This is a guest post written by Ella Kay.

I’ve happened across a few streets recently in Berlin that seem to be effortlessly filled with kids playing around and folks hanging out. These vibrant blocks (not longer than a few hundred metres) seem to appear out of nowhere – sporadically and without much warning. Notably, there is no thoroughfare for vehicles during these spontaneous street gatherings, although they do seem to be cordoned off (even if that’s just with some colourful bunting and a few plastic barriers strategically placed between two sides of a street).

Rollerblading on Böckhstraße
Skipping on Böckhstraße
Street chess

In amongst the skipping ropes, chalk, rollerblading courses and a giant chessboard I started to look for clues about how to initiate such a nice affair. I found some quite small but nonetheless specific signage:

Sundays and Public Holidays 1 – 7 pm, no thoroughfare

So how does a street get this signage and become such a location? It looks like the concept of a ‘Spielstraße’ (play street) is not new in Germany though it has had a dotted history. Spielstraßen had their genesis following WWI when they were positioned to provide space for children where austerity measures had led to the closure of public playgrounds. However over the 100 years since then the concept has ranged from being effectively revoked to being resurrected in pseudo forms throughout both West and East Germany following WWII. The term has had impetus in the 2000s as part of a broader discourse about shared spaces and the the Spielstraßen are now supported by a regulatory framework that places mandate at the level of local government.

Those regulations are surprisingly simple and go against the stereotype of German bureaucracy, as set out here by the Pankow District:

  • Only side streets can be used as Spielstraßen.
  • A survey of residents must be conducted that shows that a majority of residents living on the direct corridor proposed support the cause.
  • Once this is demonstrated the district office can be contacted for further arrangements including clarification of where barriers can be kept between Spielstraßen times.
  • The Traffic Authority will carry out the signage arrangements once requirements are met, and will install sign #250 (prohibition of vehicles) and sign #1010-10 (children playing) with a supplementary sign to stipulate the time period.
  • During the Spielstraßen time, residents onsite are responsible for managing the corridor (including delivery access, disability access, etc.)

In their current reincarnation, Spielstraßen tend to exist for a fixed timeframe on a regular ongoing basis (i.e. set hours on a regular day weekly or monthly). From what I can see cars parked in the Spielstraße are not proactively removed for the set timeframes, but I imagine that it might not be so easy to leave or arrive while the Spielstraße is in action.

The application for Spielstraßen is coordinated in Berlin by an initiative – the Bündnis Temporäre Spielstraßen (Alliance of Temporary Play Streets), which was founded in March 2019 by a group of people who believe that the concept is ‘an important stimulus for a city worth living in’. The alliance invites residents in the first instance to take action and supports locally-led Spielstraßen by providing a critical link between residents and district councils.

Spielstraßen seem to be a low cost, simple instruments to use streets functionally as a habitat rather than as a core means of movement. It would also be quite possible to try out a Spielstraße and discontinue use if it was not suitable for an identified area. It is also great to see a regulatory framework that provides an opportunity for residents to lead these types of initiatives in their own neighbourhoods rather than requiring onerous or costly support from local governments. Although I am yet to work out the expected lifespan of a ‘Spielstraße’ and wonder if the reliance on local initiation and ongoing management ever means that enthusiasm for administrating the Spielstraße eventually dwindles.

In any case, I can imagine that the possibility of Spielstraßen was a welcome pathway with the advent of the Covid-19 last year. These are the existing locations of active Spielstraßen in Berlin:

Spielstraßen in Berlin (Source: Bündnis Temporäre SpielStraßen, )

It looks like these types of interventions have had quite a bit of uptake in London (e.g. Hackney Play Streets), I wonder what would be needed to transplant the concept to Aotearoa.

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  1. Interesting, thanks Ella. It’s notable from the pictures that this is a very urban residential neighbourhood – even though it is a side street, and it obviously lends itself well to the Spielstraßen concept. Looks like residential housing right down to first floor level – no offices? and a smattering of retail at ground level. Or perhaps more vacant retail outlets behind the inevitable Berlin graffiti.

    The question is, do we have comparable areas in Aotearoa? Would this work at all in a typical suburban residential street, lined with garages and numerous driveways? Possibly not. Do we have areas on side streets that are urban enough and yet also mainly residential? Would it work in Hobsonville, our most urban suburb? Or is it better aimed at CBD areas that have become urban over the years? Where I live in Wellington, our street is now about 90% residential, but it is still zoned as Central, and is used as a traffic rat-run. I love the idea of being able to stop the traffic each Sunday. But are there the children to come out and play? Hmmm.

    1. Maybe a play street could work slightly differently here. We might not have the numbers of children on the immediate block that they do in Berlin, but if a play street was more of a destination, like a playground is, people might walk to it to take part. Link it in with placemaking activities, ways of exploring your neighbourhood by foot, etc…

    2. It is an interesting comment, thanks. One of the streets pictured has a school right on the block and is open on Wednesdays from 2 – 6pm so would easily capture a post-school opportunity. Maybe something more deliberate or targeted towards where kids are could be appropriate in the Aotearoa context?

      Also as an FYI the blocks I’ve seen here are predominantly residential with a few small shops and cafes (no commercial). But much denser residential, of course.

    3. I would prefer that they break residential streets into two no exit streets and put a mini park on the road space at the break point. Bring in a nice mature tree, hang a swing, and make the speed limit 30. Then kids should be able to play or walk around at all times. I just can’t understand why they don’t do this, everyone wants to live on a quiet cul-de-sac don’t they?

      1. Yes that could be used to stop the rats running, Then maybe they could be opened up for the benefit of the denser areas as play zones.

    4. It is hard to judge currently, since even the smallest residential streets are operated the same way as your typical 50 km/h arterial. People know this and simply don’t let their kids out. I have no idea of how many kids live on my street.

  2. Our street in Ellerslie is like this – albeit without having to block off the street. 60 townhouses on a cul-de-sac a busy road at one end and a reserve linking to another cul-de-sac at the other. Trees down the middle of the street slow what traffic there is and kids to play on the street.
    I didn’t fully appreciate all this until I had my own child and now can’t understand why some people are pushing back against a similar setup.
    If the opposite to innovating streets happened on our street (i.e. the paper road through our reserve was paved, and traffic allowed through) the neighbourhood would revolt!

    1. I was surprised by the reasonably ‘lax’ rules by German standards. It’s great to see enabling policy but it does mean that the initiatives rely very heavily on the efforts of everyday folks.

  3. In NZ transport law vehicles (and realistically mostly motor vehicles) rule.

    So to answer your question the thing that would be needed to transplant the idea here would be a pedestrian mall put in place through the very serious process under the Local Government Act 2002 called a special consultative procedure. Which requires an official decision to adopt the consultation materials and a separate summary document of them; public notice in news papers; a one month public consultation; followed by public hearings if anyone asks for one; an official decision to declare the pedestrian mall; then a further month of waiting to see if anyone will appeal the decision to the environment court and paying for a court case if anyone does. It is not an easy or cheap process so councils or AT in Auckland don’t seem to have the political will and staff energy to do this very often.

    And then if you did it here and wanted NZ kids to come out and “play” in it (if they are like mine) you would be best to install free wifi and a bunch of charging stations for their devices.

    1. I find your last line offensive. Adults need to take responsibility for making the urban environment safe for the young ones, whatever it takes, and stop blaming children for adapting to what we’ve provided.

      1. Thanks Derek, it was a flippant throw away comment mostly poking fun at my kids and by extension my parenting skills but your response gives me the chance to quote Stephen Fry (and who wouldn’t enjoy doing that):
        “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

        Now I’m sure we all feel a bit better because we’ve had a little bit of Stephen Fry in our day.

        1. You gave “reasons” (which were that adults can’t sort their shit out) for not providing a safe environment for children to play physically and then criticised the children for not playing physically.

          Poor Stephen Fry.

      2. In my experience, kids in the public realm with cellphones use them a) to meet up with each other (increasingly using free PT on weekends) and b) film each other doing cool skateboard tricks and such.

        In other words, kids – and their media – adapt to the environment they’re given. More freedom to play means more freedom to play.

    2. Yeah, I think motor vehicles rule in law, and as you say in the unwillingness of AT and Council to use the tools they have. Often it’s because their lawyers misinterpret the law, too. Well before you get to the position of needing to consider the “special consultative procedures”, there’s the question of whether consultation is even required. And that depends on whether it is “Significant,” and this has been widely misinterpreted.

      A proposal like creating a play street poses the need to decide between two options.

      The option of doing it can’t really be said to be significant as it doesn’t negatively affect wellbeing, and there are no suprises – it’s in line with the goals of the consulted upon plans for the city. it improves safety, reduces travel demand (as people don’t have to travel elsewhere to play), gives children the chance for physical play and independent mobility in their street which is critical for their development, improves social connection and liveability, therefore making a compact city lifestyle more possible, which in turn enhances our urban form development options.

      The option of NOT doing it is clearly ‘significant’ because there would be a “likely impact on, and likely consequences for the current and future social, economic, environmental, or cultural well-being of the district or region”.

      Yet the lawyers treat doing the proposal as significant, and not doing the proposal as not significant. That’s simply incorrect.

      So it is not the LGA that is putting this level of onus on AT and preventing us from having nice things. It’s the lawyers in AT and Council who are misinterpreting it, and who seem to see changes to drivers’ ability as significant but things that affect children and future generations as not significant.

      None of the special consultative procedure that you listed is actually onerous, except for if someone appeals the decision and it ends up in court. And clearly, given the crises we’re in, it’s AT and Council’s responsibility to allow these things to be tested and resolved in court. Or if not resolved, to be able to show government why legislative change is needed.

      That’s how the process works, but instead of having lawyers using their skills to further the goals of the city, we seem to have had lawyers advising them instead how to avoid going to court. That’s not what they’ve been tasked with doing.

      1. If the idea is to ban vehicle movements then I think it does need a pedestrian mall and there is no option about whether to use the special consultative procedure – significance policy doesn’t come into it. BUT I guess you could use the shared zone power rather than a pedestrian mall power. In a shared zone the pedestrian have right of way over the motor vehicle but it doesn’t actually prohibit the vehicle from driving on the street. They probably wont work well on a part time basis on an ordinary residential streets unless AT was prepared to empower he local residents to clutter the street with temporary impediments (toys, chairs, climbing frames etc) to reinforce the message that during this time period the play street shared zone is operating. AT would need to trust some local residents to get the stuff put out and taken away at the right times and if LTNs have shown us anything recently they would need confidence that the community supported the idea.
        But I wonder how much this concept is really needed here. Auckland has a lot of local parks where kids can play – so do they need to be playing the street when there are better permanent options nearby. Do we want to confuse the younger kids with a mixed message of “the road is dangerous you need to watch vehicles” and “it is time to play on the street and ignore vehicles”.

        I’m lucky enough to live in a cul da sac so my kids (when younger) would happily play in the street and cover it in chalk drawings but they would often choose to walk to a park to get more green space. And when I was a small town kid in we would play in the park or cemetery except when using the road to play tennis or set up jumps for our BMXs.

        1. Thanks, I wonder what work the sector is doing to make this easier.

          One way I’ve been wondering about is whether AT or Council or any other body are doing anything about cycling. Specifically, to get it acknowledged that cycling is being effectively banned from many streets due to the incremental increases in traffic volumes and in the deficiencies of the network design.

          Banning cycling needs to be taken more seriously than banning vehicle movements, of course, because getting people out of cars and onto their bikes is what the GPS calls for. So if banning vehicle movements enables previously banned cycling movements, is it a matter of interpretation whether it needs consultation?

          Some schools have banned cycling on local streets. And parents would probably be found to be negligent in a court of law for allowing children to cycle on many of our streets, so children are effectively banned from cycling in many places.

          Is there a body of work, do you know, to address any differences in the law or in the RCA and Councils’ interpretation of the differences between these types of ‘banning’?

  4. Reizend!, I lived in Dortmund for a good many years, even back then, in that industrial city, there were many similar streets that focused on safe spaces for children.

  5. This is the exact opposite of where I live. Here some idiot in a car got into the school playground and drove around ripping up the grass. I guess that made it a fahrtplatz.

  6. Guess New Zealand is so much less residentially dense here. Makes it hard to do, it could’ve been half the problem with the Onehunga trial

      1. People have alluded to this previously, but Panuku/AT/AC need to approach this differently.

        Advertise an LTN camp and open it up to boards. Agree on purpose, timeline, funding. Only thosee who get support from their constituents first apply and from those they choose who to trial.

        Lets get the ball rolling with communities who actually want some skin in the game.

    1. While these examples from Berlin are in residentially dense neighbourhoods, such streets also happen in other localities in Germany that are not dense – I have seen them in new single-dwelling subdivisions.

  7. Demand for, or value of, managed access will be the key issue. Historical Play Streets (UK had them, too) were a response to lack of alternative activity space. In UK, I don’t think they were supported by active management, so self-enforcement would become poor and therefore not really safe.

    It would be good to identify mechanisms for change to be consulted and Resolved through simple LGA principles to allow good ideas to happen. One opportunity would be to build on Innovating Streets to create after-school safe play spaces, at least from ‘drive up to park and collect’ time to ‘commuters come home’ time. The key to success is that people can see the value – the protected space does need to be used by the community. A few real successes can help to enable repetition in the places that have a similar opportunity.

    As for the legal position – it’s easy until some lawyer’s driving trip is inconvenienced and a desire for notoriety in setting case law precedent spoils everything.

  8. When I was a kid we lived in Forest Hill, the streets around my parents house, Longwood Place, Kennedy Ave were always filled with kids on bikes and running around, these streets are still pretty quiet today, but no kids outside. People forget that children have transitioned from being outdoors oriented when they play to sitting inside using tablets and gaming consoles. I used to bus everyday to school in Albany, when I went to secondary school I used to ride my bike, when my parents moved to Milford , I continued riding my bike to Westlake.

    I think a lot of the blame for children not being active and out on the streets playing is technology and fearful parents who are afraid there children will get hurt.

    Roads are safer today, vehicles are safer today, the road toll today is significantly lower than what it was 30 years ago, despite the population being higher with far more vehicles on those roads.

    Activists are blaming the car, the sheep follow along and nobody bothers looking at the statistics.

    1. Our tolerance for risk and death has gone down massively over the years as a society which is good. Car safety has increased a lot and the deaths are lower as a result. What has not improved at nearly the same rate is pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Considering the way lower mode share and way less VKT for cyclists they are hugely over represented in death statistics. Which is what people want to improve on. Vehicle safety and road safety has not improved pedestrian and cyclists safety hardly at all.
      Risk and death have been decreased across most areas of society but cycling and walking have not kept apace and therefore in the minds of people are really dangerous.
      The statistics are not on your side.

      This video is a fairly good one.

      1. Sorry buddy but statistics are on my side, deaths have been trending down since 1990. In 1990 105 pedestrians were killed, in 2019 it had dropped to 29. The trend is also true for cyclists, showing a downward trend from 27 deaths in 1990 to 13 deaths in 2019, there was a blip in 2017 when 18 people died.

        Statistics hey!

        In 1990 our population was 3.3m, today it’s 5.1m, 1.8m more. A massive increase in population and a continuing downward tread in deaths, put them together it shows our roads are safer for everyone today than they were in 1990 when I was walking or riding to school.

        1. One of the reasons deaths are lower is the health system is better than 30 years ago. Ambulances are better, EDs are better, surgery is better and ICUs are better. This means a pedistrain with the same injurues in 1990 may have died but will now live.

        2. This is why the monitoring is done on deaths and serious injuries (DSIs). It’s relatively hard to completely kill someone these days, but much easier to leave them permanently disabled and in need of hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical treatment and rehabilitation, and long life care.

          For every one pedestrian death there are ten serious injuries and twenty five minor injuries.

        3. @waiukuian if you forget deaths but look at the number of people seriously injured this has also reduced. When you take into account the increased population it looks even better.

        4. @roeland if you discount school children walking/riding to school, mainly due to over protective parents, I can’t see less people walking, with the significant increase in people using public transport more people will now be walking to bus stops and train stations, and we know that commuter cycling is on the increase.

          When I first started working after uni in 1996 I only knew one person who commuted on a bike, Crazy Kevin, he lived in Sunnynook and rode to Penrose, we all thought he was nuts. I started riding to work in 2004 until 2006, then I changed job, now I work from home.

        5. Cycling numbers would be heavily down on 1990 wouldn’t they? Helmet laws to start with, then increased car use over time, combined with street design not taking into account cyclists safety.

          They might be on the increase now, but from a low base. And probably because, ironically, we have started to build the right infrastructure.

      2. Your video also somewhat agrees with my point, parents are too scared to allow there children out. He points out that when he was a child children were out and about playing on the streets.

        It’s a good video.

  9. It’s a nice article, but I think the concept has limited applicability to NZ other than in perhaps some comprehensive high density developments.
    The urban form, histories and cultures are so different.

    1. I like to think that a targeted version (e.g. around schools) could have some application. But agree, the contexts are very different.

  10. Do the cycling stats take into account cycling numbers? I understood cycling numbers fell through the floor following the introduction of helmet laws, early 1990s.

  11. @KLK I’m not sure how old you are, Kiwis from my recollection have never commuter cycled in large numbers at any time, my dad rode a horse to school, but never rode a bike, my mum always walked then went to boarding school. Kids used to ride bikes to school, like I did, my sisters kids even go to the same schools we went to and live about the same distance from school as we did get driven to school.

    I went to Westlake Boys, in my day the school converted 2/3 tennis courts into bike parking, these have now been built over, I don’t think they have anywhere near as many bike parks today, if any.

  12. The findings of this study will show why it is critical to concentrate on pedestrian perception and how the socioeconomic profile of walkers and road hierarchy are key aspects to be taken into account while upgrading pedestrian amenities.

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