Last week I applied for a travelling fellowship to do further research and study overseas in the area of Street Play projects. These have become quite prevalent in the suburbs of London and America in recent years. With local government approval, resident led groups barricade off their local streets to traffic and let kids play on the road, footpath and in and out of surrounding houses for a few hours either regularly or as a one off. With a longer history of ‘street parties’ the UK has led the way on this, particularly in an ever increasing world where the car tends to dominates and dictate space.
But does this translate to the cities of Australia, generally with larger house blocks and gardens and often generous public open space? I believe so and I’ll tell you why? A sense of a connected community….that’s why and I will explain further.
I talk a great deal in my presentations on risk in play about freedom. By freedom I don’t mean the right of entitlement to do whatever we want, I mean is the opportunity to do things INDEPENDENTLY of others, the TIME to do things and the SPACE to do things. This I believe is most pertinent today to kids and young people. Freedom is about liberating ourselves from what we ought to be doing…..it is indulgent, but not selfish or inappropriate. Many folk who listen to me talk, look at me as though I’m a little touched when I rant on about this. I say that reflects on how ingrained the sense of conformity is in our society, that we describe play as ‘children’s work’ as though it has no value otherwise.
Anyway I digress. The reason I raise freedom as a notion in relation to Street Play projects (I kind of laugh that we need to give it a name) is that the rise of these projects is in response to the ever diminishing freedom children have in their own local neighbourhoods. This is complex and not singly driven by the rise of the car. If I look back to my own childhood we can clearly see why?
When I was under 7 (apologies for the nostalgic reminisce here) I lived in a house with a large front yard and no fence and an ample backyard as well. All the other houses in the street also had large front yards and fences and I’m guessing ample backyards too (though we often didn’t play here). Each household either had one car (always parked in a driveway) or no car at all. Coloured TV started for the first time in 1973 and we were only allowed to watch it for a couple of hours each afternoon and in the morning on Saturdays. My Mum was at home with us every day, as were most other Mum’s in the street – our Dads never came home from work later than 5.30pm. Each house pretty much had at least one or more kids and we all played on the street. Chalk drawings, berry trails, knick-knocking, kite flying, cricket and tennis and of course bikes, skateboards and roller skates. On school holidays we would literally be put out after breakfast, come home for lunch, then out again until TV viewing time around 4pm. In summers we would be out in the evenings too! We didn’t always play on the street either, sometimes we played in the vacant lot or the local park or our backyards, but critical point was that we had the choice…the freedom for our play to take us places. We also knew our neighbours and everyone kept an eye out for everyone else, if you got into trouble (and we frequently did) you always knew who to turn to.
I know in Germany and the Netherlands there have been moves in recent years towards creating more ‘sustainable’ housing developments, some of them ‘car-free’. I applaud those that think outside the box on this, but wonder does design really create connected neighbourhood or is connected neighbourhood something that is borne of a determination by the people to just be?
The neighbourhoods of Australian cities and regions are today very fortunate and very limited in the same sphere. As the population has increased, so has the demand for housing, the density of housing and the cost of housing. Families are wealthier, but adults work longer hours to provide a ‘good home’ for their children and in doing so miss the point about the importance of time and space to children’s wellbeing. We focus on obesity and physical exercise in our concerns for the contemporary child, but doesn’t it follow suit that if children and their families are happily connected and mobile in their local neighbourhood, they’re going to be more active anyway?
The growing cases of mental health issues in adults and children such as depression, anxiety and compulsive disorders tell us that. Less stuff, more ‘real’ connection…that’s what we need.
So that said does the design of an Eco-Suburb then have greater potential than a regular ‘Street Play’ project in terms of building neighbourhood connection. I say not, I say that the success of each lies in our capacity to shift culturally on this. To want to get to know neighbours, to get out of our car and walk, to want to knock down that fence in front of our house (or at least lower it a little). No one form of play environment or opportunity has the monopoly. Play as we know is fluid and as such adapts and grows in different environments.
What I’d say is needed is the flexibility to embrace a range of environments, or let our kids do so as well. Let them explore and free-range a little more. Let them connect with their neighbours. Let them build those skills necessary to navigate challenges along the way. In doing so we will gradually make our neighbourhoods safer and our kids more resourceful and resilient and scarily enough we might meet new people and even dare I say like them!
Photos courtesy of Katrina Campbell Photography & London Play