friendly environments.

But it should also be used by those planning large infrastructure investments -- developers claiming to be creating family-friendly neighbourhoods. Feasibility studies need to go beyond the ‘technical’, a pre-activation model of action research, using these stages can help avoid ‘white elephants’ unused by the communities we target.

If you'd like to discuss this four-step approach or anything else from the website do get in touch. You can find more information about it here on an early draft of my framework.


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