Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A U.K. initiative paints a vivid picture of what can happen when families don't have to worry about passing cars.
This is the point we have come to in much of the developed world: The freedom for a child to walk out the door and skip rope or play catch is something that has to be scheduled, organized, and officially permitted.
That was my first thought after watching the video below on the website of Playing Out, a wonderful initiative based in the United Kingdom that encourages neighborhoods to open their streets for children’s play using a simple four-step process that they outline on their website. Wonderful, and poignant too.
Opening the streets to children means closing them to cars, and that’s why these events are precisely that – special events, rather than common practices. When it comes to who has priority when accessing our roads, we now take it as a given in our society that cars are king. But when you watch the video on Playing Out’s site, you start to wonder why we tolerate the conditions we live under so meekly.
As children run and wheel and dance their way across the liberated asphalt, the adults on the street – mostly mothers -- look on and smile. The things they say bring home just how much we lose when we give the streets to cars, in both urban and dense suburban settings.
“We wanted our children to have the same sort of freedom that we had to play outside,” says one of the group’s organizers, Alice Ferguson. Her co-founder, Amy Rose, adds that they were looking for “a model that took away the traffic problem and brought people together and explored the street as play space.”
And so they started helping other parents to organize limited after-school closings of neighborhood streets to allow children to play. It’s a small, locally grounded effort that echoes more established municipal programs such as New York’s Play Streets program. Mike Lanza, in his book Playborhood, documents several other attempts at creating free play space for kids, including his own.
Rose and Ferguson wrote up a report on their first Playing Out pilots back in the fall of 2010. It’s full of insights into just how acutely people feel the loss of community and activity that happens when cars dominate streets and children are kept inside for fear they’ll be hit and killed. Of course, that’s not the only reason kids are confined indoors. In the United States, many parents cite fear of stranger abduction as the main reason they don’t let their children out to play alone.
But the fear of traffic (a very real threat to children’s lives) and the fear of kidnapping by an unknown adult (a very rare occurrence) are surely linked. When we live in a place dominated by cars, we don’t go out on the street as much. There are fewer other children for our kids to band together with. We don’t know our neighbors as well. The street becomes less like an extension of our homes, and more like a hostile territory.
These effects were documented by the American researcher Donald Appleyard back in the 1960s, and his research has been recently replicated in the U.K. by Joshua Hart. This is not a new problem. But it is getting worse all the time.
You can hear a real sadness in the comments from the women watching their children in the Playing Out video. Yes, they say, it’s wonderful that the kids are having this day. But several lament the lack of everyday play space for their children. True, there are sidewalks. But they’re too narrow for skipping rope, one mother says. You can’t pick up speed on a scooter or bike, especially when the trash has been put out for collection.
One woman recalls how she used to go out and play with her friends until 8 at night when she was a child. “I’ve got youngsters now and I have to pick them up and take them to places,” she says. “My little one will probably want to come out and play tomorrow, and she’ll have to be watched.”
These mothers know that for all the focus on children, it’s not just kids’ lives that are affected by auto-dominated landscapes. Parents feel compelled to supervise play, taking away from their own preferred or necessary activities. The lack of an outside escape valve can create pressure on the whole family.
“My son plays out in the street quite often,” says one woman who has decided to let her child at least take advantage of the sidewalk near their house on a regular basis. “He just goes up and down the pavement, and it is the most important thing in his life. It’s actually changed my life with him. Because we’ve stopped arguing about whether he’s going to go on the computer the whole time or watch television.”
Closing the street to traffic is a source of real joy to her and her son both. “To have the whole expanse is amazing,” she says. “He’ll come back and say, ‘This is the most exciting day of my life.’”