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Don't blame parents: we need policy for child-friendly streets

It’s not parents being risk averse – our streets are too risky for kids. Policymakers must address this, writes Adrian Voce, president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities

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Granary Square fountains
Granary Square fountains

There’s a growing call for a more child-friendly, family-focused approach to urban planning, with voices demanding that our towns and cities respond better to the needs of people living in them, not simply commuters and investors.


The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, the Health Select Committee Chair, Sarah Wollaston and London mayor, Sadiq Khan, have each highlighted the long-term health implications of children leading increasingly sedentary lives.


Longfield’s report talks about “battery-reared children” confined to their homes by the domination of traffic and a generalised sense that the urban outdoors is no longer a place for the young.


Neither these concerns, nor the call for policy solutions, are new. But writer and researcher, Tim Gill, has called the impact of the child-friendly city movement “glacially slow” and a survey of both children’s well-being indicators and government policy in the intervening years would support this view.


UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities and Communities initiative, arising from the UN’s Habitat II conference of 1996, highlighted the needs of young people in an urbanised world, and the responsibility of local, not just national, governments to respond.


“The success of Playing Out and its insistence that temporary street closures are not a long-term solution point to a paradox within the child-friendly city discourse”


The Child Friendly Cities agenda is a broad one. For the UN and UNICEF, its purpose is to safeguard children’s rights. In the developing world, rapid economic growth, growing inequality, crime and poverty – not to mention the increasing dangers posed by climate change – make the young especially vulnerable in burgeoning, poorly planned conurbations.


In the developed world, the child-friendly city movement has tended to focus on children’s relationship with public space and the built environment. In this, a child’s right to play and have independent access to their neighbourhood is a major theme.


In 2008, after a long campaign, the last Labour government launched a national Play Strategy. Its first and most visible step was the building of 3,000 new playgrounds. However, far beyond this, the Play Strategy set out over 10 years to make every neighbourhood in England safe and welcoming to children playing outside with friends. The plan was to use national planning policy and local commissioning processes to raise the priority afforded to children’s play in the design and development of the built environment.

Children playing in Pancras Square by John Sturrock
Children playing in Pancras Square by John Sturrock

The Play Strategy was abandoned in 2010 as one of many government policies sacrificed to austerity. But its vision of radical traffic calming, home zones, safe routes to school, less-segregated play areas and residential streets and estates being the natural domain for playing children – the norm for previous generations – was kept alive, not least by a small group of parents in Bristol.


In 2009, neighbours Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose took matters into their own hands, using temporary street closure by-laws to create regular ‘playing out’ sessions, keeping cars at bay and turning over the whole streetscape to children.


“Around 5,000 children under the age of 16 die or are seriously injured on Britain’s roads each year, and nearly two in three when children are walking or playing”


The Playing Out movement, now led by Ferguson’s community interest company of the same name, is a national phenomenon. More than 800 different communities across the UK have adopted the model, leading to an estimated 24,000 children playing in the streets where they live. Its effectiveness is not lost on Commissioner Longfield, whose report calls for local authorities to support parents using the Playing Out model.


Meanwhile, Ferguson and her colleagues are now calling for planning, housing and highways policy to effect the changes to the built environment and traffic management schemes that would make temporary street closures unnecessary.


Both the success of Playing Out and its insistence that temporary, parent-led street closures are not the long-term solution point to a paradox within the child-friendly city discourse.


Advocates for playable public space and child-friendly infrastructure have often positioned their arguments alongside a critique of modern attitudes to childhood, maintaining that society has become too ‘risk averse’.


But this often confuses a child’s need for ‘risky play’ with the real dangers of the street.


There is good reason to support opportunities for ‘risky play’. Over-caution in the design and management of play space may deprive children of this important element of play, when children seek out challenging experiences for excitement and adventure, enabling them to learn how manage risk for themselves.


One abiding success of the English play strategy was a more enlightened approach to managing risk with children. Good practice is now to weigh up risks and benefits rather than aim for maximum safety at all costs (which, as any child will tell you, makes for a very dull life!).


The campaign against bureaucratic caution in children’s play provision often conflates a risk-averse public sector with ‘paranoid parents’ and ‘helicopter mums and dads’; media memes that suggest modern parents want to ‘wrap their children in cotton wool’.


This is an unwise confusion, one which enables reluctant policymakers to blame parents for children’s retreat from public space.


In reality, the deaths and injuries to young people from road traffic accidents alone are sufficient reason enough to think twice before letting children out unsupervised: around 5,000 children under the age of 16 die or are seriously injured on Britain’s roads each year, and nearly two in three road accidents happen when children are walking or playing (AA Motoring Trust, 2014).


The relationship between parental attitudes, societal norms, public policy and the real-world experience of children and families is sophisticated and nuanced. Progressive discourse is not served by cliché or simplistic solutions. Matters of risk and safety, children’s mobility and their access to public space, are complex, requiring concerted and strategic policy responses.


What Playing Out demonstrates, however, is that blaming parents for ‘battery-reared children’ misses the point. It’s time government, planners, developers and the whole built environment sector tackled the real risks to children in the streets where they live. Parents can’t do it alone.


Adrian Voce


Adrian Voce OBE is president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities and the author of Policy for Play (Policy Press, 2015). He is an associate board member for Playing Out CiC and a trustee of the Playwork Foundation.





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