Advice: Planning for children's play in housing development

Rather than confining children's play to limited areas of a housing estate, streets and other public areas should be seen as places for fun, writes Ben Kochan.

At JTP's scheme at Alconbury Weald, play spaces were provided early in the development (PIC Urban & Civic)
At JTP's scheme at Alconbury Weald, play spaces were provided early in the development (PIC Urban & Civic)

Public areas across new housing developments need to be seen as places where children can play.  Opportunities for different types of play should be considered across an estate, says Dinah Bornat, co-founder of ZCD Architects. "It is also important to take into account how the young people can get to them, as well as the facilities available there," she says.

Clare San Martin, partner at architect and urban designer JTP, suggests that there should be a hierarchy of provision, starting with smaller spaces nearer to the homes and then further away larger spaces, which may be more formal, like playgrounds and skateboard parks.

Here are four key issues to consider when planning for play in new housing developments.

1. Design the overall public realm for play

Rather than provide clearly defined play areas, architects and urban designers should look to create playful environments for everyone, says Katja Stille, director at urban designer and masterplanner Tibbalds. She points to the first phase of the Kings Crescent estate redevelopment, in Hackney, in east London, where architect MUF has included imaginative and fun play opportunities in the public realm.

Play opportunities in central spaces benefit from being overlooked, which provides a sense of safety for all, says Bornat. Paying attention to the finer detail of enabling access to the central play areas is important, she says. "Complex security systems, requiring key fobs, can act as a barrier to kids going out to play in the central area and being able to get back into the home on their own," she points out.

Many people enjoy the sound of children playing, but some will find it irritating, so the equipment shouldn’t be too near the homes, says Stille. Rob Wheway, director of the Children’s Play Advisory Service, suggests that to avoid friction between residents, those concerned about the noise should get to know the children’s parents. "Mediation between residents could be necessary," he says. He says that play facilities should be built early in a development: "This makes it clear to prospective residents that children will live there and the noise of them playing isn’t a surprise when they move in."

Play facilities should, in any case, be seen as a key part of the local infrastructure and be provided early, says San Martin. This was the developer’s approach on the Alconbury Weald development, in Cambridgeshire, she points out.

Larger play areas can be further away from the main part of the housing development, says Wheway. But if they are treated as an afterthought, tucked away in a corner, they will not get used and could get neglected, he warns. They could then become a focus for anti-social behaviour.

2. Design streets for play

Streets need to be made safe so that children can play on their doorsteps. "It should be clear that children have priority on the street, so that they can play hopscotch on the pavement or play ball," says San Martin.

There should be safe travel routes so that young people can visit their friends nearby and travel to their usual play spaces, says Wheway. "Typically, they will walk up to 100 metres on their own, if it’s safe," he says. Wheway suggests that a network of side roads and short cul-de-sacs is the most conducive to promoting children’s play.

Other pieces of local infrastructure can provide opportunities for play, says Stille. The masterplan for the new town at Northstowe, near Cambridge, identifies opportunities for play around the sustainable drainage systems, she says. Logs and stepping stones across the drainage channels are simple features that can provide fun for children.

3. Involve local residents

Local knowledge is important for deciding on the kind of play provision and its location, says San Martin. It can help with identifying what an area needs and also some local features that could be incorporated into a new play area.

She points to JTP’s garden village scheme at Chilmington Green, near Ashford, in Kent. The line of a Roman road goes through the site allocated for a play area and provides a theme to be incorporated into it.

4. Think about ongoing management

Play areas are important places where residents mix, says Stille. Service charges on private estates are often a problem for those on lower incomes in the social or affordable housing, she acknowledges, but suggests that the charges can be reduced significantly if use of gyms and other facilities are paid for separately.

Where large scale developments are planned, such as the garden villages, a community trust with local resident representatives can ensure free access to all the spaces, suggests San Martin.

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