Call it ‘recession’, or call it ‘austerity’. We know what is meant. The public purse is depleted. If we are to shift, we must shift for ourselves. This forms part of the wider context of two relatively new phenomena, at least in so far as they have taken recent institutional shape: Play Streets; and pop-up adventure playgrounds.
Play Streets, in the UK at least, involve local residents seeking permission to close a street to cars for ‘x’ number of hours per week. As far as I know, closure is only allowed for a few hours. They rely heavily on the voluntary efforts of local parents, to supervise and provide general oversight of the play street session. After the allotted ‘play time’ is over, the street reverts back to its usual status and function.
Pop-up adventure playgrounds can, in principle, ‘pop-up’ in any space, public or private. An unloved, or underused park or open space perhaps; or a shop unit whose retail function has been felled by that recession mentioned earlier.
There is something beguiling about both phenomena, not simply because of their play function, but because they appear as cousins to the ideas and ideologies informing ‘meanwhile places’, reclaiming the street, and ‘pop up’ this and that – restaurants, bars, raves, etc; and temporary sort-of-squatted artist studios/living quarters that put to use empty buildings for which the market can find no immediate use.
Let’s take it as read that kids playing is a good thing. And it would be churlish not to welcome the two initiatives. Indeed, they are to be welcomed. But we need to notice some features common to both that suggest critique and caution are also required. Not of the initiatives as such, but of their potential meaning, of what they illuminate, of what they may unintentionally obscure.
So far as Play Streets are concerned, they rely on children being supervised by adults. Whether or not this is ‘light touch’ supervision or more interventionist probably depends on the individual parents involved. But what is always the case is that the children are under adult supervision. And quite apart from the bureaucratic procedures that adults need to navigate to secure the necessary permissions for closing a road, there is all the paraphernalia of running a play street. This can include adults wearing high visibility jackets, red road closure signs, and tape running across the road. In one I visited, from a distance, it was uncertain whether I was walking towards a war zone, site of an accident or – phew! – a play street.
Retreat or advance?
All of this is simply in the nature of what we may soon be calling the ‘institution’ of play streets. That is actually a telling term – ‘institution’ – for if one looks at London Play’s brief history of play streets there are photos of kids playing in the street. In one of the pictures no adults are present (except in the far distance walking away). In the other, the adults seem to be watching some sort of display by the kids, rather than ‘supervising’ them in the way that term suggests. And for some readers at least, playing in the street was something we just did – this not simply misty-eyed nostalgia – in the delicious absence of ‘supervising’ adults. The point here is that, historically, playing outside, and play streets so designated, did not require the supervising adult eye, nor adult organisational efforts. From this perspective, Play Streets can be seen as a retreat rather than an advance: for children to be in their own street, the street has to become, in effect, a non-street, divorced from the wider public realm to which it properly belongs.
It is of no consequence for the purposes of this article that conditions ‘then’ and now are different, more cars, more parental anxiety, and so on. Play streets, for better or for worse, extend and institutionalise the adult/parent’s role in children’s outdoor play. Here, the attentive adult eye becomes the pre-requisite for play. To that extent, it is right to be concerned that play streets could institutionalise, legitimise, and possibly feed pre-existing anxieties, making an untruth a new orthodoxy: no adult, no play. (By way of an aside, and interestingly, as I read it, the USA seems particularly keen on adult supervision.)
We need also to notice that teenagers are unlikely to be well-served by play streets. The response to this could be, so what? They have other places and spaces to congregate. Except they generally don’t, apart from the standardised response to teenagers: a MUGA or wheel park.
Play streets are a self-limiting resource, they can ‘serve’ a street or two, but no more. Kids not in the near vicinity of the formal play street are unlikely to benefit; and it is not rash to assume that if there is one play street within an area, another one will not be allowed nearby. Even assuming that adventurous councils institute a rolling, repeating programme of Play Street closures, this simply moves both the scarcity and the resource – two sides of the same coin – around.
The wider, strategic, concern is that the highly localised play street will, inadvertently, divert our attention from the pressing need to legitimise children and teenagers in unsupervised shared and communal space.
Pop-up playgrounds are also to be welcomed. But they too depend on adult supervision, though they are underpinned by a commitment to playwork principles (‘low intervention/high response’ and so on).
Pop-ups are, in part, a general response to recession and austerity. To the degree that pop-up playgrounds use premises that market conditions have rendered currently unlettable, the initiative is dependent on hard economic times. If and when the economy picks up, all things being equal, landlords and land owners will want to secure revived market rents and rising market sale values. So, the degree to which the pop-up play approach in shops and warehouses is sustainable, has to be open to question. But since permanence and pop-up are two mutually exclusive concepts, there can be no in principle objection to pop-ups just because they will have to move on – or disappear – one day. The here and now counts. We are required to make of it the best we can. So pop-ups need to keep, well, popping up.
But the wider context can neither be brushed aside nor wished away. In an unpublished MA dissertation paper on the development of artistic communities in the Hackney Wick area of London, by Sarah Scarsbrook, she points out that:
“…artists [are] being employed as mediums of sociopolitical and economically instrumental change. The use of artists in the regeneration toolkit is further revealed as a strategically short-term solution that provides the starting point for gentrification and transformation to begin from. Further questions are raised from this as to whether artist communities will be maintained as a consistent part of the new urban landscapes being implemented through urban regeneration…”
“The behaviour on the part of the estate agents is highly manipulative and in the long term, through increased rents that eventually price artists out of the rental market, it fuels the transience of an artist community. In the short-term however, the artists provide a plug in the market as they are coerced into living in areas that have little prospects and are used to improve lowly residential numbers. To what extent artists know they are being utilised to such ends is difficult to ascertain. It seems that artists are relatively unaware of being exploited in such ways. Indeed, Emerson (2011) talked about gentrification, and again likens it to a natural process:
‘It’s had a kind of natural progression. The artists move in and make an area more desirable…and then it’s all too expensive and the artists move out.’”
For artist, read pop up play in a shop.
In his astute Guardian article of 28 June 2013, ‘Pop-ups are papering over our crumbling social structures’, Owen Hatherley makes the point that:
“Unlike squats, which aim to hold on to spaces for as long as possible, pop-ups are, by their very definition, temporary. They’re urban placeholders, there to fill the space until the market picks up – which in London is starting to occur in the most terrifying, nothing-has-been-learned way, discounting the idea that pop-ups have a tangible, permanent effect. Rather than the Great Recession appearing as a series of gaping, rotting scars in the urban fabric, which would at least have the virtue of honesty, it is creating a series of spatial gap years..”
By way of contrast – but not in opposition
Along with a number of luminaries in play, urban design and landscape architecture, last week I went for a sunny, summer’s day stroll around the Ocean area of Tower Hamlets. A process of ‘regeneration’ is under way, with significant redevelopment of some local authority blocks of flats and other improvements, including reconfiguring the spaces around other flats and houses. The changes are sufficiently complete to get a sense of the place, to see how it is working in practice. Liz Kessler, free-lance urban designer, and one of our co-strollers that day, had been responsible for articulating the vision and preparing design considerations for the communal open spaces around the remaining flats and houses.
One aspect of the changes that seems to have been successful, at least in the immediate term, is the creation of more people space, as distinct from car space. In brief, an audit of car parking space and an audit of residents’ car ownership was undertaken. The result showed there were more parking spaces than necessary. This allowed for a radical freeing up of outdoor, communal space, and its subsequent reconfiguration. Where previously there had been car parking, and internal estate streets, now there is grass, planting, land mounding and hard surfaces, clearly for use by people as well as vehicles.
In two blocks there are some play structures. Broadly speaking, they are sympathetic to their local context. But for the estate’s children and teenagers, play specific structures are simply one aspect of a more widely usable – and used – communal realm as witnessed by the amount of children sitting on the benches, and riding their bikes and scooters. Children and teenagers from two years of age to eighteen were out and about.
We were witnessing a repopulated communal realm, with children very much in evidence. Given the paucity of child presence in the general outdoors, seeing children – unsupervised – simply ‘around’, reminded me of those programmes aimed at reintroducing endangered species into the wild. And, as with such programmes, what counts is habitat. In other words, how space is designated and shaped – materially, culturally, politically – determines whether or not a habitat will be life-sustaining.
It’s early days yet, it will be interesting to walk the area again when the changes are no longer new. But at the time of our quite extensive stroll, we seemed to be witnessing ‘affordances’ coming to life.
Affordances – as discussed in ‘Leopard Skin Wellies, a Top Hat and a Vacuum Cleaner Hose ‘ by Wendy Russell and Stuart Lester, of University of Gloucestershire – offer:
‘a particular way of appreciating children’s relationship with their environments, what a particular environment might afford for children’s play (for example, a low wall affords walking on, a tree affords sheltering under, hiding behind, acting as a counting base for games, or climbing).
‘[Thinking in terms of Affordances]… means paying more attention to the affordances of everyday spaces and the possibilities they contain for playing, which is both more than and less than the designated green/open spaces on planners maps.’
There is much to commend the play street and pop-up phenomena. They are, at the local level, forms of activism rendered necessary in the absence – ‘failure’, is perhaps a more honest assessment – of any real, wider progress towards realising in action those phrases to which we have become attached: ‘playable places’; children in public spaces as indicator of a healthy society; and one that PLAYLINK has used for years, and years, and years, and…’Children and teenagers being seen and heard in shared public space is the hallmark of a society at ease with itself’.
The cautionary note to be sounded about Play Streets and pop-ups is that, by creating some children’s play opportunities in designated places, for designated periods of time, always in the adult eye, we may inadvertently contribute to delegitimising children and teenagers’ presence in the wider social realm. In welcoming these initiatives, we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the wider, infinitely more difficult, task.