Want kids in cities to play outside? Just building playgrounds isn’t enough

Research into two cities suggests better public spaces for all could help open up our streets

Are our cities good places to grow up? The familiar complaint that children today spend their time sitting in front of a screen, instead of playing outside like previous generations, has some truth to it. Kids spend half the time playing outdoors that their parents’ generation did. Many argue it’s one of the main causes of childhood obesity, and can lead to mental health problems.

But there’s debate about where exactly children should play in cities. Should planners concentrate on building more play areas specifically for children, or on making existing public space more child friendly? Policymakers and residents themselves are often deeply divided on which approach to take.

Now new research suggests that more dedicated play spaces alone will not make cities better places for children. Rather, there are a range of interventions that could increase and improve outdoor play across the city, ranging from changes at street level, to city wide strategies. Policymakers just need help to understand what works.

Understanding play

The report, published this May and funded by the non-profit Bernard Van Leer Foundation — Apolitical’s partner on our cities coverage — compares the use of public space in two cities, Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, and Jerusalem.

Through interviewing residents in a variety of different communities across both places, the authors found that there was “no direct correlation between how many playgrounds a city had, and how likely children are to play out of doors.”

Through observational research, surveys of residents, workshops and interviews, the authors found that factors such as the safety of streets and proximity to the home were often more important than whether an area was designed for play in influencing how many children played in the space.

Planners, architects and policymakers who believe cities need to improve children’s access to urban space, for instance through making roads safer, are beginning to win the ears of decision makers in city governments.

“The aim is that they’re friendly to all ages, irrespective of whether you are a two-year-old, a 60-year-old, or a 70-year-old”

But for Sukanya Krishnamurthy, one of the report’s authors, though more cities are starting to concentrate on creating child friendly spaces, they risk making them exclusive to children of a certain age.

“You don’t want to create only child friendly spaces in one part of the city, playgrounds for example, and then create another space for the teenagers to hang out, and another space for old people to hang out,” she said. The risk is that such age specific spaces and playgrounds can quickly fail to serve the people they are intended for.

For example, the researchers found children are highly sensitive to “interlopers”. If teenagers used playgrounds, younger kids were often put off from using them, while the number of adults — parents, childminders or grandparents — can even end up outnumbering children in playgrounds.

A toolbox for a healthier city

Instead, it’s better to create inclusive space, where each age group finds a realm to behave naturally.

Interventions could be something as small as introducing “playful street furniture” to pavements, or planting small community gardens. At the “macro” end of the scale, city governments can introduce reforms to allow child-participation in policymaking, something that has been done successfully in Tirana, Albania.

“Whether you’re creating a child-friendly space or an age-friendly space, the aim is that they’re friendly to all ages, irrespective of whether you are a two-year-old, a 60-year-old, or a 70-year-old sitting in a particular public space,” said Krishnamurthy.

For Krishnamurthy, these improvements are a chance to help make city life suitable for young families. People contemplating having children shouldn’t automatically think that they need to move to the suburbs — even small interventions can make the inner-city child-friendly.

“How do you create these kind of spaces and mechanisms that support a kind of universal public space for families?” she said. “Anybody who has a voice, or who wants a voice in how public space is, should be aware that it’s possible to do.”

Looking ahead

For Krishnamurthy, the research holds lessons for every city. It’s accompanied by a toolkit, designed to guide planners and policymakers through the types of innovations they can make to urban space, from micro, i.e. within play-spaces themselves, to macro, on a city scale.

“I think some things are easier to do,” she said. “In some places you know there are definite child friendly policies in place that support the creation of these spatial innovations, but in others you don’t have the base policy to support it.”

It’s generally a good time for advocates of child-friendly cities: arguments are being heard, and cities are beginning to experiment. But many planners and policymakers are still unsure just what they can do to help get kids outside. Understanding the way children think and play, and knowing what tools are available, can only help. — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Flickr/ Hans Porochelt)

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