People are constantly amazed when I mention I live on the same road I grew up on. Something about London seems alien to the concept. Either you grew up here, then promptly upped sticks the moment you had a family, or you moved here at some point in life. For me, fate and luck brought me back to the same street I played on as a boy. Many of the local roads adjacent to Seven Sisters Road were closed off to through traffic in the early eighties to curb prostitution. This was an incredibly successful strategy, and it also led to a better street environment. My brother and I played in the street regularly, despite there being the huge Finsbury Park less than 100 metres away.
So here we are, 20 years later, and things have changed. It’s rare to see children playing in front of their houses with other kids from the street. Children are spending more time indoors or being shepherded from one structured activity to the next. In many parts of London, people don’t know their next door neighbours, let alone any other families on their street. I often wondered whether we could ever rekindle the old sense of community and see children out playing as I used to. Then two things happened. We had a street party, instigated by some neighbours we had never met, and I read a piece in the Guardian about a scheme called ‘Playing Out’, started in Bristol, aimed at encouraging street play. It struck a chord with me. We want our children to trust the space outside our home. We want them to get to know the people we live near, not just next door to. We would like to generate a sense of community, rather than waiting for one to magically come about. At the street party, we found many people that we live amongst, but had never met, who felt the same way.
So what stops us from just opening our doors and letting the kids roam free? Cars. Despite the gates, vehicles continue to travel in a fashion unlikely to encourage kids to play naturally in the street. Drivers just don’t expect to encounter anyone or anything on the 200-metre zip up the road. Playing Out offered a way to begin to take back some ownership of the space outside our homes.
Essentially the idea is to formally close a street to through traffic to allow children to play. Giving children the freedom to play in the street allows them to form relationships with kids they don’t go to school with. Younger children can bond with older ones too. Unstructured playtime allows children the opportunity to gain independence from their parents. Kids make up their own games with their own rules and ultimately resolve their own conflicts without adult interference. In addition, Playing Out helps to develop a sense of community in the street. We had a lot of support, not just from the parents of children playing, but also from childless and elderly neighbours. Our experience of other sessions elsewhere in Hackney was that many people simply came out to have a cup of tea and a chat with others.
So how did we organise the first of our 12 playing out sessions this year? I attended an evening workshop given by Alice Ferguson, who co-created the Playing Out concept. The workshop outlined why Playing Out was a good idea, and ran through the procedures required to get it going. Our road had a great head start as two other neighbours came to the workshop. The three of us got together and began the process. A great deal of the groundwork had been done by others including local resident Claudia Le Sueur Draper who had organised with Hackney council to facilitate the sessions. The council were encouraged to start a 12 month trial to allow the granting of temporary road closures for street play, or TPSO.
We leafleted the whole street to introduce the idea and find more support. We then had to go through a formal consultation process, notifying all residents of our intended 2-hour road closures. Once that was completed, Hackney supplied us with formal notices and some ‘Road Closed’ signage. Volunteers strung up bunting across each end of the street and stewarded these entry-points, slowly escorting through any residents’ cars and turning away all other traffic.
Our first session was for 2 hours last Sunday, and was great, albeit cold! What struck me was how little encouragement the kids need. We didn’t need to worry about them being bored at all. As soon as the barriers went out, it was ‘game on’. Neighbours came out to offer cups of tea and home-baked treats.
Ultimately, I would like the formal side of Playing Out to fade away in our street, as well as neighbouring ones. I would like the 6 roads that make up our network here, to become a safe zone for street play. It would be nice for cars entering residential streets across the UK to know that children may well be in the road, and should take priority.
Lots of information is available on the Playing Out website.