Editorial: Play strategy will help to reclaim public space

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The government's play strategy for England, out this week, will send a clear signal to local authorities that the best kit is of limited value if it isn't underpinned by a sound public infrastructure.

The strategy will confirm £225m is to be spent over three years to rebuild or renew 3,500 playgrounds, create 30 supervised adventure playgrounds in deprived areas and support 30 pathfinders to test innovative approaches to play. But beyond these showy figures, already trailed in The Children's Plan, is the more profound shake-up of planning regimes to ensure public space is children's space.

Play and recreation spaces in England are too often shoehorned into cramped urban areas suffocated by traffic and real estate. The strategy places the onus on local authorities to put play at the heart of planning decisions. This has already started in London in recent years, which provides the basis for much of the thinking. Planning guidance issued to the capital's councils stipulates there should be 10 square metres of well-designed play space for every child to be accommodated in new housing developments. All 33 boroughs have play strategies and are urged to audit existing provision, consult with children and young people and assess local need. They are required to make provision for different age groups and disabled children. Space is at a premium in the inner-city boroughs so they are encouraged to consider indoor space and terraces where appropriate.

Looking ahead, it is right that fresh large-scale developments, namely the Olympics zone and eco-towns, should be designed with the intention of becoming beacons of good practice in play.

The millions secured to provide new spaces indicates that arguments for play - that it strengthens friendships, keeps children healthy, helps them cope with risky situations and is great fun - have largely been won. But the strategy's focus on planning is a radical first step to reclaiming public space for children and young people.

Eking out breathing spaces in the country's congested urban areas will be a tough challenge for the likes of planners, developers, community safety officers and, of course, the play champions that must now be appointed by every council. It must be pursued resolutely on the ground. The prize is a great one: to vanquish our culture of fear and to normalise the idea of children and young people just hanging around, having a laugh.

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