This brief talk [presented at the British Sociological Association’s Family, Relationships and the Environment symposium] reflects on ongoing research and activism around play streets, and play on streets, over the last 7 or 8 years. Some of this is speculative, some autoethnographic, and some derived from research on and with play streets. I’ll talk both about formal ‘play streets’ schemes (where roads are legally closed for a few hours to create space for play) and more informal, autonomous play on streets.
For most of my time researching these issues, my focus has been much more on social space and on questions of social and spatial justice, albeit with a clear commitment to thinking about the materialities of the street, but I am now working to develop a greater focus explicitly on ‘environments’, at a variety of scales and especially on questions of environmental justice and the ways in which play on streets intersects with, enables and challenges questions of environmental justice, at a variety of scales.
In the few minutes I have, I’d like to talk through five intersecting perspectives on play on streets and ‘the environment’ as a means to start to explore these issues; these perspectives connect with ongoing conversations and conceptualisations about grey spaces, common worlds, damage, repair and care, and justice.
Streets might be seen as archetypal grey spaces – not just made of tarmac and concrete, brick and paving (though perhaps interspersed with green space, both public and private) but also interstitial, ambiguous and undervalued; the quality of these environmental contexts varies enormously in terms of care, damage, and pollution, including the dominance of motor vehicles and their associated risks of slow and fast violence, and scales of investment and disinvestment in public and private spaces on the street. But we know that these are the spaces that children choose to play in – and have done for decades – if they are able to, over and above more distant green, blue – or plastic – spaces of play; and yet playing children themselves are often seen as pollutants, out of place in the street environment.
In these spaces, children develop forms of play which are entangled with the more-than-human worlds of the street, from granular engagements with the road surface, front gardens, bugs and plants, to moving at different speeds and scales – climbing, running, crawling, scooting – along, around and across the street and its trees, walls, paths, kerbs, its social and environmental affordances for play, experiencing the street in all seasons and all weathers, mapping the spaces, shapes, entanglements, and materialities of the street, and sharing experiences of play with other children of all ages, and with adults who shape and survey children’s play and perhaps remember their own play on their own doorsteps.* Children play on their doorsteps, with more-than-human ‘things’ with complex environmental histories – toys, bikes, balls, and much more. They experience the street with cars displaced (though often as obstacles) and active forms of movement – running, walking, cycling, scooting, skateboarding – valued.
We see that these kinds of entanglements and experiences – shared on the street and in family and community conversations about the street, both as the children play and back inside in the homes on the street – can open up ways of thinking about and valuing the street for more-than-cars, reimagining the street itself as a space for dwelling, and starting to act to reclaim, repair and care for the street through small acts of greening or litter picking, which then sometimes grow into conversations about more substantial transformations – claiming more space with planters and parklets, slowing and stopping cars with Children Playing signs, or conversations with councillors and campaigners, and imagining the street anew.
In some places and at some times, these microlocal conversations and actions grow further, and connect with other spaces – to think about creating active, liveable and healthy neighbourhoods where children and their families are safe from environmental and social risks, to challenge the place of cars, car culture and motornormativity, and to think about the environmental and climate questions invoked by challenging cars – emissions, air quality, net zero, for example. And in the space of the street and the community, these can connect to questions of intergenerational responsibility and action, to children’s rights not only to safe spaces for play, but also to safe futures.
But, as the variety of neighbourhood contexts suggests, these experiences are uneven, and may reinforce inequalities; the capacity to claim space on the street – for children and their adults – is classed, gendered and racialized, in terms both of the nature of the spaces on doorsteps, where risks, obstacles and resources are uneven, and also the very idea that children and their families can claim public space, are entitled to do so. And there are real concerns – although not always reflected in realities – that as some streets (re)claim space for play, for children and adults, the risks of vehicles and pollutants are displaced to neighbouring streets, to others, and to their entangled environments. Yet these challenges and inequalities can themselves mobilize communities for action, to engage with each other and with others locally to connect the different contexts and build bigger campaigns.
Through all these spheres, we can highlight both the complexity and the potential of engagements between children, families and their environments, doorstep and more distant, as they play on their streets.
Since play streets started in North Tyneside in 2015, with a Play England-funded pilot run by House of Object, and since we established PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside in 2017, a total of 96 streets across the borough have played out. Some of these have played out just once or twice, but most have organised a series of play streets, and around 40 play out monthly; two have been running monthly play streets since 2015.
Before two new streets started, we estimated that 94 play streets equates to approximately 1410 children and 940 adults having access to this opportunity to play and meet, and that 40 regular play streets equates to approximately 600 children participating in a total of 120 hours of free, outdoor play in North Tyneside each month. In total, we estimate we’ve enabled about 180,000 child-play-hours since 2017.
These numbers suggest that North Tyneside’s play streets scheme is one of the largest in the country, with only Bristol (where the scheme started) and London supporting a larger number of play streets. North Tyneside’s scheme is approximately the same size as that of Leeds, a city with a population considerably bigger than North Tyneside (and where the play streets scheme is managed and developed by the local authority). We’ve attracted considerable local and regional media attention, including, for example, this short piece by ITV Tyne Tees.
Many of PlayMeetStreet’s streets are concentrated around the coast, in Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, Cullercoats, Tynemouth and North Shields, but we have also supported streets in Wallsend, Howdon, Forest Hall, Longbenton, and Shiremoor (see here for a live map of all our play streets).
PlayMeetStreet is run by unpaid volunteers, who form the committee, promote the scheme, process applications, liaise with the council, support residents, and apply for funding. In addition, those organising play streets on their own street do so as volunteers and commit a considerable amount of time and energy to animating play and community on their street.
In this context, it is important to note that all of this organisational work adds up as thousands of volunteer hours, dedicated to making parts of North Tyneside a nicer place to live.
In November 2022, we circulated an online survey to every person who had been involved in setting up a play street in North Tyneside, from those who organised just one session to those who have been running play streets regularly for up to 5 years, and everyone in between.
We asked for key facts and figures about the play streets and their organisation, for information about the identifiable impacts, and for issues, concerns and obstacles. We also asked about the relationship between play streets and the streets’ experiences of the pandemic.
We received 40 responses, out of a total of 94 streets that have been involved in PlayMeetStreet in some way since 2017. These include streets all along the coast (from St Mary’s to North Shields), but also Wallsend, Howdon and Longbenton, for example.
Some of the key, recurring reasons for getting involved in play streets include:
To create safe space for children to meet each other and play on their doorsteps
To enable children to learn to cycle safely
To get to know neighbours better
To create a sense of community
To build connections between young families
Adults fondly remembering playing out as a child
To build on occasional street get togethers (e.g. street parties, VE day, jubilee)
To try to calm traffic
To enable greater independence for growing children
The number of children who join in play streets sessions varies from session to session, and from street to street, but the survey shows that on most streets, between 10 and 20 children normally take part. It is unlikely to always be exactly the same children who participate from month to month, so the total number of individual children involved will be higher than these figures.
Roughly how many children normally take part during play street sessions?
Most children involved are of primary and pre-school age. This has important implications for school readiness, for social and physical skills, and for community-building amongst parents of young children.
Roughly what ages are the children who normally take part in your play street sessions? Please tick all boxes that apply.
PlayMeetStreet play streets are not just for children. They also create a space for community and connection amongst adults. Significant numbers of adults take part (supervising their own children, stewarding, making cups of tea, playing etc.) and these include adult neighbours without young children on the majority of play streets
Approximately how many adults normally take part in your play street sessions?
Do adult neighbours without young children join in your play street sessions?
When the barriers are up and the space of the street is safe to play, children engage in hundreds of different play activities, representing most of the so-called ‘play types’.
As well as fun, though, we know that play – across the range of types identified – supports all sorts of physical and social developments for children.
One of the most visible impacts of a play street is on children’s physical activity and skills. Children make the most of the safe space offered to move in all sorts of ways, usually for the full three hours.
In what ways have the children on your street been physically active during your play streets? Please tick all that apply and add ‘others’ as appropriate.
In response to the question “During play streets, do you think children on your street have learnt or improved any physical skills?”, the following percentages of respondents said yes to:
The impacts on children are not limited to physical skills, however. Play streets create opportunities for children to develop and practice a range of social skills.
During play streets, do you think children on your street have learnt or improved any social skills?
Percentage stating ‘yes’
Interacting with children of a similar age
Interacting with older or younger children
Interacting with adults on the street
Learning about road safety
Other specific social skills that respondents suggested children had developed included:
Helping to set up the street for play
Doorknocking neighbours to let them know about the play street
Asking neighbours to move cars
Getting to know the street and adjacent streets
Taking turns and sharing toys and treats
Taking responsibility for younger children
Extending friendship groups
Speaking to people (of all ages) who they don’t know well
Teaching other children games and skills
Learning to deal with conflict and arguments
Working as a team
Listening to adult organisers
Being polite with neighbours
The impact of play streets on connection, friendliness, safety and belonging on residents is overwhelmingly positive. The vast majority of respondents in North Tyneside noted that, in a variety of ways, their relationships to their streets and neighbourhoods and to their neighbours dramatically improved. The increases in feelings of connection, safety and belonging are incredibly important to families in terms, for example, of their capacity to support each other, to negotiate challenges and crises (such as the pandemic and the cost of living crisis), and to feel at home. Play streets undoubtedly contribute to the council’s stated goal of making North Tyneside an even greater place to live.
Percentage stating ‘yes’
I know more people on my street since we started to organise play streets
My street feels a friendlier, safer place to live since we started to organise play streets
Children on my street have made new friends since we started to organise play streets
I feel I belong more in my neighbourhood since we started to organise play streets
I have become friends with neighbours since my play street started
As well as the more intangible feelings of connection, belonging and safety, we can identify a range of specific activities that demonstrate a clear growth in trust and support on the borough’s play streets. Respondents reported that five key acts which demand considerable levels of trust (holding spare keys, borrowing equipment, feeding pets, borrowing money, and look after children) all grew in scale since their play street started.
More generally, the responses regarding increases in neighbourliness and connection are overwhelmingly positive. Some of these reaffirm the positive changes outlined above, but it is clear that play streets support neighbours to get to know each other and to support each other in a number of ways. According to respondents, every one of these activities had seen an improvement since streets had started to play out together.
In all these ways, it is clear that the benefits of play streets extend well beyond children and their opportunities for play.
Have any of the following increased in frequency since your play street started? Please select all that apply and add your own examples.
Whilst one might imagine that it is families with children who reap the most benefits from play streets, on 70% of streets surveyed, adult neighbours without young children participate occasionally or regularly. This suggests that these neighbours too, who might not have a particular interest in creating space for play, potentially also benefit from impacts of play streets.
The resident-organisers who responded outlined some of the ways these adults have engaged in, and benefitted from their play streets, and underlined the efforts they go to ensure that all neighbours are invited and included in the play street. One noted, for example, that “We made sure our play streets are for everyone, including adults and teenagers. We want that sense of community.”
Those who reflected on the participation of adults without young children noted that
elderly neighbours would come out to chat, to share a hot chocolate or some cake
adult neighbours would express real pleasure in seeing children play on their streets
at key events (street quizzes or bingo, summer street parties, Christmas, for example) more adults would participate
many adults without children pop in to the play street or stop to chat as they’re coming and going, even if they don’t stay out
some adults without young children volunteer to ‘steward’ the road closure, enabling the play street to happen and giving them a chance to chat to other neighbours
adults without young children will sometimes come along with grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or other young relatives and friends
others often out gardening, washing cars, fixing bikes while the children and their families play and chat and engage as they do so.
One of the ways in which the community benefits of play streets are reinforced is through the street Facebook and WhatsApp groups that have developed, often as a result of the play street, but sometimes as a first step towards the street establishing a play street.
90% of the streets surveyed have either a Facebook group (10%) or WhatsApp group (77.5%) or both (2.5%). These groups complement the in-person socialising on the street and enable connections to continue between play street sessions. It’s clear that these groups, developed alongside play streets, support residents in all sorts of ordinary but important ways that simply make life easier.
One of the particular ways in which play streets enabled support was during the pandemic. 72% of resident-respondents on streets that had started playing out before the pandemic stated that their play street positively impacted their street’s experience of the pandemic. Some of our play streets also emerged out of the pandemic, as a way of consolidating and developing the connections and informal support networks established during the pandemic and as a reflection of how the streets felt during and after lockdowns.
Play streets also enable other forms of very local engagement and activism. A significant minority of streets have also got involved in activities such as litter picking and tending their nearby green spaces. A number have also participated regularly in the Tin on a Wall collections for local charities and other collections for food banks etc. Almost half of the streets involved have started conversations more generally about their streets. These include speaking to their councillors about speeding, parking and pavement repairs, training as speed awareness volunteers, and speaking to other road users (e.g. neighbouring schools and clubs) about driver behaviour.
Asked to reflect on the sorts of changes organisers have seen on their streets since they started running play streets, a number of themes recurred:
Much closer relationships with many neighbours
Improves sense of security/safety
Children of all ages know each other
Neighbours just chatting and saying hello to each other more and more.
For organisers, some of the best things to happen on their play streets included:
“elderly neighbour now brought a hot meal every evening”
“Street Play has increased the ‘neighbourhoodness’ of the street. Many of us (adults) are now close friends and organise social activities together”
“There was a real community feel again after the long Covid months”
“The 100th Birthday party for our neighbour D___ which included the Backworth Colliery Band playing for us; the sense of community and knowing everyone better”
“Regular playing now in front gardens as well as in the back alley”
“Feels like a little community & more united. Look out for each other a lot more”
 Figures for each street vary, we estimate 15 children and 10 adults per street. This is a more conservative estimate than that from a national survey (2017, 2019 and rechecked 2021) which suggests the following participation averages for play streets: 30 children attending and benefitting, and 15 adults actively involved in the play street.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been working with Leeds City Council public health officers, local community organisations Fall Into Place and Kidz Klub, and Ludicology to explore and evaluate projects and plans to enable more play streets in Leeds’ “priority neighbourhoods”.
There is also an additional report, led by Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay of Ludicology with Sally Hall and Naomi Roxby Wardle, reflecting on a related participatory action research project (“Play Streets in Leeds: Exploring Residents’ Views about Capacity, Capability and Possibility”) available here.
As I suggested in my first post-holiday blog, the first mile of our holiday by bike – from our home to the North Shields ferry port – was, by a long margin, the worst. Things could only get better – and the decent, safe cycling infrastructure I’d been fantasising about started within metres of the ferry at the other end, in IJmuiden.
A friend had given me street-by-street directions through IJmuiden, before we picked up the fietsknoopen network we’d be following for longer distances. Her directions even let me know when I’d come across my first “Dutch roundabout”. Dutch roundabouts (I’m sure the Dutch just call them roundabouts) are particularly topical for me and my fellow North Tyneside walking and cycling campaigners, as our council is in the process of attempting to create one of the first in the UK, much to the annoyance of our local Conservatives. More on this later.
For this short route through IJmuiden, we travelled along quiet streets, designated fietstraaten, on separated cycle paths (fietspaden), round “Dutch” roundabouts, across raised, prioritised crossings. At no point, despite not knowing my way and never having cycled in the Netherlands before, and even with a heavily-laden bike, my daughter on board, and another bike being dragged behind, did I ever feel unsafe or at risk.
As my daughter began to foresee a 16-day field course in Dutch cycling infrastructure, I marvelled at the separation, the priority, the safety, the smoothness, and the ease of the paths we were travelling, getting particularly excited at a stretch of path which sailed around a mature tree. I felt sure that at home this tree – and its roots – would have been left as obstacles to navigate on an unbending path.
Within about 15 minutes of leaving the ferry, we reached our first knooppunt, which was to lead us south through the dunes and along the seafront on the Netherlands’ west coast. This stretch is known for its winds and we were lucky that it was quite still, but we’d also been primed to expect a much less flat landscape than the Netherlands is known for. The paths were beautiful, spacious, and high-quality but they were also undulating; the route profile for this ride was markedly more demanding than any other. None of the hills was big or long, but they were many of them. Yet, the paths were busy with tourist and tourers, but also with older people and families, who seemed to simply be getting from one place to another.
Between the long stretches through dunes, we passed through seaside towns reminiscent of those in North Tyneside. Noordwijk reminded me of Whitley Bay, with its long prom, its ice cream parlours, and slightly faded hotels, but its seafront cycle path was wide, separated, direct, and uncontested, and so too were those of all the other coastal communities we passed through. It was a pleasure to cycle, with one eye on the sea, knowing we weren’t going to collide with pedestrians, dogs on long leads, or scooting children.
In the course of the two weeks that followed, we cycled on urban, suburban and rural routes, for distances from a few hundred metres to up to 20 miles, on a range of different bikes. As I explore below, we didn’t feel safe all the time, but the moments of anxiety were more about us than about the infrastructure around us. On cycle paths, quiet streets, rural roads, at roundabouts and junctions, we travelled easily and with a lot of pleasure.
In residential neighbourhoods, we cycled along separated cycle paths, fietstraaten (where “the car is a guest” [auto te gast]), quiet routes with painted paths on each side, through woonerven (living streets) and past not only homes, but also schools, shops, playgrounds and parks. As someone who is particularly engaged in thinking about residential streets and what we do on them, these meandering journeys, often following trails of knooppunten through what seemed like very ordinary streets, were particularly appealing, to see what a different scale and pace of movement could feel like in enabling both everyday mobility and a quietly-animated street life.
At a slightly bigger suburban scale, later in our trip, some of the links between towns closer to Amsterdam that almost merged into each other – Hoofddorp, Haarlem, and back to IJmuiden – showed what’s possible for the kind of everyday infrastructure that seems to allow residents to travel for half an hour or so to work, or a busier high street, or to see friends or family. Less meandering, these suburban routes followed main roads, but with a degree of separation and safety a long way from the arterial routes imagined where I live. The North Tyneside variant are more likely to be shared paths on narrow pavements, with no protected junctions, and few onward connections. The suburban routes we followed in the Netherlands allowed us to make quick, safe progress, as directly as we might if we were in car.
On more rural stretches, we often found ourselves following canals or through polders on dead straight paths, often bidirectional, with or without median markings. Occasionally we were expected to share these with farm vehicles, but we saw just one tractor. Otherwise, our fellow travellers were families, teenagers, older people, and some more middle-aged commuters. On these stretches, we saw a lot of older people, men and women, on ebikes, as well as parents riding ubiquitous Urban Arrows with children on board. We were following knooppunten, but most of those cycling alongside us seemed to know the routes well, suggesting they were making ordinary journeys between everyday places; these were short, but connected, routes between small towns and villages, making travel by bike over short-to-medium distances safe and straightforward.
In the most urban areas, including in the city centre in Utrecht but also in the centres of Haarlem and IJmuiden, the cycling network is perhaps more like a jigsaw, made up of connected pieces but with visible joins. In most places in these contexts, rather than following continuous paths, journeys were made up of short stretches of quiet, often one-way, streets, linked by protected junctions to sections of fietspaden (separated cycle paths) and dedicated infrastructure such as bridges and underpasses. There were also, of course, far more cyclists. And all this meant that these were the most challenging environments for us to cycle in.
It wasn’t that the infrastructure wasn’t good or consistent, but that the nature of cycling in these places was less familiar. We weren’t used to having to respond quickly to different cycling conditions or to negotiating with hundreds of other cyclists heading in all sorts of different directions, and we weren’t used to exercising our priority over cars, especially at junctions where ‘sharks teeth‘ indicated drivers must – and did – give way to us. We hesitated, expecting to have to double-check that drivers would give way, as we have to at home, and frustrated other cyclists and drivers. It took us a while too to learn the road signs and the Dutch word uitgezonderd (‘excepted’), working out when we could and couldn’t cycle the ‘wrong way’ down a one-way street, through a ‘dead end’, or on a pedestrian route, or when to expect cars, taxis and vans on what seemed like a fietstraat, and all these challenges were much more prevalent in the busier urban areas.
As a result, we had a few more close passes and more aggression from other road users as we got used to this kind of cycling, and my anxiety was higher as I tried to keep my daughter safe on her bike.
But, once we started to get to grips with all of this, and find good routes for the journeys we repeated, we revelled in the convenience of cycling quickly to the shops, the station, to cafes and restaurants, and in the sheer pleasure of joining thousands of others cycling on their daily routines. We loved pulling up outside a shop or cafe and just securing our bikes with ‘Dutch’ locks, filling our panniers with our purchases, and heading home.
I’ve already talked a bit about junctions, and I suppose the key thing, in contrast to at home, is that cyclists nearly always have priority at junctions (though usually have to give way to pedestrians, in an appropriate hierarchy of road users). This is true when cycle paths cross roads to head in another direction, or simply to the other side of the carriageway, but also at roundabouts where a cycle path, with priority, takes cyclists round and off the roundabout safely without stopping. My experiences of these roundabouts confirm to me that, despite our local Conservatives fears, North Tyneside’s new roundabout is not Dutch (see this also). In all these instances, it took us some time to feel confident that we could simply just carry on, that drivers would give way to us.
We crossed a good few bridges and underpasses too. The preference seems to be for bridges when crossing bigger roads, canals and railway lines, following perhaps the principles of social safety that ensure that a path feels safe from the perspective of visibilty. After many miles on flat paths, these sometimes-steep paths over bridges felt like hills to my daughter as we approached, but in fact they were never too steep or too long for her untrained legs; the angle and the steepness sometimes got me on my Tern GSD as I lost momentum with a heavy bike and the wrong gear, but I learnt my lesson and prepared my approaches better. We got to see some beautiful bridges and to witness a few open.
The few underpasses we experienced were wide, open and light – and well-used, in marked contrast to the dark, narrow, deserted underpasses I sometimes have to navigate on my regular journeys at home. I never felt unsafe in a Dutch underpass and they served a purpose in keeping us on direct routes.
Junctions, bridges and underpasses serve as key points in dense, consistent, connected and safe networks. And this is the heart of my experience of Dutch cycling infrastructure: you can get where you want to go safely and straightforwardly, whether that’s half a mile to the supermarket, seven miles to the next town, or 35 miles to your next holiday accommodation. It’s a remarkable achievement, and one we know didn’t happen without a fight, even in the Netherlands.
What this kind on infrastructure facilitates, affords, for me, is a shift in pace, scale and rhythm. You can get where you want to go, quickly and directly if you want to, or slowly and sociably, if you prefer. You can travel with encumbrances – children, shopping, surfboards, friends – because you don’t have to worry about the risks of being distracted or unbalanced, and because you’ve been brought up to be able to cycle like this. And because it’s possible – even easier – to get around by bike, you can remove cars from spaces which are filled with people, in city centres and residential neighbourhoods, and these places can feel more human; you can feel more human.
I don’t want to present an idealised account of Dutch life; I got a tiny glimpse, very much viewed through bike-shaped spectacles. Cycling infrastructure is just one part of Dutch society, albeit one connected to so many other spheres. But I liked what I saw and what I felt, and I’d like to explore it some more.
I’ve just got back from a two-week holiday with my 11 year old daughter where our Tern GSD (and her 24″ bike) were our primary means of transport. We travelled by bike to the ferry port (in North Shields, in the north east of England) and cycled off the ferry at the other end, the port of IJmuiden, just west of Amsterdam. We cycled around 150 miles on the GSD and other bikes, travelled about 60 miles by train (with the bikes), and sailed about 300 miles each way on the ferry. We didn’t travel a single mile by car or by plane.
I’m sure there’s a carbon footprint calculator somewhere that tells us how much we saved, but even without an estimate, we can be pretty sure this was a greener holiday than most.
We weren’t “touring” in the Netherlands – we were using our bikes to get around, in a way we might have used a car, if we’d taken one. So we cycled between our four different locations (the resort Duinrell near Wassenaar for 3 nights, a cabin in Hazerswoude-Dorp for 4 nights, Utrecht for 7 nights, and Haarlem for 1 night before the ferry home) and we cycled (or occasionally walked) for all our everyday trips (to the supermarket, to the local pool, to cafes and restaurants, for outings and trips, or just to have a look around).
So, many might have travelled hundreds more miles than we did, and what we did certainly wasn’t new or innovative, but it was a first for us.
We had two bikes with us most of the time – our Tern GSD and my daughter’s 24″ Ridgeback Destiny. The GSD carried me and our luggage, and occasionally also my daughter and her bike, bagged-and-dragged with a Bakkie Bag, on longer distances. I have two 400Wh batteries on the GSD. At the cabin, we had access to a range of ‘Dutch’ bikes which we used when we didn’t need the GSD and in Utrecht, we parked the GSD in a secure municipal bike garage for a week and I rode a friend’s Gazelle while my daughter rode her Ridgeback.
At full-load (luggage, daughter, bagged-and-dragged bike) the GSD was heavy; our first attempt at packing, while within the bike’s weight limits, felt twitchy and unsafe, especially at the front/with the Transporteur rack, so we repacked, jettisoned some superfluous clothes and books, and tried again. I rode with all this for 35 miles south from IJmuiden to Wassenaar through undulating dunes and in the 26 degree heat, and it was heavy and slow at times, but absolutely fine. I barely noticed the bike at the back, apart from on tight turns and narrower points where I had to pay a bit more attention.
Conveniently, we live just a mile or so from DFDS’ so-called Newcastle-Amsterdam ferry; I say ‘so-called’ as the ports are actually in North Shields and IJmuiden. Living in North Shields, this is important to me, and I like to imagine there’s someone like me in IJmuiden equally adamant their port is not in Amsterdam. Anyway, we’re about a mile away but I predicted, correctly, that this would be the worst cycle mile of our holiday. There’s a signed cycle route for part of the journey, but even that runs along a rutted, at times narrow, shared pavement. And we have to get to that by taking our chances through North Shields town centre where there isn’t (yet) any decent cycling infrastructure. Oh, and as we approached the port, we had to detour round barriers on “national cycle network” route 10 (NCN10) as the GSD wouldn’t fit through them.
We got to the port slightly later than planned as a result of our repacking, and were promptly told we had to wait in the queue with all the cars as cycles are “treated like vehicles”. There were a few other cyclists queuing too and the port worker didn’t seem concerned that we might be a bit vulnerable amongst all the motor vehicles and their exhausts.
When we finally embarked, we were directed to the cycle parking spot in the middle of car deck, which by this point was entirely inaccessible to anything other than a small, unloaded bike. Given most travelling with cycles will have luggage – and increasing numbers will be on cargo bikes and trikes – this seemed unhelpful. So we parked the bikes up with the motorbikes, secured them with straps, and unloaded what we needed for the crossing. I wondered how much I could leave in the panniers, and what to do about the batteries – in the end, I left unimportant stuff with little value but took the batteries.
At IJmuiden, we had to wait to disembark till a good number of cars were already on the move and felt a bit overwhelmed by the noise, fumes and movement of the cars and motorbikes around us. When we did get off, a very friendly Dutch port worker directed us ahead, to queue-jump a lot of cars, to get to passport control. And we were really grateful for that.
So, all in all, the embarking and disembarking on the outward ferry leg wasn’t great – we were kind of left to fend for ourselves and shown little consideration for being more vulnerable than those travelling on motor vehicles. It didn’t make for a great start to the holiday, even though the crossing itself was just fine. Talking about this with a friend who’d been delayed more than six hours for the Channel Tunnel reminded me, however, that our ‘bad start’ was nothing compared to what many endured at airports and channel ports this summer!
On the way home, from IJmuiden, our experience of embarking and disembarking was much much better. We arrived earlier at the port, and embarked quite quickly, before any cars or motorbikes. We had easy access to the bike parking mid-deck and a lot more support securing our bikes. I was a bit more relaxed about our stuff, and left more of our luggage and the batteries on the bikes. On arrival in North Shields, we were able to disembark early too, behind a big group of touring German bikers, and were directed safely to the front of the passport control queue and along a small, marked cycle path to the dedicated cycle exit on Coble Dene. I don’t know what any of this means in terms of tips to make the journey more pleasant, but I suspect arriving earlier at the dock helps.
I’d broadly planned our routes in advance based on the national knooppunten/ fietsknoopen system. This is a network of routes throughout the Netherlands that allows you to plan journeys through numbered junctions, so that all you need to remember, or note down, is the series of numbers you should travel through (see here for a bit more about this network in English). There are a number of websites and apps that allow you to plan, save and record routes, and I found Routiq the most user friendly. Using Routiq, I could see how long journeys would take, what the terrain would be like, and where we’d pass through; their mapping also includes places to stop – to eat and drink or to visit.
I used Routiq on my phone attached to my handlebars, but resorted to writing the numbers of my daughter’s hand when my phone battery died – being a geographer, I was a little anxious that I didn’t have a map in front of me, but the knooppunten signs were regular and helpful, and we found our way just as easily. It’s an amazing and straightforward system (and replicated in the nation’s canal network too!) and makes getting round the Netherlands by bike extremely easy.
The fietsknoop network was less helpful cycling within and around towns and cities, so here I reverted to using Google Maps and/or helpful directions from friends.
Of course, one of the reasons why the network is so easy to use is because there are cycle paths, cycle-friendly junctions, and low-car streets everywhere. Even if we made mistakes and took a wrong turning, it was easy to turn round and find the right route. And on a few occasions where we ended up on the wrong streets, it was also easy to find an alternative, safe, accessible route back to the path we should have been on. At no point did we find ourselves thrown onto a busy, dangerous road as we often are when we veer off UK cycle paths (although there were a couple of times when we found ourselves on shared roads in towns which were a little bit busier than I’d have liked – I’d have been absolutely fine on my own – but with a heavy, lengthy and precious load, I was a little anxious). I intend to write up my reflections on Dutch cycling infrastructure in a separate blog post soon and will add a link here (this second blog is now published here).
On longer journeys, we stopped regularly for ice creams, drinks, or meals, or just to pause and look at the landscapes. We travelled through some beautiful neighbourhoods and rural areas that satisfied the geographer in me. I loved being able to pass through ordinary residential streets, past playgrounds, along canals, through fields, along seafronts, across nature reserves, and along high streets to get a varied sense of the places we were moving through. My daughter was perhaps less enthused by all of this, but humoured me and was more than entertained by ice creams and pancakes, and the cycling was so safe that we could pass the time telling stories or playing games and not be worried about being distracted and at risk.
The middle of our trip coincided with another European heatwave and temperatures of around 35 degrees – a powerful reminder of why car-lite lives are important. We enjoyed the breeze on the GSD as we rode to the local outdoor pool a few times, but the thought of cycling 30 miles (about 3 hours at our heavily-laden pace) in this heat was not appealing. So I started researching the possibility of taking the bikes, GSD and Ridgeback, on the train for a short hop that would reduce our cycling time to about 25 minutes. I asked on Twitter and got some useful advice and encouragement, not least from Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) who seemed to conclude that it was certainly possible.
So, using the Nederlandse Spoorwegen app, we booked tickets – for me, my daughter, and two bikes (a total of €26) – and took a lovely short route from our cabin to the station at Alphen an der Rijn, just a 20-minute train ride from Utrecht, our next stop. On the Twitter thread, someone suggested that we might encounter broken lifts in the heatwave, and – lo and behold – when we arrived at the station, the lift to the platform we needed was out of order. There were no station staff to help, but a keen and kind woman from the bus company shouted across the platform to two teenage boys, more or less ordering them to help me carry the GSD up the stairs – so they did – and we caught our train easily.
A few people had suggested that access to slower Sprinter trains was easier than to Intercity trains, as the doors are more level. The train we caught here was an Intercity using Sprinter stock so we were lucky – and, although a good few other cyclists had made a similar choice that day, there was plenty of room in the cycle carriage for at least six bikes. There was another family with a long tail cargo bike too – a Benno Boost laden with three kids and a lot of camping gear. And our exit – with a working lift – was smooth and step-free at Utrecht, where we just had a 10-minute bike ride to our next place to stay.
Once we’d worked out how the trains worked with the GSD, we opted to reduce another longer journey too, from Utrecht to Haarlem, on our way home to IJmuiden and the ferry. I’d estimated that this would be a 35-mile journey, through small towns and rural areas south of Amsterdam. The weather had cooled a bit so it would have been OK to cycle but I just decided a shorter journey would be a better use of our time. So we caught a train from Utrecht to Hoofddorp and then cycled just 8 miles to Haarlem, along some fabulous straight, flat paths past grazing sheep.
Coming from the UK, the ease with which we could take the train, and take the bikes too, was surprising and impressive. No need to book trains in advance, tickets valid on all trains on the day, and pretty reasonably priced too. My daughter’s tickets cost just €2.50 for each journey. We did have to pay €7.50 for each bike for each journey, but there was no question that there would be space for the bikes, unlike in the UK.
All in all, using the trains with our bikes definitely eased some pressures and now we’ve done it and know how it all works, I’d certainly integrate some train journeys into future cycling holidays, allowing us to travel further across the Netherlands. I have no doubt that taking the train with ‘ordinary’ bikes would be even simpler, mostly as getting on and off trains would be easier, but it was easy enough with the GSD.
Trying to think what else to cover –
Secure storage – we were able to keep the GSD inside in all but one of the places we stayed (though I needed some help from a random campsite neighbour to get the bike up four big steps to our lodge at Duinrell). In Haarlem, we stayed with a Vrienden op der Fiets host, where somewhere to securely store and charge your bike is assured. I’d really recommend you check Vrienden op der Fiets out, which offers accommodation to visitors arriving by bike or on foot across the country. In Utrecht, the house we were staying in was too small for the GSD, so we took it to one of the secure bike stores near Utrecht Central, home to the biggest cycle parking garage in the world. We didn’t use this one, but a smaller one with more space for cargo bikes, at Van Sijpesteijnkade. There is a question about how non-Dutch visitors pay for these facilities, as they don’t accept ‘credit cards’ and my UK Visa debit card registered as a credit card on their payment machines – and they don’t accept cash either. In any case, it cost just €8 for a week.
My daughter rode her bike for increasing distances, as the holiday progressed and as she gained confidence. She can cycle well but doesn’t cycle regularly at home and is certainly not used to long distances. She loved trying out the low-step, coaster-brake, no-gear Dutch bikes at the cabin we stayed at, getting used to a slightly different kind of cycling on the flat, quiet polder lanes. And she really enjoyed cycling round Utrecht, not least because she realised it was so much quicker than walking. She got very used to some regular routes, the junctions, the lights and so on, and said that her favourite moment on the whole trip was turning right out of the end of the road we were staying on in Utrecht on her bike! Cycling in Utrecht is busy and maintaining a constant awareness of other cyclists, and even more of people on mopeds, criss-crossing our path and overtaking, was tough for her, and at times for me. In more suburban and rural areas, where the cycle paths were a bit quieter, she cycled whole stretches of our latter journeys, only around 7-10 miles each, but longer than she’s used to cycling. And, perhaps most important of all from my perspective, she really ‘got’ cycling while we were away, so much so that we’ve bought her a new Dutch-style (but with gears and handbrakes!) bike ready for her move to secondary school in a couple of weeks.
Whilst we’d obviously been excited about the trip, I’d had a few anxieties about what would happen if the bike broke, or we got lost, or my daughter couldn’t stand the cycling, or one of us got covid – it’s quite a lot as a single parent to take responsibility for a trip like this with an 11-year old. And my daughter thought the holiday would peak at Duinrell! But, to be honest, it couldn’t have gone better. We had no major mishaps and we negotiated all the minor changes of plan easily. And we had an awful lot of fun.
As I said at the start, this wasn’t a cycle touring holiday, it was a holiday in the Netherlands by bike. So a lot of the fun we had – at Duinrell, in a rowing boat on the polders, exploring Utrecht by kayak – we might have had anyway, travelling by plane, car, or public transport. But the bikes added to it – made the travelling, on longer and shorter distances, more fun and more interesting, with lots to experience and see. We’ll definitely be doing it again.
I might tinker with this blog as more things come to mind, and I’m happy to answer questions too.
Other things that have come to mind –
As I was a little anxious about unforeseen mishaps, I did try to put in place safety nets. Of course, we had travel insurance, and after debates on the Family Cycling Facebook group over which insurers allowed for cycle touring/transport and didn’t insist in helmet-wearing, I went with LV=. I also double-checked that my GSD was covered for theft in Europe – it’s insured, named, on my home insurance with Admiral and they confirmed in writing that it was also covered beyond the UK. And finally, I have ETA Cycle Rescue – I’ve never used it but it only costs about £20 a year – and amazingly also covers breakdowns in Europe (for up to 90 days/year). I got written confirmation from them too, and made sure I had all the documents/contact details with me. And, of course, I didn’t need any of it!
I didn’t see a single other GSD on our trip. I think I possibly saw a Quickhaul at a distance in Amsterdam. I saw a few Radwagon-style longtails in Amsterdam and Utrecht but these were mostly carrying cargo rather than children. Of course, we did see thousands of bakfietsen, especially Urban Arrows, which definitely seemed to be the family cargo bike of choice.
Back in June 2020, I gave a presentation (for Salford University’s Healthy Active Citiies group) on how children, families and play might fit in to the active travel agenda, particularly in the context of the covid-19 crisis and our recovery from it.
Sponsored by Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group and Urban Geography Research Group.
During the course of the coronavirus pandemic, play in urban space – rainbow trails, children scooting, pavement chalking, for example – emerged as both a hopeful and contentious practice. On the one hand suggesting fun, connection and freedom for children, their families and communities, often in contrast to the overriding atmospheres of repeated restrictions and lockdowns; on the other as something frivolous, risky, and even illegal. As hopes were pinned on an emergence from the pandemic, organisations in diverse national contexts called for play to be at the heart of the ‘recovery’ (Cortés-Morales et al, 2021). At the same time, debates in many different places around the use – and reallocation – of urban space, in the pandemic and beyond, became one of the focuses of discussions around “building back better”, proposing urban spaces that were more human, more accessible, and more playful.
The role of play as a space for recovery and repair is at the heart of much longstanding work on play – play can be a space where connections are made, emotions are revealed and worked through, and, simply, where fun is had. But, as exemplified during the pandemic, play is not unproblematic; attitudes towards play and unequal access to space for play, for example, pose challenges to the potential for play to contribute to environmentally and socially just futures (McKendrick et al, 2015; Horton and Kraftl, 2018). As such, it is potentially productive to think about the place of play in ‘recovery’ not only from the pandemic, but also from diverse urban crises of family, health, housing and community, the environment, violence, and much more, at scales from the personal to the global, and past and present.
This session seeks submissions of papers which explore how play figures in dialogues, policies, practices and experiences of ‘recovery’ in urban spaces. We welcome papers that report research at a variety of scales, from a diversity of locations, and that engage with both empirical and/or more conceptual approaches.
Cortés-Morales, S., Holt, L., Acevedo-Rincón, Aitken, S., Ekman Ladru, D., Joelsson, T., Kraftl, P., Murray, L. and Tebet, G., 2021, Children living in pandemic times: A geographical, transnational and situated view, Children’s Geographies, online first.
Horton, J. and Kraftl, P. 2018. Three playgrounds: Researching the multiple geographies of children’s outdoor play, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 50/1, pp.214-235.
McKendrick, J., Kraftl, P., Mills, S., Gregorius, S. and Sykes, G. 2015. Complex geographies of play provision dis/investment across the UK, International Journal of Play, 4/3, pp.228-235.
The session format will be “live hybrid”, with presenters presenting in-person, to a live audience but, we hope, with capacity for attendees to also view online and be able to ask questions through an online platform.
We are committed to inclusivity and safety for all participants and presenters at our session.
Further details on the RGS Annual Conference are available here.
Presented by: Professor Alison Stenning, Newcastle University
Reporting an ongoing research from local authorities across the country, and a focused case study in North Tyneside. This presentation explores the potential for the ‘playing out’ model, which facilitates temporary residential road closures for play, to support the development of community, a stronger sense of place, and associated health and well-being benefits, for both children and adults. This is in the context of cuts to other community spaces.
More than 80 UK local authorities (including Newcastle and North Tyneside) support playing out and more than 1000 streets have participated since 2009. In July 2019, the Department for Transport wrote to all local authorities and MPs to encourage them to support the practice, recognising the many benefits for children, families and wider communities.
While the presentation will focus on themes of community, belonging and place attachment, there will be links to ideas around active travel, air quality, wellbeing and green space.
I’ve just passed the 1000-mile marker on my Tern GSD, my beautiful, bright orange, e-cargo bike. I know 1000 miles isn’t much for a seasoned cyclist, used to 100-mile rides every weekend, but it’s quite a milestone for me – I even managed to coordinate passing it with a Christmas social cycle with friends, festooned with lights, and with my daughter on the back.
I’ve almost always owned a bike, and I’ve cycled in most of the different stages of my life, but if you’d suggested to me, say, before covid struck, that I’d be riding this much, and that cycling would be my primary form of transport I’d have been surprised. It’s been a fairly rapid transformation, if one that already had foundations.
I cycled as a child (as I reflect in this blog) and at university; in sixth form and at university, in Birmingham and in Newcastle, bikes were my primary form of transport (though I have almost no recollection of what my bikes were then, what they looked like). I’d cycle daily to campus, and cycle home in the dark, with a strong sense that this was safer than walking. And in Birmingham, I cycled a lot with friends on long(ish) rides to the south of the city, to pubs mostly, as you do in your 20s. I bought my first car in about 1998 and that probably marked a significant shift in my cycling habits.
I don’t think I owned a bike when I moved back to Newcastle (in 2003) but bought one in around 2008 from Edinburgh Cycles and started cycling into work, from Heaton, for a couple of years. I cycled a bit on the waggonways then too, but I never cycled to the shops or to friends’ houses. Then I got pregnant and moved to North Shields and stopped cycling routinely. My then partner cycled to work quite regularly and did quite a lot of weekend bike rides too, some of which I joined him on, but it always seemed like I was juggling too much (childcare, work, shopping, etc.) to manage to cycle too – given what I know now about cargo bikes, perhaps I’d have made a different decision. I do remember one friend getting a box bike for the nursery run, but couldn’t quite imagine doing it myself. I still cycled quite a lot on holidays; we always took our bikes on family holidays to Ireland and I regularly cycled there, exploring quiet lanes on my own, with my partner, and often with my daughter on the back of my bike.
I’ve never particularly liked driving and I certainly don’t love cars. My current car is an 18-year-old Fiesta which somehow manages to pass its MOT each year without costly repairs. But, for years, especially those with a young child, we defaulted to driving for most journeys (though never the school run).
Fast forward to March 2020, to home working, remote schooling, and the quieter streets of lockdown. My daughter and I took to cycling around the residential streets of North Shields, mostly feeling safe with the low levels of traffic. We started regularly cycling to her dad’s and did a few longer journeys, to see the piles of stones near St Mary’s Lighthouse and to the marina at Royal Quays, for example.
In July 2020, North Tyneside Council created a pop-up cycleway all along our seafront, from Tynemouth to Whitley Bay, a cycleway that became popularly known as the Sunrise Cycleway. This 3-mile route opened up so much, as we managed the first summer of covid and the ongoing need for social distancing. My daughter and I used the route a lot, sometimes with friends, cycling to Whitley Bay for an ice cream, or just getting about, shopping, visiting friends. And I used it even more on my own, probably 3 or 4 times a week, to get to friends’ houses, to shop on the temporarily-closed-to-motor-vehicles Park View, and just to get some exercise and fresh air, a break from working at home.
My old Edinburgh Cycles bike started to fall apart – the seat snapped off as I rode home one day on the Sunrise Cycleway, and then the gears went and it seemed to make more sense to buy a new bike than fork out for expensive new parts. So I bought a lovely and long-coveted Dutch-style bike and rode that around the coast, on errands, for fun, often when I’d otherwise have driven.
I was beginning to imagine that cycling could be a bigger part of my life, and that it could become my primary means of transport for the first time since my 20s.
I’d started idly investigating ebikes over the summer of 2020, partly because I was cycling so much more but also because, as I engaged in more and more campaigning around the Sunrise Cycleway and other temporary walking and cycling interventions, more people were talking about ebikes in my social (media) circles. The geography of my everyday life had shrunk during the pandemic, as it did for many; most of my journeys were very local, but some of them involved carrying a load of stuff (mostly signs and kit for the play streets I support through PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside; it had always felt wrong to deliver kit to play streets by car, when at their heart play streets promote car-free spaces), but also, of course, shopping and my 10 year old daughter. If I was going to cycle more and drive less, I had to think about longer distances and heavier loads. I knew that I’d be unlikely to commute the 16-mile round trip to work, when we returned to the office, on an acoustic bike as I hadn’t for over 10 years. I knew, especially, that I would rarely be able to face the homeward trip in bad weather and in the dark, at the end of a long working day. I also knew from experience that I often ‘trip chained’ on my journeys to work, either by car or by metro, to fit in other errands and other destinations. I figured an e-cargo bike might be the solution for my needs.
So I hired an bike (just a Raleigh Motus at this stage) from Tynemouth’s Ride Electric for a month and I used it a lot – to travel to work occasionally, to shop, to take things to the dry cleaners, to go on little adventures, exploring Tyneside, travelling further by bike than I had for years. I loved the roaming distance it gave me, that I could just keep going (as long as my battery did).
These experiences convinced me that I’d use an ebike, that I’d enjoy it, and that an ebike would open up spaces and activities for me. I’d been eyeing up Tern GSD and other long-tail e-cargo bikes, wondering if, as well as moving me, I might use a bike like this to move my daughter and other ‘cargo’.
Tern GSD have some impressive promo films, imagining a seamless life of childcare, shopping and fun (not much work!) and I was tentatively persuaded – but any ebike is a big purchase and the Tern GSD all the more so (though much less than a car, as I always tell curious passers-by).
In late January, Craig from Ride Electric rang me to tell me he could get me a GSD the following week. I was slightly freaked out; I’d imagined taking months to make the decision carefully and cautiously. But I looked at the finances, talked to a lot of people, and said yes.
On 3rd February, I became the proud owner of a ‘tabasco’ (orange) Tern GSD.
I loved it immediately. Even on a cold, wet February day, cycling felt like a breeze and I was confident that I’d manage – and enjoy – longer and longer distances. I had the Captain’s Chair installed for my daughter (which can be swapped out for a crate for cargo) and my Tern GSD adventures began.
I’ve used it for everything I expected and much more. My 1000 miles have been racked up by cargo trips – carrying weekly shops, pet food, charity collections, plants, bulk purchases of pavement chalk, a toilet seat and a bin, and many, many sets of Road Closed signs and kit for play streets.
By trips with my daughter, sometimes getting her places which were too far (or too dangerous) for her to ride her own bike, trips we’d otherwise have driven – to friends, to her dad’s, to and from after-school activities – and sometimes just for fun, to explore the streets around us, to see the sea, to experience the joy of the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnel.
By longer rides, on my own and with friends, to explore more and more of Tyneside (and Northumberland and Wearside), to get some exercise, to enjoy the pleasure and thrill of cycling (sometimes despite our ropey cycling infrastructure). I’ve been to Sunderland, Washington, Killingworth, up and down the North Tyneside coast hundreds of times, into Newcastle and around, racking up the local miles.
And, with a friend, I did my longest ever cycling trip and my first ever cycle-camping trip, taking in over 80 miles on a round trip up the Derwent valley to the north Pennines, back to the Tyne, and home to North Shields, loading all we needed onto my GSD (and stopping occasionally to recharge my battery – I’ve since invested in a second battery – nothing stops me now).
And, since September, I’ve been commuting, to the centre of Newcastle, at least twice a week, a 16-mile round trip that’s quicker and more reliable than the metro, and probably the car. It takes me 38 minutes, door-to-door, give or take a minute or two. I’ve done it all weathers, and have just got winter tyres fitted so that I can carry on. On the one occasion I had to take the metro to work (as Storm Barra approached), I got colder standing on the metro platform and wetter walking between work and the metro than I ever have on the GSD – waterproofs do their job. I love the commute – I love that it’s predictable, but also that I’m in the world. I witness the seasons change, I see sunsets, I meet other cyclists, I enjoy the movement. I don’t love the Coast Road cycle path, the primary route from North Tyneside to Newcastle, but that’s another story.
Oh, and I brought my Christmas tree home by bike, because I could and because it was fun.
So that’s 1000 miles. Interestingly, it took me seven months to do the first 500 and just 3 to do the second 500, mostly as I’ve been racking up the miles on my commute. I wonder how many miles I’ll have done by the first anniversary of my bike purchase in February. I’m tempted to say I’ll aim for 1500 miles by then, but it’s winter and it’s Christmas, so I make no promises.
I’ve done everything I expected to by bike, and more. I didn’t know how I’d find cycling in miserable weather, but it’s genuinely OK. And I never feel too tired to cycle home at the end of a working day; I just boost the power up to turbo. Even on turbo, I’m getting more exercise and more fresh air, and more contact with the world around me, than I have for years. I’m much more profoundly connected to my neighbourhood, town and region than I was before (and being a geographer, this has always been something I have striven for).
There are real frustrations around infrastructure – some of it is not only dreadful but dangerous – and my experiences have reinforced my commitment to campaigning, and I’m holding on to a slightly forlorn hope that things will get better. But I’ve loved planning routes, using maps and street view, and get a surprising amount of joy in finding the cut-throughs, alleyways and short-cuts that I’ve spotted on a map – and through which cars can never travel.
The plan is to give up my car altogether at the end of January, perhaps to mark my GSD anniversary. I use it maybe one or twice a fortnight at the moment; the rest of the time it’s parked up, taking up space on my overcrowded road. I’ve joined a car club and I’ll still use a car occasionally, but mostly I’ll make do, either with my bike, or with public transport, or the occasional taxi.
Like I said at the beginning, it’s been a fairly rapid ‘modal shift’ for me, albeit one with long foundations. What have been the key ingredients? Certainly, being encouraged to cycle as a child and keeping that up through early adulthood. After that, hmm, believing that streets are for people and getting involved in movements that campaigned around this, and consequently getting to know more people who made these choices. But beyond these quite abstract ideas, perhaps the most important factors were the quiet streets of lockdown and North Tyneside’s Sunset Cycleway, which reminded me how much I enjoyed cycling and how enabling it is, and the rise of ebikes, which are still more enabling, for longer distances and heavier loads. (This is what I said in answer to this question on Twitter; the other answers in the thread are fascinating.)
So, that’s it. That’s the story of my 1000 miles. And the moral – ride a bike, ride it more, fork out for the fancy one if it’ll help you do what you need (it’s always going to be considerably cheaper than a car) – you’ll save money, be healthier, and get to know your world more. What’s not to like?
We began playing out on my street, in North Shields, North Tyneside, six years ago, in December 2015.
I’d been living on this street for about four years and had a four year old daughter. I’d got to know a few of my nearest neighbours, to chat to briefly as we passed on the street, to share stories of our children, to maybe borrow a missing ingredient. I had the sense that more and more families with young children were moving on to the street, including, coincidentally, two I’d met through baby and toddler groups.
Somehow in October 2015 I googled “playing out” – I don’t know why, and even how I knew this was a thing, but I must have seen something about the idea, probably on social media, possibly in a news article somewhere. I’ve always been interested, personally and academically, in the idea of our most proximate everyday environments and what the relationships in these places mean, so it wasn’t completely out of blue that I’d connected somehow to the idea of neighbours meeting and playing on their streets. What was a surprise to discover, as I searched, was that North Tyneside was piloting a play streets project in 2015, supported by Playing Out, the social enterprise emerging out of the activism of a handful of mothers in Bristol, and Play England.
So I emailed Diane at the House of Objects, the organisation leading the pilot here in North Tyneside, on 6th October 2015, and arranged a meeting for my neighbours. With a bunch of us keen to go ahead, Diane applied to the council on our behalf and we planned for our first “playing out” session on 13th December 2015. I think we were the fifth North Tyneside street to get started; only one other of these pilot streets is still going and celebrated its sixth anniversary in October.
That first session was a huge success. It was December, so cold, but it was dry, and we made hot chocolate for the kids and mulled wine for the adults, and we played for three hours, until it was dark. Diane said she thought our session “one of the best to date” – and she asked us for some feedback and quotes to promote the scheme. This is what I sent her:
“there must have been between 15 and 20 families out, with about 30-40 children. The atmosphere was fantastic – one dad said “The sound of laughing and shouting kids echoing up the road will stay with me for a long time.” The kids played happily with each other for the full three hours, no squabbles, no accidents, just lots of scootering, cycling, football, trampolining, drawing with chalk, blowing bubbles and facepainting. My 4 year old daughter said “I liked scootering on the road the best”. Everyone said what a fantastic idea it was – and everyone’s up for planning the next.”
So we planned more – every four weeks, and sometimes every other week, from January 2016. Our regular pattern has been one Sunday afternoon a month, but for the last three years or so, during the summer months, we’ve also played out after school on Mondays or Fridays once a month, and we’ve had additional sessions for occasional street parties and special dates like Halloween. I reckon since December 2015 we’ve played out more than 70 times, over 200 hours of neighbours playing, hanging out and chatting. Before the pandemic, we’d cancelled just a handful of sessions, either because it was raining just too hard or because too many neighbours were away (usually in the middle of the summer holidays).
There’s been scooting, chalking, skipping, cycling, football, bug hunts, races, hopscotch, tennis, apple bobbing, sprinklers, “elastics”, fancy dress, pancakes (cooked on the street!), crawling, falling (not too much!), noughts and crosses, tents, impromptu stalls, talent shows, biscuits, crisps, sweets, the ice cream van, charity bakes, hand-me-downs of all kinds (bikes, clothes, books, toys), lots of sitting (on the road, on walls, on the kerb), laughter, some crying, chatter, squeals, a bit of shouting, some music, bubbles, sparklers, and much much more.
Dozens of neighbours – of all ages – have got to know each other, have played together and hung out, watching the children play. New neighbours have moved in, children have been born. We’ve made friends, lent and borrowed, shared childcare, recommended plumbers, roofers and electricians, moaned together about parking and the weather, and just to got know each other a little better, a little more.
It’s all generally been pretty conflict-free. We’ve had, I think, three or four minor complaints in the six years we’ve been running, and none of these have been insurmountable. We’ve had a couple of drivers try to barge through the barriers, but none of those incidents escalated.
This has been a part of my daughter’s life for more than half of her 10 years. As I suggested, there are children who’ve been born since we started, who just know this as a taken-for-granted part of their life, who crawled on the street from the moment they could move. These children know this street is theirs, but I’m not sure they know how special it is. They play together, children of different ages, showing each other how to play, what to play, taking care of each other, and sometimes bossing each other around.
That my daughter has grown up is sign of change on the street; we’ve already seen a cohort of children ‘graduate’ from playing out, to hanging out, to moving relatively freely beyond the street, and my daughter is now close to that. Most of the group of parents who got this started now have children in, or on the brink of, secondary school. Some of those older children have been playing out – playing football or skateboarding, or just hanging out in front gardens – outwith our play streets sessions for a few years now. It seems to me, at least, that our play street sessions have made a real difference to our children’s sense of their street and their place on it.
Of course, the pandemic has been important too. We missed out on over a year of playing out. We managed one last session in mid-March 2020, unsure whether we should be going ahead, but reluctant to give up. And we managed a couple of sessions in late summer 2020 (August and September) before the “rule of six” was introduced and all play streets sessions were paused again. As we moved into 2021 with another lockdown, I recognised just how much I was missing our regular play streets. We finally restarted in May 2021, on the first Sunday we had permission to do so – I’ve written about restarting here.
But, we didn’t stop being a play street. All the relationships we’d created – including a Facebook group – helped us weather the pandemic. Within days of the first lockdown being announced, we’d set up a network of neighbours to check in on and support the more vulnerable amongst us; we shared toys, films, jigsaws, and seeds; and lockdown clearouts led to bricks, old furniture, sandpits, timber, and much more being passed on along the street. One neighbour took doorstep photos, arranged for a puppet rainbow to visit the street, and persuaded one of their friends to deliver regular takeaways to the street. And two sets of balloons moved between half a dozen lockdown birthdays. Oh, and I started chalking regularly on the pavement and the street – hopscotches, trails, rainbows, random messages, plant names, and much more – and leaving chalk out for passers-by to play with or to take elsewhere.
Some of this might have happened anyway – surprising things happened on streets around the world during the lockdown – but I’m pretty sure lots of it happened because we were already a play street.
We celebrated our sixth anniversary, in the rain, with a scavenger hunt, organised by my daughter and her friend who were both just 4 when we started, and with mince pies and chocolates.
Starting to play out on my street has certainly been transformative for me – I now spend a big part of my life organising, developing, supporting play streets with PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside and researching them as a geographer at Newcastle University, as various posts in this blog explain. But it’s also transformed my relationship, and my daughter’s, with our street. We know our street – the people and the places on it – so much better. We feel at home on it.
Closing a street for play seems like a simple and inoffensive act, but it also still feels quite radical. For a few hours every month or fortnight, my neighbours and I shift the focus of our street away from cars to people, of all ages, and we do frivolous things on it. It feels good, even magical (I talked about the magic of play streets in this recent podcast.)
What this will all mean in another six years’ time is an open question. What will it mean for my daughter as she grows up that she had these experiences in her formative years? When she’s 16, how will my interest in and motivation for play streets have transformed and developed?
For now, I’m chuffed we did this, that we kept going, that we gave this to our children, and to ourselves.