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).
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:
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:
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.