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In the 1950s as more private vehicles started appearing on our streets due to increased availability and affordability, the design of our neighbourhoods were rapidly shifting to accommodate for the ease and convenience of drivers . A focus on low-density suburban life with high quality motor infrastructure cemented our reliance on cars as the dominant (and often only) mode of travel. Streets were designed to prioritise the efficient movement and convenient storage of vehicles, with generous on-street parking, double garages and wide driveways.
“As planners and designers of our built environments we need to start seriously questioning why the convenience of drivers is so often prioritised over the health and wellbeing of children in the design of our streets.”
Although many of the negative impacts that car-dominant urban planning has on our economy, environment and health are well documented , the specific effects that this has on children are rarely discussed. Children, who had traditionally used streets for play and recreation were progressively relegated away, with play actively discouraged in streets . The consequences of this were immense, with a significant effect on children’s opportunities for daily unstructured and incidental play and active mobility.
Not surprisingly, these changes have coincided with a startling decline in the number of hours that children spend playing outdoors and actively walking or cycling to school  . A large majority of Australian children do not meet the recommended minimum daily physical activity  and the number of children using active transport (walking & cycling) has declined by 42 percent since the 1970s  . As has been described by VicHealth principal adviser Dr. Lyn Roberts, Australian children are some of the most “chauffeured” children in the world, with one in four Australian children overweight or obese .
The reasons for the increasingly sedentary lives of Australian children are complex and have been attributed to a range of factors. The increased traffic on local streets coupled with the reduced number of informal spaces for play, as well as “stranger-danger” perceptions and an increase in screen-based entertainment, have all contributed to the rapid decline of children’s outdoor free play .
Even though the reasons are multi-faceted, the design and planning of our cities can provide a fundamental shift in facilitating opportunities which encourage children to partake in active transport, play and incidental physical activity. Redesigning streets to ensure that children can safely walk to school and play directly outside their home gives parents the ability to passively supervise children while going about their housework or working from home arrangements. It also means that children can easily meet other children living nearby, making meaningful connections with their community, while relieving the stress placed on parents to chauffer children to areas designated for play.
Below are some examples of how good urban design can help prioritise the needs of children over that of drivers.
Designing streets which actively encourage play, can be done through several simple interventions. One example is allocating “home zones” within local neighbourhoods as is common in many European cities including Germany (pictured). This concept originally implemented in the Netherlands and Belgium known as the 'Woonerf', aims to equally balance the needs of drivers with the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and playing children. This is done through signage, low speed limits and traffic calming initiatives such as speed bumps and bends that force cars to slow down. By painting large signs on the ground, drivers are made aware that children are welcome to play in the street, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that they can do so safely.
Apart from design interventions which aim to slow cars down, designing in opportunities for play on the sides of streets can take this one step further. Hackney Play Street designed by Muf Architecture and Art in London is a great example of this in action. The Play Street has been designed with incorporated playful objects that are scattered along the side of the laneway. These include rocks and tree logs for climbing, a hammock for relaxing in and a cubby made out of willow branches for children to hide in. Timber benches and lounges at various heights and shapes have been placed under the trees and face towards the play objects, encouraging residents to linger and relax. Playful graphics are painted on the ground to indicate that this is a street where people are welcome to play.
Importantly, the family-sized ground level apartments have direct visibility over the laneway, ensuring that it is active with residents coming in and out of their homes. The direct connection between the ground-level homes and the street also means that children can easily move from inside to outside while playing on their "doorsteps". The combination of passive surveillance from the residents and pedestrians, alongside the carefully curated design interventions, contributes to a space that stimulates the imagination and entices playful behaviours for people of all ages.
As well as designing streets which welcome children’s play through permanent design interventions, temporary street closures can provide a simple way to activate streets and re-prioritise their use. This year, the national advocacy organisation, Play Australia has launched an initiative called 1000 Play Streets, which aims to temporarily reclaim residential streets for neighbourhood based play opportunities.
A key part of the program involved creating a toolkit for local governments which provides a simple guide for creating a Play Street in any local community. The toolkit outlines the steps that need to be taken by councils to make this a success, including addressing traffic management plans, public liability insurance and risk-benefit assessments. The intent of the program is to eliminate the red-tape which often prevents communities from easily setting up a Play Street in their neighbourhood. It also allows councils to champion the idea of everyday, informal neighbourhood play.
Spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are increasingly recognising the benefits of having outdoor space directly outside the home, where children can play together in their local neighbourhood without relying on a formal playground. Through a simple initiative such as a temporary Play Street, the concept of informal outdoor play is normalised, improving the health and wellbeing of children and enhancing social connections between all residents.
In addition to supporting free play beyond formal playgrounds, it is important to address how we can encourage more children to engage in active mobility such as walking or cycling.
An example of how this can be done successfully is seen in Paris where the city has introduced a dedicated series of 'Streets to Schools'. The program aims to both reduce pollution caused by congestion around schools, as well as address safety concerns caused by increased traffic. "In France in 2017, 37 children were killed in traffic collisions while walking, with more than 1000 hospitalised. Many of these incidents occur on the walk to and from school, and three quarters of these are within 500 m of the school gates" . In order to address these intolerable statistics , streets with schools and kindergartens are being pedestrianised with street signage and barriers which either completely close off streets to traffic or reduce speed limits to 20km/h – depending on local conditions. There are now 122 such rues aux écoles, including 57 created for the new school year in 2020.
The Streets to School program in Paris, shows how we can start normalising the idea of children playing, cycling and walking to school by taking a stance of who is prioritised in the design of streets. The benefits of the program are multi-faceted, not only improving safety and health outcomes for children but also improving air quality for all residents through less emissions.
As planners and designers of our built environments, or simply as adults and parents, we need to start seriously questioning why the convenience of drivers is so often prioritised over the health and wellbeing of children in the design of our streets. As we emerge from the pandemic, we have a perfect opportunity to revitalise our neighbourhoods by prioritising the health and wellbeing of citizens. Placing children’s play and active mobility into the heart of the design of neighbourhoods will not only benefit children but allow entire communities to playfully reconnect and rebuild connections with each other.
A practicing architect at Hayball and the founder of Cities for Play, Natalia Krysiak specialises in the design of child-oriented environments. Her area of research focuses on child-friendly cities and how the built environment can contribute to the health and wellbeing of children. In 2019 Natalia was awarded a Churchill Fellowship exploring best practice for designing child-friendly, high density neighbourhoods in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada and the UK. Her research investigates design interventions and policies that focus on neighbourhood liveability for children and parents in urban environments. Based on her research surrounding child-friendly cities, Natalia has founded Cities for Play which aims to inspire and promote strategies for playful environments.