I’ve been helping one of our neighbours take part in a scheme run by the local council called Playing Out.
The idea is a good one – to encourage more people to play outside with their children. It’s pro-community, pro-family, pro-child. It brings animation back to streets. What’s not to like?
Hi-visibility jackets and whistles, that’s what.
Where we live, children play in the street. They scooter, and they cycle. They sit on the path and play with Lego. They chalk on the walls and the pavements. They chase each other with Nerf guns. They pop into each other’s houses to collect toys or a glass of water. Parents sit or stand outside and gossip, or sometimes stay upstairs and watch from a window, or often get on with jobs like gardening or polishing the car. Car drivers slow down when they see children around. This street isn’t a miracle; it’s simply down to us, the parents in our street, doing it. Investing time and effort. Our children have been taught to ride bikes early, encouraged to knock for friends, and shown the boundaries, invisible lines at each end of the road. We’re like Jane Jacobs‘ best dream, a mixed-use street right in a town centre, with the eyes of watchful parents on the street, and an increase in social capital as a result of scooters, bikes and chalk.
With Playing Out, though, the rules are different. The road is officially closed to traffic. Neighbours form a steering group and meet to discuss the idea. Leaflets (there’s a template, set wording) are stuffed through letterboxes. There are official signs up, and stewards have to wear high visibility jackets and carry whistles. Car drivers aren’t allowed in, unless they’re residents and they’re walked in behind a steward. You must discourage children from neighbouring streets from joining in – it’s just for your children. It’s closing down the street, rather than opening it up.
It’s great that with a Playing Out scheme, children get a few hours to really run free. And of course, in some streets this is the only way to make it happen.
Used creatively, it’s a great opportunity. Our first event went much further than the official guidelines allow, with our neighbourhood coffee shop rolling up on their Vespa mule to give us a decent drink, one neighbour setting up a cake stall for charity, and my sound system in the front garden to give us a ska and calypso soundtrack. None of this took any extra organising. There were no committee meetings or minutes. A few of us had hi-vis jackets to hand, and put them on when they were needed. We ended up with a street festival, a sunny afternoon with all the neighbours and their friends outside. People passing through our street, a busy route for schools and shops, stopped and joined in. Our children met other children in the street, and made new friends. It worked.
But that’s because we bent the council’s rules, went a bit further, opened up the box of Playing Out possibilities. We’d previously held a very similar street party with no official road closure order, just asking people to not drive down our road for a couple of hours. It’s possible. It’s easy. So we took Playing Out and made it fit our street.
It’s not to say that Playing Out is a duff idea. Far from it – anything that challenges the car-is-king orthodoxy is good. But if you want people to look after their streets, create their own community, really come together – then you have to accept that they will do that in their own way. That might mean they don’t have meetings, or that they design their own leaflets, or that they find a different model of managing events that works for where they live. If you give people freedom, you have to trust them. If you want local, it will be distinct. If you want people to reclaim the streets, you can’t complain when they do.
Replacing one set model of street use with another, as equally rigid and defined, isn’t the answer. We should be creating streets where play spills out and is spontaneous, streets that are a little chaotic and full of life, streets where people regularly bump up against each other in unexpected ways, streets where people find their own ways to make it work.
Streets, to paraphrase Jane Jacobs, which can provide something for everybody because they are created by everybody.