This is the second of a three-part series of guest posts is written by Alex Bonham, a member of Women in Urbanism, who has worked as a Porse carer and is now researching “the playful city” for her doctorate. The previous post is here.
In my previous post I looked into the state of play for kids today in New Zealand, with a particular focus on Auckland. In this post I will look into how we could facilitate more playful public spaces, and in the third I will look at what older children and teenagers need as they expand their horizons.
When kids are asked what they want in their neighbourhood, the results are consistent across age, country and culture:
- Safety and freedom of movement
- Peer gathering places
- Varied activity settings
- Safe green spaces
What they do not like:
- Dust and litter
- “Weird” people – in Auckland examples included gang members and people screaming in the streets. (I Am Auckland strategy 2012 research, Carroll et al, 2015)
As children get beyond toddlerhood they will be looking for a variety of activity settings where they can meet and play with their friends, and in cities, public spaces serve a very important role in providing them. In Freiberg, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, all very child-friendly cities, there is a huge diversity of amenities close by. They are close by because there are sufficient people in the local area to support them.
This mid-rise housing – in walking distance to the Copenhagen city centre – has play mounds out front of them. The safe cycle lane – fun, in itself – leads to a playground on the right…
… and a school on the left. Cafes and shops are around the corner.
All of the play equipment is different, allowing more opportunities for children to challenge themselves in fun new ways. The school playground is in front of the school and can be enjoyed by all the children in the area in and out of school hours, with priority given to school children at play time. This is quite common. In central Copenhagen (below) a play area in a square is shared between a primary school, high school, and the locals from infancy to old age.
Beyond the square is a beautiful park with a small lake. Behind us, across a quiet road with separated bicycle lanes, is a popular covered food market with cafes. Various visitors may come to buy food, meet a friend for a coffee, sit down, find some shade under the trees, hang out on the steps, play basketball, or scooter around it, play in the water feature, access local wifi, or take a shortcut to the park. The flat paving stones also lend themselves to pop-up events. Because the space welcomes people of all ages, there are always people looking over the space. These ‘eyes on the street,’ as Jane Jacobs put it (1961), make it safer and more appealing for everyone.
The Project for Public Spaces based in New York has a concept called the Power of Ten which means that, to function excellently, cities, destinations and places should have at least ten things going for them.
Let us compare the examples above with Myers Park in Auckland:
Myers Park was set up as a place for children to play, and Auckland Council continues to consider this a place primarily for families with – if one can take a cue from the playground design – young children. This is understandable; research suggests that investing in children’s play and wellbeing in the first three years of life will have the greatest impact over their lifetime. The only problem is that this extreme targeting approach has the adverse effect of discouraging many potential park users – including children’s carers and play gatekeepers – leaving it empty, quiet, unappealing, and unsafe. There are about 1,500 children 8 or under in the CBD. If they come with one carer each, that makes 3,000 targeted users in a population of 57,000 (year to June 2017), not including the north of 100,000 people who work in the CBD. This wider absence of patronage creates a vacuum in the park which is filled by people who have nowhere else to go.
Jane Jacobs noted in 1961 that ‘distinctly separate street neighbourhoods are nothing to aim for; they are generally characteristic of failure’. This also applies to parks. Let us consider the power of ten idea to Myers Park. There is a:
- Playground appropriate for toddlers to junior primary school children.
- Water feature (as above, in summer only)
- Shade (but far from the playground)
- Loos (often revolting)
- Lawn for lying around or sitting on.
- Seating (not much close to the playground)
- A drinking fountain
Occasionally there are festivals or events and the place comes alive, and bursting with children, but afterwards it is quiet again. If the park broadened their concept of family park to welcome the whole human whanau, then kids would benefit: because they would come more often, and be more likely to find other kids to play with when they did. We could explore this by trialling:
- Picnic tables across the park including near the playground
- Shade sail over part of the playground in summer
- A cafe overlooking the park
- A pop up toy locker, with games to rent like board games or badminton
- A barbecue area
- Planting an orchard (then having a blossom viewing festival)
- Putting in herb planters
- Taking pride in the flower beds
- Signage to other amenities
- A notice board with information on local events/ services
- Art installations, which could include: patterns in the paving, statuary, changing exhibitions
- A concert programme after work in summer.
- Consider play options for older children, e.g. plant trees that are suitable for climbing, a long slide, a flying fox (that is strong enough for grown-ups, because why can’t adults have a go?)
Adjacent features provide options and draw different demographics. People of all ages will benefit from better access to natural space with a variety of plantings that change through the year. On the one hand, density is required to facilitate a wider variety of fun, and on the other, where housing is more dense a wider variety of fun is needed. Options will lead to more people working and visiting the park providing ‘eyes’. Park maintenance and cafe staff may also become public figures who children – and others – can go to for assistance if required.
A couple of images of Domino Park in New York – something for everyone at all times of day:
As things stand, very few Auckland children under ten years old can access public spaces without supervision, so their parents, grandparents or older siblings need to take them. If those carers do not enjoy hanging around children’s play spaces they will not visit them, or at least not as often as their children would like. On the other hand, if the streets are easier to negotiate and public spaces more appealing for everyone, then chances are higher that children will spend more time out and about in their neighbourhoods: forging friendships, building their street smarts and local knowledge, and becoming prepared for the time when they can go out by themselves.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Carroll, P., Witten, K., Kearns, R., & Donovan, P. (2015). Kids in the City: Children’s Use and Experiences of Urban Neighbourhoods in Auckland, New Zealand. Journal of Urban Design, 20(4), 417-436.
Gehl, J. (1981). Life Between Buildings.
The Project for Public Spaces. https://www.pps.org/
I Am Auckland Status Report Executive Summary. (2017). https://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/plans-projects-policies-reports-bylaws/our-plans-strategies/topic-based-plans-strategies/community-social-development-plans/Documents/i-am-auckland-status-report.pdf
Tranter, P. (2006). Overcoming Social Traps: A key to creating child friendly cities. In B. Gleeson (Ed.), Creating Child Friendly Cities (pp. 121-135). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.