Lessons from London:
Designing Child Friendly Neighbourhoods
Image: Children playing out on the Alexandra Road estate, designed in 1968 by Neave Brown of Camden Council's Architects Department.
Over the next ten years 650,000 new homes will be needed in the city of London to accommodate growth. As planners, architects and councils scramble to catch up with demand, it might be easy to forget the holistic vision of creating inclusive and sustainable communities. Repeatedly, the needs of more vulnerable citizens are left unplanned for; particularly when their needs do not align with short-term profitable goals of developers. This often includes the needs of children.
Nonetheless, with the advocacy of numerous individuals and organisations over the past decade, London seems to have achieved a great deal in grounding children’s rights in planning policy. Experts argue that much of the work has reversed with austerity measures; such as the closure of youth centres and adventure playgrounds due to reduced funding, lack of political support for children’s rights organisations and the watering down of play policy. There are, however, positive lessons to be learnt. Below are the key takeaways from London in creating child-friendly neighbourhoods.
1. Planning for play
In 2012 the office of the Mayor of London released a revised supplementary planning guideline “Shaping Neighbourhoods: Play and Informal Recreation” which stipulates minimum standards and quality of play space in new residential developments (adopted from the original 2008 document). The guidelines recommend a minimum play space provision of 10sqm per child for developments of 20 units or more. The Mayor’s ambition for the guideline is to “ensure housing developments make adequate provision for play and informal recreation, based on the development’s expected child population and an assessment of future needs.”
The guidelines are an important baseline in ensuring that space for children’s play is considered during the design stage of residential developments. It also provides a policy backbone for councils who can request developers to demonstrate how they have achieved the objectives of the guidelines. To date, no Australian cities have similar planning guidelines which stipulate minimum provisions for play space within residential developments. In other words, developers have no responsibility to consider the provision for play space within a residential building site. With cities densifying and private backyards becoming increasingly rare, regulating the provision of playspace in residential developments, becomes imperative to ensuring urban liveability for children.
2. Mapping Playability
Though the planning guidelines provide an important backbone in ensuring that play is considered in new developments, the question of assessing quality and ‘playability’ of space provided becomes equally important. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a community workshop session led by Dinah Bornat, a co-director of ZCD architects and Mayor's Design Advocate. Dinah has done extensive research around the relationship between neighbourhood design and children’s play and how through meaningful engagement, we can establish these intricate relationships.
I attended one of a series of workshops led by Dinah within a borough of London which is undergoing significant redesign and densification. The workshops were established to ensure that children’s needs were meaningfully considered in the design process through genuine consultation rather than assumed adult decisions. The children and youth assessed the current ‘playability’ of their neighbourhood through a ‘traffic light’ system – allocating red for the spaces where they felt unwelcome and green for the spaces where they were most likely to play and socialise. What emerged is a complete picture of how kids use their neighbourhood and what playability meant to them. By teasing out the physical and social characteristics which made a space successful, the design team are then able to embed these qualities into a new vision for the neighbourhood. Engaging with children to holistically assess the ‘playability’ of a neighbourhood can capture the complexity of play behaviours and ensure their diverse needs are designed into projects. As Dinah Bornat said “We need to consider how children will move around a neighbourhood before we place a single building”. Unless we meaningfully engage with children during design and planning stages, their needs will be reduced to a playground count.
3. Diversity of playable spaces
The two points above highlight firstly, the importance of planning policy which stipulate minimum play space provisions and secondly, the benefits of engaging with children to understand their needs. Beyond this, comes the need for specialised designers who can translate these visions into physical outcomes.
One example of a residential estate which deeply considered varying play opportunities for children is the King's Crescent Estate in London. The public realm was designed by Muf Architecture/Art and Karakusevic Carson Architects, who thoughtfully incorporated a range of play opportunities for children of various ages. Rather than simply specifying a manufactured playground, the designers created custom objects which playfully integrate into the landscape, appealing to various ages. Children can swing in a hammock, climb the playfully arranged tree logs or hide in a cubby made from willow branches.
Apart from the design of the common courtyards, Muf Architecture/Art also provided play opportunities within the public realm giving children the freedom to inhabit public spaces beyond their home. A ‘play laneway’ is partially closed to traffic and includes a series of curated design interventions which stimulate the imagination and entice playful and social behaviours. Sitting lounges with various heights and shapes have been carefully placed under the trees and facing towards the play objects; encouraging residents to linger and relax. Importantly, the ground level apartments have direct visibility over the laneway and courtyards, ensuring that spaces for play are passively supervised and active with residents coming in and out of their homes. By holistically approaching the residential estate as one large playscape, the designers were able to provide an array of carefully considered play opportunities for children of all ages.
I was fortunate to meet with a number of key activists in the field of child-friendly cities while in London including Tim Gill, Adrian Voce, Dr Wendy Russell, Dr Jenny Wood, Holly Weir and Dinah Bornat who have been an inspiring voice reminding us to consider the needs of children in the design of cities and more importantly give children the opportunity to have a say on their own future. As Dinah from ZCD Architects says "Children are the generators of community life: The secret to designing successful neighbourhoods for all age groups, is to listen to, understand and advocate for children and young people from the outset."
Author: Natalia Krysiak
Natalia is currently undertaking a Churchill Fellowship exploring best practice for designing high density, child friendly neighbourhoods. Through an 8 week period she will travel to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Toronto and Vancouver. Stay up to date with her travels on twitter or instagram.
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