Sep 19, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

SLR Consulting calls for a more playful public realm

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PlayBoard NI recently hosted a conference called ‘Playing Out – How can the public realm support better outcomes for children’s holistic development’. SLR Consulting’s Paul McTernan, who leads the company’s masterplanning and regeneration team, was one of those speakers who set out the challenge to UK urban planners to create a more playful public realm. Here, he explains more.


Mourning the days of lost childhood, those of us of a certain age tend to regale a freedom we had as children to roam our neighbourhoods and play in every street, lane, alleyway, hedgerow and available open space. All this is now unfortunately consigned to black and white imagery of mucky kids, in car-free streets with plasters on their knees; but in such places and under such circumstances we were allowed to play creatively, by our own rules, by our own invention and at our own risk.

How the world and society has changed. Traffic and urbanisation has taken the street away, the fear of injury and germs has got ridiculously out of proportion, and the spectre of abduction has made it the norm to have our kids make appointments to play together, under our supervision of course, somewhere safe, manicured and thoroughly de-risked. Our new urban neighbourhoods tend to deliver stillborn unconnected open spaces with a few rickety items of play equipment where the opportunity to engage in creative and natural play is heavily curtailed. As for those civic squares and urban streets that we can have access to, there’s not much fun there either. The design in too many cases is more for the adult coffee drinker than the curiosity of a child’s mind. Why don’t we design in more playfulness and allow for the continuous animation of our public realm?

Think of the ‘Peak Experience’ on Market Street in San Francisco where the hills of the city have been recreated in fuchsia coloured mini mounds, where kids can conquer the peaks and learn about the geology that forged the very nature of their city. Think of the Bachle of Freiburg – the small open gutters that run through the old town where the children race their boats, the teenagers chill their drinks and the tourists dip their feet. Think of the fabulous Mi Casa, Your Casa in Atlanta where huge public spaces were transformed into play spaces with hammocks and sculptures. Think of the remarkable Le Miroir d’Eau in Bordeaux: 2700m² of a thin layer of water – in other words a wonderful big puddle. All of these show what a playful public realm can look like.

Adrian Voce’s book ‘Policy for Play: Responding to children’s forgotten right’ published in 2015 is a call for government to put the child’s right to play, as enshrined by Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), to the fore of public policy. Because play is very important to children, but much less so to the adults who control their environments, it is widely overlooked within planning and placemaking policy.

It is of course a multi-faceted concept, as play is a critical part of the health agenda to keep children active and off the couch, and counter the trends towards increasing obesity in early life. Play is also central to education and enduring mental health. The National Trust’s ‘nature deficit disorder’ campaign to address the growing numbers of children that never experience nature within their childhood development is a remarkable commentary on our times.

There are at least five things we need to do:

  • Create policy that aligns common effort
  • Devise play strategies that target structured interventions
  • Get the planning system to work better for us
  • Construct partnerships that deliver
  • Nurture champions

Alignment is about a recognition that, in the words of Voce ‘the interests of children and the interests of communities are not opposed but closely aligned. Good parks, good neighbourhoods, good town centres are all the better when the needs and desires of children and young people are listened to and acknowledged’.

The DEMOS report ‘Seen & Heard' identifies four components. Place-shaping is about the overall place offer to children and young people the full integration of the routes to school, the neighbourhood and the town centre. Collaboration is the case for a multi-agency coordinated effort. We will see this work in the delivery of local area agreements and play strategies, in collaborative brief writing for landscape designers and transport planners and for setting the pace for increasing standards in private development projects. Co-production is about making places with an engaged community of young people and children where their voice will shape the level of provision. Leadership is about politics, the role of design professionals and local champions to drive the agenda.

If we want to really shape the development of better planning policy, then a new generation of play strategies will need to influence how we draft our statutory development plans. This is where good policy needs to be written and embedded within the planning system. We need a well-structured evidence base in each local authority area and the will to implement new policies that put play central to open space planning and neighbourhood regeneration.

Community planning is one platform for policy alignment amongst the key partners but the big challenge is to get this transferred into the planning system so that play becomes as essential integrated component of place development and can be strategically resourced through the planning system.

If we can have a percentage for art; then why not a percentage for play? Imagine how, with a new policy framework in place, we could then energise the place-shaping agendas of our neighbourhoods with some joined-up thinking on routes to school, green infrastructure design, urban extensions and neighbourhood regeneration.

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