Planning the Playful Street

Walking in Groningen city center last week, I saw two reckless boys throwing a ball above passing cars and cyclists. I stopped and shouted: “Are you crazy?! You can hurt someone! Stop it right now!”.

That’s probably what I would have said if I had been that grumpy neighbor we all have. But I’m an urban planner aiming for livable and lovable streets. So the first thought I had is that we must make our streets more playful.

Children playing ball in the city center of Groningen , the Netherlands. Picture by: Lior Steinberg

Let’s first discuss why playing children is not a common sight on our cities’ streets.

Children play in playgrounds. That’s how modern planning works. Playgrounds are considered the safest places to be: they are green, fenced, and far away from traffic. The street - planners, parents and decision-makers will tell you - is a dangerous place for children to be in.

For children, playgrounds can be a great place to play in. For parents, playgrounds are normally an opportunity to let children get crazy (and hopefully tired). It’s also the place where parents can talk with each other, pass information about what’s happening in the neighborhood. When playgrounds are done well - and too many playgrounds are unfortunately dull and boring - they are islands of creativity and safety.

But we can’t limit children to play only in playgrounds. Children are stuck all day long in kindergartens or schools with other kids that are the same age as them. When they finally get back home, they need to go to playgrounds and are surrounded by kids that are, again, pretty much in the same age as them.

When’s the time that children are faced with reality? I’m not talking about sending them alone to the worst part of town. But shouldn’t they also play where next to the bakery and the bank? As Jane Jacobs said in The Death and life of great American Cities:

“Children in cities need a variety of places in which to play and to learn. They need, among other things, opportunities for all kinds of sports and exercise and physical skills [...]. However, at the same time, they need an unspecialized outdoor home base from which to play, to hang around in. and to help form their notions of the world.”

Jacobs saw city sidewalks can be a safe place for children to play. Adults on lively streets, she claimed, supervise the play of children and “assimilate the children into city society”. It reminds me the story of my father as a 4-year old in 1950’s Tel Aviv. He used to wander the streets and steal windscreen wipers from parked cars. One time, an angry neighbor saw him from the window disassembling a wiper and threw an orange at my father. The social control that he experienced that day has two roles: it teaches children how to behave in society, and also protects them from threats.

Unfortunately, the streets that you live or work in are probably not ready to accommodate children play. City streets can be noisy, dirty, dangerous. Sidewalks are too narrow, and vehicles are driving too fast. That’s not the ideal place for a child to be playing in.

But wait, I’ve just described a place that both You and I don’t want to be in.

Making a street safer for children to play in, is essentially making a street that is more inviting to adults as well. It’s a great place to walk in, cycle through, or sit down and drink coffee. All it takes is careful planning with all kinds of people in mind.

The way a playful street should be planned depends on the context: are we talking about the city center or a residential neighborhood? Side street or main road? Are cars allowed in or is it a pedestrian-only street? Anyway, from my experience, there are several characteristics that can help you make streets more playful:

  • Low traffic volume and speed. nobody wants their children running, jumping and falling on a busy street with speedy cars. This is probably the key to make a street suitable for playing.
  • Good mix. The playful street should have both locals (such as neighbors and shop owners) and the visitors (e.g. shoppers). The locals are normally the ones that will keep an eye on the street.
    The good mix also refers to the variety of uses in the street. In order to create that balance of locals and visitors, the playful street should be a place in which people live, work and enjoy.
  • Squares and plazas. These have the potential to be great locations for children to play in. They are usually larger than sidewalks, and many times are surrounded by cafe terraces observing the running children. A good example is Habima Square in Tel Aviv. Designed by Dani Karavan, this is one of the favorite places for children and parents to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Playing in the public sapce in Habima Square, Tel Aviv, Israel. Source: haaretz.co.il

In a recent planning project in Groningen, we’ve asked residents to suggest ideas for their neighborhood. Among others, the residents asked to add trees, benches and different sports facilities. One participant, a young boy, had only one request: “everything that the others asked for - but small.”

The boy’s request sums up the idea of the playful street. Too many places in our cities are planned for the average person but are unsuitable for different kinds of users. The boy expressed his concern: he can’t use much of what the city offers. The playful street should be suitable for a broad variety of people - young and old, big and small - and the playing children will follow.

Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.