Once all kids played outside on the street, now very few do. Samantha Laurie looks at one North Kingston community that is reclaiming its roads by closing to traffic on a Sunday.
This month, something rather special is happening in North Kingston. Over 400 households have come together to launch the Royal Borough’s first ever play street. Every other Sunday afternoon, neighbours will put out the road closed signs, don hi-vis jackets to redirect traffic and open the space to the imagination of their offspring.
“It’s fantastic for kids to be able to play out on their bikes and scooters as we once did,” says Tim Holmes, vice-chair of BRaG Residents Association, which spans the three participating streets: Burton Road, Richmond Park Road and Gibbons Road. “In fact, this will be great for all ages – we hope that residents will drop by for a cup of tea and a chat.”
The play street is not supervised – and that is the point. For many, this will be the first chance to explore the space outside the front door on their own. Parents may pop by, but this is kids being kids: playing with soft balls, chalking on the pavements, racing up and down on bikes, meeting other kids of all ages and from different schools.
Holmes has worked hard to assuage fears of damage. If a ball goes through a window, the matter will be settled as in the 70s: by a parent. As for access, cars can be escorted through closed roads at walking pace, if required. But few residents needed to be convinced of the benefits of a car-free play space.
“Kids pollinate communities. By flitting from house to house they bring adults together too, creating more cohesive and safer neighbourhoods,” says Paul Hocker of London Play, which helps residents marshal efforts. “It’s right for children to be active, visible and numerous in their communities. For the past two decades, we’ve been shutting them away.”
Indeed. Children today spend less time outdoors than prisoners in high security jails, according to the latest campaign from Persil. One in three children in the UK spends less than 30 minutes daily playing outside, while one in five does not play out at all on an average day.
Traffic is the single biggest reason for the mass retreat indoors. Indeed, the idea of play streets arrived from America in the 1930s in response to an increase in road deaths involving children. By the 1950s, over 700 streets in Britain closed on Sundays to allow children to play freely. Yet as car ownership rose, attitudes shifted.
Recently, however, there has been a resurgence, with charities such as Playing Out and London Play drawing attention to the benefits for children’s fitness – one hour of street play burns off more calories than one hour of football – and for combating the isolation of the elderly, who are often as keen on the notion as those with young families. Today there are over 100 play streets in Britain, with two-thirds of London boroughs hosting regular street closures on Sundays, after school or, in some cases, both before and after school to encourage walking to lessons.
Kingston is the first South-West London council to embrace the idea. So encouraging has it been, in fact, that it fast-tracked BRaG’s application and sent road cleaners ahead of the first session. It has made no charge to close the road. Elsewhere, councils such as Croydon and Hounslow have also championed the concept with dozens of regular play streets. In Enfield, the council is going further still, with play quarters: one-mile zones around schools to encourage children to walk and play unsupervised.
Street parties have helped dispel the notion that it is somehow negligent to let kids play out, reawakening the idea that the visibility and freedom of children is a sign of a healthy neighbourhood. Streets are a major part of our urban public space – to see them only as places to drive and park cars is pure waste. As the streetfesting season draws near, many more of us may now wonder if it’s time to reclaim them.
How do we get more kids walking to school? See Samantha Laurie on 20mph zones and why they are essential for a happier, healthier society.
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