How cities are coping with the erosion of children’s playgrounds

Play is essential for the well-being and happiness of children, as well as for their healthy physical and emotional growth. A well-designed built environment can provide spaces in cities for children to realize the potential for playful learning experiences.

Tactical town planning and coloring of Venini-Spoleto streets when children leave a primary school in Milan. (Photo courtesy of the Municipality of Milan)

But during the global pandemic, opportunities for play, education and social interaction between children and young people were very limited. In recent years, in many cities, pressure on available space has resulted in fewer playgrounds being built, and we are also seeing a gradual erosion of shared play spaces. For example, in England alone, 250 school playgrounds were destroyed between 2010 and 2021. And we need to design neighborhoods that encourage play beyond playgrounds, taking into account all the environments in which children spend their time, including public spaces.

As cities rebuild after shutdowns, they must address this “silent emergency”, and restore and create new play opportunities at the heart of their planning. This will not only help children, but also improve cities for all their citizens; less pollution, more green spaces, the freedom to move easily and safely are aspirations shared by elected officials and children.

Yet there isn’t enough guidance available to help cities design neighborhoods that encourage play. That’s why Arup developed the Playful Cities Toolkit, in partnership with the LEGO Foundation and the Real Play Coalition. The practical guide provides resources for local governments, urban practitioners and local communities to understand the complexity of gambling in cities and guide the design of gambling-based interventions.

In urban decision-making and planning, the needs and challenges of children are often overlooked. This means that we end up with cities that are not equipped to support children throughout development.

Heavy traffic has driven children off the streets they used to play on, sidewalks have become busier and narrower, and children’s independent mobility has seen a continued reduction.

[Read more: Why swings are disappearing from UK playgrounds]

Rather than creating environments where children could thrive, many initiatives focused on mitigating measures. Essentially, helping children develop the skills to survive in dangerous traffic-dominated environments rather than tackling fundamental environmental issues.

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To help solve the problem, the focus must shift from keeping children away from danger to eliminating danger from the environment. These ideas can be seen in action in San Francisco’s Play Streets SF program, which has helped residents transform their block into an open, accessible, car-free space for children and seniors through assistance with practices, from permits to safety equipment and games.

Invest in green spaces and a clean environment

Global urbanization trends are reducing accessible open spaces for play, as urban landscapes often compromise green, blue, and brown spaces as cities expand and fill in. But these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In China, for example, the Hangzhou City Master Plan promotes green spaces in rapidly urbanizing environments.

The benefits of urban green spaces are vast and are particularly important for children. The physical and mental development of young people is greatly enhanced by living, playing and learning in green environments.

Cities should therefore aim to strengthen children’s connection to nature by investing in greener and healthier environments that provide children with considerable play value. Green playgrounds can be integrated into the way we design and plan public space, transforming the urban landscape into a learning opportunity and transforming polluted and dangerous sites into dynamic assets.

Provide opportunities for social interaction

With less independent mobility, children cannot independently navigate and experience urban landscapes, reducing opportunities for social interaction, chance encounters, playful travel and discovery.

Social interaction in play allows children to collaborate, communicate their thoughts and feelings, and understand other perspectives as they develop their social skills. By putting this at the center of our environments, cities can help foster the interactions needed for children to practice the soft skills that enable our communities and society to be adaptable and sustainable.

[Read more: How children at urban schools can benefit from learning in nature]

Thinking about how play can be supported in cities can therefore help bring communities together by creating an intergenerational and multifunctional public space that families and communities can enjoy together. For example, across Asia, UN-Habitat, together with the Block by Block Foundation, has helped a number of cities improve public spaces, which has helped these communities regain the confidence to be together and live together. use public spaces safely.

How to move forward with children’s games

In addition to being play spaces for children, greater access to shared spaces can have a positive effect on communities as a whole. Indeed, outdoor play and interaction generates many benefits for communities and cities, as play spaces often become community hubs where people can interact with each other.

Gambling is also associated with other community benefits, such as higher levels of volunteerism and community action; improved social cohesion between different ethnic groups; and a reduced incidence of anti-social behavior and vandalism.

It is important for city planners and governments to understand that designing child-friendly cities is not just about building more playgrounds – encouraging play must permeate all urban systems and occur at all levels of society. The Playful Cities Toolkit will help people understand the fundamental importance, not just of independence and play, but of the built environment as a whole in helping to shape a child’s development and outlook, and so his adult life.

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