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.
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.
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.
As a researcher and activist with an interest in play streets, and in the midst of a pandemic that prevented planned fieldwork, I have spent some time in recent months piecing together some of the histories of play streets in North Tyneside, with a view to developing some academic and activist work around this theme.
As a starting point, this blog post sets out some of the developments, in time and space, of this history, from 1938 to more or less the present day. It’s very much a factual account, rather than an academic analysis, or even really an attempt to make any kind of argument.
There are lots of gaps and questions: if you have any answers, from your own experiences and memories, please do let me know in the comments below.
In 1938, parliament passed the Street Playgrounds Act, responding to concerns that many children, in poorer neighbourhoods in large urban areas in particular, were at risk playing on the streets, in the absence of any other safe and accessible spaces to play. The Hansard record of the House of Lords debate noted that “In the ten years from 1924 to 1933 inclusive, over 12,000 boys and girls under fifteen years of age were killed in the streets in England and Wales alone, and over 300,000 mutilated or injured.” In addition, this period also saw more than 2000 children prosecuted for playing on the street. In short, children’s lives were at risk as they played and they were also deemed to be ‘out of place’ whilst they played.
The 1938 act built on the experience of New York, where the Police Commissioner introduced street closures for play in 1914, and pilots in two London boroughs and in Salford and Manchester, where local schemes were introduced before the national legislation. In Salford, the local experiment reduced child road deaths to almost zero.
Local authorities around the country responded with varying enthusiasm to the new act, though by 1963, there were146 play street orders designating 750 play streets nationally.
Locally, in January 1939, Tynemouth Borough Council swiftly made their refusal to engage in this new movement clear: “No action is to be taken to close any streets to enable them to be used as playgrounds for children” whilst noting that “The council has power to do this under the Street Playgrounds Act 1938” (Evening News, 23.1.39, p.7).
When the matter was discussed at a council meeting on 25th January 1939, a Councillor Hails, referring to this recommendation, “said he was not happy about the arrangements in the borough on this question”. He argued that, in the face of the council’s refusal to designate play streets, “in certain areas of the town the school playgrounds be opened”. The mayor (Mr Harry Gee) retorted “We have nothing to do with that.” (Evening News, 25.1.39, p.1).
The first organisation in the north east to positively engage with the idea of play streets was the North East Women’s Parliament which, in February 1944, “urg[ed] upon all local authorities in the region the necessity of establishing play streets for children” (Evening News, 21.1.44, p.5), in the context of their wider work to secure space for play for children.
When this call was under review by Tynemouth Borough’s Parks and Sands Committee, the leader writer of the Evening News, “Collingwood”, expressed considerable disdain: “Surely it is not now seriously proposed that certain streets in a town should be marked off as ‘play streets’?”, he wrote, “Residents of any street specially marked off for such a purpose would, I fancy, have something to say about it.” (1.3.44, p.2). And Tynemouth Borough Council seemed to be of a similar view, stating, in April 1944, that “no action is be taken with regard to a resolution of the North East Women’s Parliament that consideration should be given to the necessity of establishing play streets for children” (Evening News, 24.4.44, p.3).
Yet, by October 1946, the Tynemouth Road Safety Committee was recommending the creation of play streets on 16 of the borough’s streets, fifteen in North Shields and one in Cullercoats (Evening News, 15.10.46, p.8):
Owing to the lack of playing fields, it is proposed that the following streets be closed to vehicular traffic until such time as proper playing facilities are available for children in the near vicinity: Wilson Street, Shakespeare Street and Yeoman Street, and part of Cardonnel Street, Seymour Street, Victoria Street, Tennyson Terrace, Trinity Street, Laet Street, Thrift Street, Penman Street, Gardner Street, Coburg Street, North King Street, Linskill Street and Eleanor Street.
For reasons that were not reported, the road safety committee removed Coburg Street and North King Street from their list at their meeting on 16th October 1946. Although creating play streets on the remaining 14 streets was apparently approved, nothing seemed to happen in any hurry, prompting a concerned resident to write to the local paper asking what had happened to this “sensible proposal” (Evening News, 19.9.47, p.2). The first Tynemouth (Street Playground) Order was finally published on 29th May 1948, designating 13 streets as play streets. At some point, Gardner Street and Linskill Street were removed from this final list and never actually became play streets; this may have been because bomb damage in their immediate vicinities had radically changed the prospects for these streets. In any case, 11 streets were finally designated by this first order, 10 in North Shields and one in Cullercoats.
This first order was very specific about the days and times that the streets were to function as play streets – Mondays to Fridays from 5pm to 9pm, Saturdays from 1pm to 9pm, and Sundays all day, from 9am to 9pm. This is quite different to the orders seen on later play street signs (see below) – at some point these times were clearly revised. And it is also interesting to note that on school days, children would not have been able to safely play out immediately after school, nor in daylight in the winter months.
Exceptions included the “conveyancing of persons, goods and merchandise”, road maintenance, and military training. The first exception in particular was significant since, in the 1950s, many of the vehicles on urban roads, especially in poorer neighbourhoods, would have been goods vehicles (milk vans, coal lorries, post vans etc.) and, as we will see, this became an issue on the designated streets. This may also explain why the streets didn’t function as play streets until after business hours on weekdays and after the likely busy period for deliveries on Saturday mornings. Even with this significant move to create safe space for children on their streets, we can still see motor vehicles and deliveries taking precedence over children, in an echo of what was to return some 60 or 70 years later when online deliveries are seen in part to account for an increasing proportion of traffic on residential streets.
Without access (in the context of the pandemic) to the borough development plan, the minutes of the Tynemouth Watch Committee, and other documents explaining the decision-making process, we can’t know for sure why these streets were chosen, but the primary aim of the 1938 Street Playgrounds Act was to create space for children to play on streets where there were high numbers of resident children and few other very local spaces for play, such that creating safer streets for play was seen as a way of bringing “relief to many mothers whose youngsters have no playground” (Evening News, 5.6.50, p.2). This seems to explain the designation of the 10 streets in North Shields, all of which were located in one of four neighbourhoods in the west of the town. The Town Clerk, Fred Egner, explained some of the rationale for the creation of play streets: “You have children playing in the streets in cases where there were no accessible playgrounds. It is the policy these days to have one or two streets where traffic is restricted, so that children can play in safety” (Evening News, 2.6.50, p.5). In this explanation, two things seem worth highlighting: the plan was indeed to have clusters of streets to create safe space in neighbourhoods, and “street playgrounds” were very much seen as a poorer alternative to playgrounds. In a theme which recurs today in debates around children’s play, it seemed the preference was that children should play in dedicated and separate spaces, rather than in the places they choose on their doorsteps. This echoes the position in Salford, where play streets had been trialled but seen as a poor substitute for “gardens and open spaces” (Manchester Evening News, 7.10.2017).
Cardonnel Street, Seymour Street, Upper Penman Street; Upper Elsdon Street was also designated at a later date
Victoria Street and Wilson Street
West Ropery Banks
Shakespeare Street, Tennyson Terrace, and initially Trinity Street, swiftly replaced by Addison Street
East Ropery Banks
Laet Street and Yeoman Street
These sets of streets were all terraces of early twentieth century housing, with many Tyneside flats, doors opening directly on to the streets. In the Triangle and East Ropery Banks, these streets remain today much as they were when they were built and in the early 1950s when they were designated as play streets. In Milbourne Place, all the homes have been demolished and whilst Victoria Street still exists, there is no trace of Wilson Street; it is visible only on historic maps. In West Ropery Banks, all but a few houses have been demolished and rebuilt, and the layout of the roads changed, though all are still traceable.
There had been considerable bomb damage in these neighbourhoods during the Second World War, with exploded bombs recorded on Addison Street and Victoria Street, and on many other adjacent streets. It’s likely that this will have been as a result of their proximity to the docks on the banks of the River Tyne and the coal mines and other industrial works to the south and west of North Shields. This would have left bombsites and vacant lots around these neighbourhoods, and it is likely, as happened elsewhere, that these sites became playgrounds for local children.
Indeed “Collingwood” in the Evening News, who had earlier been so disdainful of play streets, suggested that, in these very neighbourhoods (Evening News, 5.6.50, p.2):
some of the open spaces created by bomb and slum clearance might also be turned into miniature playgrounds for toddlers. A little fence, sandpit and a little imagination – and Tynemouth Council could, at very little expense, convert eyesores into havens of happiness for youngsters.
The demolitions and redevelopments that took place through the 1960s and 70s signal that these were all areas of significant disadvantage. This is supported by the inclusion of all these areas in the North Tyneside Community Development Project (CDP) established by the government in 1972 (till 1977) to work with local communities to organise for change in labour and housing markets, and alleviate poverty. Uniquely within the 12 CDPs across the country, play was an important part of the work in North Shields, with action groups in all these neighbourhoods identifying safe space for children to play as a key aim of their collective work, though there is no specific mention of what was happening on the designated play streets in the reports of the CDP.
The designation of play streets in North Tyneside also seemed to respond to concerns that children should not be playing out, whether it was safe or not. In June 1950, “MP” of North Shields wrote to The Evening News (7.6.50, p.2), as follows:
The first play street order was the most significant. The Evening News reported (15.10.46, p.8) that “If the closing of the streets proves successful, the provision of further play streets will be considered”. In the following years, we see both new streets designated and calls from residents, usually mothers, on other streets for play streets to be established. It seems that the designation of some play streets in the borough allowed residents elsewhere to imagine the possibility that they too might have safe streets for their children.
In almost all instances, these calls appeared in the context of deaths and serious injuries of children playing out, or of a more general concern that there was nowhere safe for children to play, and that deaths or accidents would occur if nothing was done. In some instances, these calls fell on deaf ears and highlighted the continuing battle to prioritise children’s play – and their lives – over the needs of drivers.
in 1958, the death of a six year old killed on Waterville Road on The Ridges, just around the corner from Briarwood Avenue (see below), led residents to request a zebra crossing or a play street on adjoining Rowan Avenue (Evening News, 3.10.58, p.4); mothers testifed to their fears for their children:
Every time there is a screech of brakes you are frightened to look out of the window.
It is a terrible road. Every time my children go out into the garden I am terrified in case they get on to the road.
Yet, no play street was created here.
At a similar time, on Nater Street in Whitley Bay, a local mother “pointed out there were no playing fields in the vicinity and only older children were allowed on the beach by their parents”. This would have been Whitley Bay’s first play street, but this request was eventually rejected (Evening News, 4.11.58, p.8). Similarly, a few years later, an anonymous letter from a “young mother” from Woodbine Avenue, Wallsend begged Wallsend Accident Prevention Committee to create play street, as an oasis in a neighbourhood surrounded by streets with heavy traffic. The request was passed to the appropriate council department but no play street order was ever approved (The Journal, 8.4.64, p.7). In 1979, a petition from Waterloo Place, North Shields, was rejected, after an earlier claim in 1977, on the grounds that “a Government circular suggests that play streets should not be created where the streets adjoin a busy road” (Evening Chronicle, 3.7.79, p.9).
On Lilburn Street, North Shields, in March 1968, the council’s decision not to create play street “resulted in a protest by parents” (The Journal, 29.3.68, p.9). The parents argued that:
The street is an island surrounded by main roads, and there is nowhere for our children to play unless they cross a main road. The council will probably wait until there is an accident before they do anything.
Another resident, however, objected to the proposal on the grounds that “It would reduce the value of the property with kids playing around.” This echoes concerns raised in Newcastle, in Jesmond in particular. The opposition was upheld by Alderman Thomas Crawshaw:
This is a nice wide street, and there are a lot of cars in the street which would not be able to park. We don’t think there is any need to make it into a play street.
This prioritisation of parking reveals both a concerning set of values, but also a misconception – nothing in a street playground order prevented residents from parking on their streets.
Other objections on existing play streets echoed this Lilburn Street resident’s concerns about the nuisance of children playing out. A report from Charlotte Street, Wallsend in the the Evening Chronicle (24.1.64, p.5) expressed concerns that the “big boys” from neighbouring streets had taken over the play street, marking football goals on the street, breaking windows and climbing on drainpipes to retrieve balls. At the same time, residents noted that “drivers take no notice of the warning signs and even use their horns to clear the street when they drive through it.”
Despite these concerns, objections, rejections and misconceptions, there is some evidence that the creation of play streets in the borough was shifting the prevailing view on children’s right to play on their streets. Not only were residents emboldened to demand safe space for their own children, but local organisations, such as the Tynemouth Watch Commitee, were also making more general calls for more careful driving on ‘quiet streets’. Indeed, in a remarkable shift from his position in 1944, the Evening News’ leader writer “Collingwood” was making a bold argument in support of children’s safety on their streets by 1957 (Evening News, 24.7.57, p.2).
People may argue that children should not play on streets. But they are the sort of people who have never had children of their own – who don’t realise that it is nigh on impossible to keep children safely tucked away behind a garden gate. While children may stray to danger there is no need for motorists to add to that danger. Main roads are meant to carry the traffic – not the quiet streets leading from them. Leave the quiet streets to the butcher and the baker and their vans, calling on residents. It will lead to greater safety.
It’s important to note that “Collingwood” is only asking here for a recognition that children may “stray to danger” but he was, by doing so, recognising the real danger that the growing number of motor vehicles on ‘quiet streets’ posed.
This was not the only view, however. In 1954, a “warning to parents to keep their children from playing on roads on summer nights was issued by Wallsend Accident Prevention Committee”, apparently inspired by an electricity board maintenance engineer who complained that “it was a nightmare” driving his van “because of children on the road”. The committee acknowledged the shortage of local playing fields but also noted that children were not using the local play spaces provided, and seemed reluctant to blame a spate of recent child injuries on drivers (Evening News, 8.5.54, p.4). This perspective, prioritising drivers, relieving them of any responsibility for collisions, and recommending that children play elsewhere, is echoed in a letter to the Evening News from a North Shields resident who raised concerns for those with “business clientele” in and around the play streets (specifically, Redburn View on The Ridges) arguing that the necessary diversion increased inconvenience and running costs “when the children of that area have access to a splendid play field nearby” (Evening News, 30.6.54, p.2).
Redburn View was designated a play street in December 1953 (Evening News, 24.12.53, p.10), on account, according to the Tynemouth Watch Committee, of its narrowness (Evening News, 28.10.53, p.11). Redburn View was a long street which skirted the western edge of The Ridges, passing underneath the Newcastle-Tynemouth railway line (now the metro line) and offering one of only a few crossing points on the estate. As the letter quoted above suggested, some saw it as an essential route – and this seemed to be reflected in the fact that a number of drivers were prosecuted for driving down this street (see below).
As far as I can tell, the only successful resident petition for a play street designation came from an actual, rather than feared, incident. On Briarwood Avenue on The Ridges, the death of a two year old boy, killed by a lorry driver outside his home, led to a unanimous residents’ petition, led by a father of nine, to Tynemouth Watch Committee (The Journal, 5.10.60, p.3). Briarwood Avenue was designated a play street around late 1960.
In 1959, a successful request came not from residents but from an organisation, the Poor Children’s Home Association, a forerunner of Children North East. The PCHA opened a children’s home, Eustace Percy House, at 36 Beverley Terrace, Cullercoats, and campaigned for a zebra crossing from the moment they opened, so that their resident children might safely access the beach across the road for play. The request for a zebra crossing was rejected and “the children [were] told to use the back lane” for play (The Evening News, 7.1.59, p.6). In February 1959, a play street order was approved for Back Beverley Terrace, from sunrise to sunset.
The only other clearly documented designations came in May 1963, from Wallsend Council. At the time, the town council seemed to be investing in new play spaces, creating both new playgrounds and new playing fields, often around new housing developments. In this context, residents of Myrtle Grove, Wallsend – a street of early twentieth century terraces and Tyneside flats – requested a play street. The response was surprising: “the council is going one better. It is to seek approval to make not only Myrtle Grove, but its neighbours Ash Grove and Willow Grove, into play streets.” (Evening Chronicle, 9.5.63, p.13). This was the only other occasion when a set of neighbouring streets was designated, as they had been in the first order in North Shields.
The southern half of Collingwood View, North Shields, was designated in early 1960 at the request of the Tynemouth Watch Committee, reported in an article entitled “This street is for children” (Evening Chronicle, 4.2.60, p.18). Charlotte Street was designated in October 1962. Others streets designated included Rae Avenue, Douglas Street in Wallsend and The Nook in North Shields. I don’t yet know much about these streets’ designation – any information would be most welcome.
It seems Whitby Street in North Shields was also at some point designated as a play street. Its neighbouring streets, Coburg Street and North King Street, were both listed in the first set of streets identified by Tynemouth council, but not in fact designated. I can find no trace of Whitby Street becoming a play street and it is not currently covered by a play street order, as far as I can tell, yet past residents recall it being a play street, and indeed in 2014 (and earlier) the sign is clearly visible on Google Street View. There is, however, no sign today.
Some of the confusion around the timing and purpose of designation comes from the restructuring of the local authorities in the area in the 1970s. North Tyneside Council was formed in 1974, out of an amalgamation of Tynemouth Borough Council and Wallsend Council, together with parts of Whitley Bay, Longbenton and Seaton Valley, all previously in Northumberland. While some play street orders were formally published on the pages on the Shields Evening News, others were reported Newcastle’s Journal or Evening Chronicle.
As far as I can tell from reports in local papers, the reception of all these play streets was mixed. In September 1951, just a few months after the first order, “Collingwood”, now a vocal supporter of play streets, raised concerns about motorists ignoring the signs, such that some of these streets were “carrying as much traffic as ever” (Evening News, 28.9.51, p.2). “Collingwood” quoted a driver saying “it was about time some of them showed a bit more responsibility and recognised the children’s right to play in the streets”.
Some motorists’ reluctance to abide by the new orders resulted in prosecutions, documented in the pages of the Evening News. In July 1955, George Wells of Newcastle was fined £2 for driving down Redburn View (Evening News, 27.7.55, p.2). In June 1956, Stanley Rees Evans of Monkseaton was fined 10 shillings for driving down Addison Street “without stopping” which he described as “a genuine mistake on his part” (Evening News, 11.6.56, page unclear). In April 1958, Elsie Rollo was fined £1 for “driving in a street playground” [Penman Street], while on business for her employer; her defence was that “I did not notice the sign as that district was new to me” (Evening News, 16.4.58, p.5). In September 1958, a driver, Raymond Oliver, from one play street (Eleanor Street) was fined £1 for driving his van down another, Redburn View (Evening News, 15.9.58, p.7) and another driver, Robert Clark, was fined £2 for driving down the same street. For an offence in the same month and on the same street, a 16 year old was also prosecuted and fined 2 shillings for riding a motorcycle (Evening News, 18.9.58, p.8).
Cyclists too, perhaps surprisingly, were also prosecuted for contravening the play streets orders. In June 1953, four men and two juveniles (both boys aged 16) were discharged by Tynemouth Magistrates’ Court, with costs of 4 shillings each for riding bicycles down Addison Street on May 27th of that year. It seems the Chief Constable wanted to make an example of these cyclists as it was reported that “the prosecutions had been brought to publicise the fact that no vehicular traffic is allowed to pass through a play street during the day” (Evening News, 18.6.53, p.7; see also Evening News, 17.6.53, p.6; Evening News, 19.6.53, p.2).
There are certainly questions to be asked here about why it was cyclists, two of them aged just 16, who were held up as an example to drivers, but this seems to reflect real issues with motor vehicles continuing to use Addison Street regardless of the play street order. In March 1953, there were regular reports of heavy lorries cutting through Addison Street from the docks to the town centre – precisely the kind of traffic the play street orders were intended to prevent – and this left mothers fearful for their children, who often played on and around the street’s bombsite (Evening Chronicle, 13.3.53, p.22).
Many of these reports also seem to suggest that the times of the orders had been revised by this point, to reflect something like the current orders which are generally 8am, or sunrise, to sunset.
These contraventions – by drivers, perhaps, rather than cyclists – resulted not surprisingly in injuries and deaths on the designated play streets. It is clear that a play street order did not guarantee the safety of the children at play.
In September 1953, a 20-month old boy, David Marsh, who lived on Wilson Street, was found by a 6 year old neighbour with a crushed shoe and a broken leg: “it was thought that a heavy vehicle might have passed without the driver’s knowledge” (Evening News, 4.9.53, p.8).
Even after the earlier recorded child death led to the creation of a play street on Briarwood Avenue, three year old Ellen Teague was knocked down by the driver of a coal lorry in November 1961, less than a year later (The Journal, 3.11.61, 3).
Real concerns were raised on Rae Avenue in Wallsend, as this letter published in May 1970 (6.5.70) shows:
On Redburn View, five children were knocked over by drivers in eleven months in 1972; one incident resulted in a four year old being hospitalised with a broken leg and a fractured skull. These continuing dangers were the result, residents argued, of drivers driving straight through their street and a failure of the local police to enforce the play street order. The mothers on the street embarked on a campaign in August 1972 to demand better policing of the play street order. They established barricades of “dustbins, car tyres, bicycles and bedheads” (Evening Chronicle, 16.8.72, p.5) to stop drivers cutting through and successfully forced the police to set up a checkpoint on the street:
Police have promised special attention and checks … and prosecution for motorists who misuse the street … But the mothers warned that the barricades would be back if police checks were shortlived.
This attentive policing was indeed shortlived – by 1973, the mothers were protesting again and wanted a permanent solution. The play street wasn’t working:
In a play street, you should be able to let your children play out safely and not have to worry. But you can’t leave them alone for a minute, it’s just like a main road.
The mothers wanted bollards in the middle of the street to prevent through traffic (The Journal, 16.7.73, p.9). They didn’t get them and, in 1976, a six year old girl, Sharon Parkinson, was “flung into the air” and killed by a driver on the street, by this point renamed Banbury Way. The driver admitted driving under the influence of alcohol and was fined £30 and banned for driving for 12 months (The Journal, 7.10.76, p.3).
At some point after this, Banbury Way was turned into a no-through road, as part, I think, of the redevelopment of The Ridges (or Meadowell, as it was by then known), but it seems that by this point the play street was almost entirely non-functioning, despite its continuing designation. (If you know any more about this change, please do let me know).
I have not found any prosecutions for play street contraventions after 1958 and I think the last of the designations were in the 1960s. It is also clear that there were growing struggles to enforce the existing orders by the 1970s, as the Redburn View protests suggest.
The experience of Tyne Street in North Shields in the 1970s perhaps points to a change of policy with regard to play streets in the borough. In September 1972, a 3 year old child was knocked down and killed on the street. Residents were concerned that drivers were distracted by the river view – the street runs parallel to and overlooks the Tyne – and pulled together a 221-name petition for the street to be designated as a play street (The Journal, 9.9.72, 7). Their petition was unsuccessful: “The mothers … heard that the play street had been rejected because the signposting was too expensive”; “We will do our own sign boards … Give us the go-ahead and we will have them up in 24 hours”, a Mrs Darroll responded. In November 1972, the council, now North Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council, suggested “closing the street as a link road and making it into a series of cul de sacs, with amenity areas in between” (Evening Chronicle, 3.11.72, p.11). The plan was to introduce temporary bollards for an experimental period, closing the street to all but access, with a view to investigating the long-term feasibility of the proposal.
A similar story from Whitley Bay in 1971 reinforces the idea that there was a move away from designating play streets towards closing roads to through traffic more generally. In August of that year, a group of mothers in Ventnor Gardens, Whitley Bay, barricaded their street, with dustbins and placards, to create a safe space for their children to play. The mothers complained that day trippers parking on and driving up and down their street were making it dangerous for their children; a six year old boy had been knocked down recently. Unlike demands, for example, on Lilburn Street just three years earlier, there is no mention of a desire to establish a play street; instead the mothers wanted their road closed to through traffic altogether. Councillor Freda Rosner, who supported the mothers, was reported as saying “This is ridiculous. We have become slaves to cars.” (The Journal, 9.8.71, p.7).
It is not clear what happened to the plans on Tyne Street nor the demands on Ventnor Gardens. As far as I can tell no changes were made on either street, at least not permanently. But it also seems like these accounts reflected a popular and policy switch from play streets to the introduction of other kinds of road closures, including modal filters – bollards or other barriers that restrict motor vehicle access but allow those walking and cycling to pass – on residential streets. A number of the other designated play streets, such as Briarwood Avenue (now Kingsbridge Close and Amble Close), The Nook and Collingwood View, now have modal filters, of unclear origin and timing.
In North Shields, it seems that creating and managing safe space for play was increasingly tied up in its redevelopment, within and beyond the Community Development Project. The redesign and redevelopment of streets on The Ridges and in the town centre neighbourhoods seemed to open new questions about the place of play in residential areas. In 1974, adventure playgrounds were created in Meadowell (as The Ridges were renamed in 1968) and in East Howdon (the former intended to be a permanent site and the latter temporary) and, as I’ve suggested, campaigns for better play facilities, including playgrounds and play schemes, were a key part of the CDP work. In The Triangle, a later attempt at redevelopment through the creation of a so-called Home Zone in the early 2000s also forefronted the creation of safe street space, for play and for community life more generally; indeed, home zones were seen by some to “offer[..] a renewed commitment to the concept” of the play street.
In this preliminary review of North Tyneside’s play streets we can highlight a number of themes and questions.
Tynemouth Borough Council embraced the idea of play streets when many other local authorities didn’t, including others in the north-east; there was clearly a policy decision in the late 1940s that enabled this.
Play streets were seen as an alternative in the absence of accessible playgrounds, and playgrounds were seen as by far the better option.
The designation of play streets did seem to open up a more public debate about the place of play on residential streets and dangers posed by rising vehicle ownership.
Almost all the streets designated were in North Shields and seemed to be connected to alleviating housing and environmental disadvantage.
Wallsend Town Council embraced the idea of play streets later, but seemed to see their value as part of their play provision.
Enforcement and prosecution dropped off extremely fast such that by the 1960s, or perhaps 1970s, these streets barely functioned as play streets.
Mothers played an important and visible role in demanding and sustaining play streets and ensuring that the real dangers posed to children by drivers on residential streets remained on the agenda.
Play streets did not protect children from injury and death on North Tyneside’s streets.
Twenty-one North Tyneside streets, most identified here, remain designated as play streets to this day, with orders covering either 8am or sunrise to sunset; this includes streets which no longer exist and ones which have been renamed in successive redevelopments. On many of the streets, the signs are still up but there are few indications on any of these streets of children playing out today. (For more images from a tour I did of these play streets, check out this Twitter thread.)
Residents on Cullercoats’ Beverley Terrace have recently launched a campaign to revitalise and enforce their dormant back lane play street, raising the question of the potential for others to be reviewed. On Charlotte Street, Wallsend, the council has just begun work on the renovation of eleven neglected properties, with a view to “deliver an improved physical environment, clear community benefits and increased stability”; this perhaps offers an opportunity for the street’s play street order to be revived and for play once again to be part of the borough’s framework for community redevelopment.
There is much more to be gained from reflecting in depth and detail on the history of North Tyneside’s play streets, a bold and important experiment in the life of some of the borough’s streets. There are many resonances with contemporary debates about car dependence and the regulation of traffic, the everyday life of our streets and neighbourhoods, and the place of children and their play in public space.
For now, if you have stories, memories or reflections to add, please do let me know in the comments.
My thanks to Sally Watson for sharing some of these stories – and a fascination with play streets – with me.
At the end of December, I decided that I would make a commitment to going out, into my neighbourhood, everyday, on foot or bike (and, as it turned out, scooter). This was before the third lockdown was announced and schools were closed, but I still knew that I was in for an intense and indoor January. The combination of a heavy workload and wintry weather meant that I could easily imagine days when I wouldn’t leave the house.
There’s a lot I like about the hyperlocal life that’s been enforced upon us. I have long valued the proximate spaces and relationships of my everyday life, but I know that my privileges mean that a hyperlocal life is both possible and comfortable, despite the pandemic. I spent much of 2020 exploring the places around me in depth and detail, documenting those experiences on social media and in blog posts (here and here, for example).
So this commitment to move around and document my everyday journeys built on all this, encouraged me to get out and to notice and connect to the places I moved through. Many of these trips were taken with my nine year old daughter, and gave us time together away from our desks, and some with a friend. Others I took alone.
I noticed signs, surfaces, skies, seas, nature, colours, routes, patterns, art, people, ships, stairs, paths, shadows, sounds, histories, and much more.
These are my tweets, from 31 days.
I am going to walk, run or cycle in and around my neighbourhood every day in January, in all weathers and moods, with purpose and without. If I enjoy it, I’ll carry on. I’ll record each trip with at least one photo. I started early so here are pics from the last two days of Dec.
Of course, this builds on one of the good things from 2020, lots of time spent out and about locally, getting to know more of the places around me, which has been a reminder of how important this kind of place making and marking is to me.
1st January: I forgot to include scooting, and that was today’s mode with my daughter, a meandering route to and through the local cemetery where we spotted some early blossom 1/31
2nd January: Day 2/31, scooting again, around and through the Tyne Tunnels, passed this old modal filter and a piece of port-related public art in East Howdon. Any additional info about the art gratefully received.
3rd January: Day 3/31, we stayed very local under the threat of hail and had a brief wander around North Shields town centre, where we found this sea scene complete with cat-fish
4th January: Days like today (too much work, very cold, threatening sleet) are why I made my “resolution”, so that I fight the urge to stay in. A biting bike ride along the mouth of the Tyne, past the Black Middens, where there were people surfing 🏄♂️ (and I thought I was cold and wet!) 4/31
And a quick PS – I _really_ miss @SunriseCycleway. I was buffeted about along the seafront and barely felt safe on the road, yet the “shared path” was packed with people walking even in today’s miserable weather.
5th January: Despite (or because?) being home all day “homeschooling” we didn’t get out till it was dark, but these neighbourhood outings will be all the more important in #Lockdown3, as they were in #Lockdown1 5/31
6th January: For day 6/31 my first run of 2021, and indeed for a long time. I didn’t run far or for long but I ran, and experienced my streets as a runner, more observant of uneven pavements, varied surfaces and inclines, and recognising the different kinds of space my running body takes up.
Talking of surfaces, on my recent scoot (2/31) with my daughter we experienced lots of different tactile paving, which I was trying to explain to my daughter and that reminded me of this thread by @BlondeHistorian which explains how these tactile cues work
We noticed the vertical and horizontal corduroy paving to demarcate the cycle and pedestrian sides of a shared path (a bit like this) – both sides are fun on a scooter!
7th January: On day 7/31, a brief late afternoon walk through North Shields to explore this archway which leads to Field House, an impressive Georgian building dating to 1800, a reminder of what Shields once was (now flats)
8th January: Another late, dark, brief, icy, local walk (determined to get out in daylight tomorrow) – back to Pearson Park to see the slightly peculiar characters on the playground railings. Not all fishy, but all looking shocked and/or disgruntled – maybe just their pandemic look? 8/31
10th January: Finally a bike ride (no ice, no low sun), sort of on a mission to find a piece of public art, sort of just getting some exercise. I was looking for Dudes by Permindar Kaur (2002) at the entrance to the DFDS ferry terminal – first glimpse through railings, then I found them 10/31
11th January: A very short walk today to my allotment to see signs of spring 🌱amongst the uncleared winter debris 11/31
12th January: Very small-scale walk today with a smartphone microscope (a Christmas present) – I give you local walls, pavement-crack weeds, and moss – extraordinary! 12/31
And a mini beast (with a commentary!)
13th January: A fairly functional walk today back from Tynemouth after finally dropping off my @rideelectricgo hire bike 😢 but a stop for takeaway coffee (and the chance to extol the virtue of ebikes to the cafe person!) and some truly beautiful blossom 13/31
14th January: A wet and blustery walk along the mouth of the Tyne, and got to see the Nordic Ace, a Bahamas-registered vehicle carrier, arriving in the Port of Tyne (I saw no need to use the cannons) 14/21
15th January: Timed today’s walk to watch the arrival of the cruise ship Azura, berthing at Northumbrian Quay for a couple of months. It was both amazing and slightly ridiculous 15/31
16th January: A meandering walk round the streets of North Shields for day 16/31, too late for all but the last remnants of snow, but spotted some snowdrops and this dude, whoever he might be…
17th January: A short walk around the corner to my allotment (where exercise is digging and running around [we have no real garden at home]) and spotted an aconite 17/31
18th January: A dusk scoot today, with my 9yo leading me back to a smooth downhill path she remembered from the first lockdown – apparently I even said exactly same thing as last time (to not go so fast she’d go flying!) – for local folk it was Beach Rd cycle path, a great scoot! 18/31
19th January: Making the most of Storm Christoph to jump in muddy puddles for a quick, dark and very wet bit of local fresh air tonight 19/31
20th January: Today I walked as I participated in a departmental meeting with my colleagues in my ears. I got very wet but it was a different way to Zoom with the landscapes of Shields, including the Ropery Stairs, around me. No squirrels though, @thelrm! 20/31
21st January: A bike ride to the sea and back on my old (new) analog bike which has been much neglected whilst I’ve been experimenting with ebikes. I missed the e-assist in the seafront winds but it was good to be back 21/31
22nd January: A cold and sunny walk around Cullercoats with a Cullercoats Coffee to the beautiful sea and back past the old fishermen’s cottages; happy to see so many children playing on the beach and in the seafront playground 22/31
23rd January: Beautifully sunny walk through North Shields to explore the places a friend’s mum lived in mid C20th, redeveloped many times, travelling up and down many of Shields’ stairs to make our way around 23/31
24th January: Wintry walk through Preston Cemetery, meandering round paths I’ve not walked before. No snow here but ice and snowdrops 24/31
25th January: A short scoot, despite the sign, to a tiny playground we used to go to often when my daughter was a toddler, to slide on some ice and see if we could fit into any of the play equipment. Yay for playgrounds! 25/31
26th January: A soundscape today; came to the allotment to do an art lesson for my daughter (go outside and make a picture from loose parts – yay!) and blown away by the birds. The allotments are a tiny wild oasis in a very urban area 26/31
27th January: A brief beach walk before what threatens to be a horrendous work day; the sea view was extraordinary as usual, light changing every few minutes but I focused paying attention to detail on and around the beach 27/31
But, just in case you need it
28th January: A short walk in drizzle in the middle of a Zoom day, so not much to spot but I did pass my daughter’s school where the children were playing happily in the playground – a useful reminder that children at home need to be able to play out safely and confidently too #oktoplay 28/31
29th January: I almost didn’t go out today – too much work and horrible weather – but I did. With my 9yo, we used the dérive app to lead us round the streets. We had trouble finding the sun and a crowd, avoided public transport, but found a one-way street, some graffiti & lots of puddles 29/31
30th January: Another day, another dérive – we found something out of place, headed north, took a photo of something old, and documented our shadows. Lots of improvisation with tricky cues, but lots of noticing, of sounds, directions, the changing light… 30/31
31st January: Day 31/31 – the end of my January challenge – and we took inspiration from @Attention2place’s #GeographyDrift prompt from yesterday to notice red in our neighbourhood.
I think I know quite a lot of North Tyneside, where I live, very well, especially the parts east of Wallsend. The geographer in me (which, to be fair, is most of me) insists on learning, getting to know and mapping the places I visit, let alone the places I live. Mostly I know these streets and roads for driving and, closer to my North Shields home, for walking. I got to know many of local streets and roads pretty quickly when I first moved here (in 2011) as I had a newborn daughter who I walked and drove endlessly, to get her to sleep and to give me some time out of the house.
I drove west and north and round in circles, through Seaton Delaval, Seaton Sluice, Blyth, north to Northumberland (Cramlington, Morpeth) and south again through Killingworth and Forest Hall. Tha A19 and A1058 were my axes (the green lines on the map above) but I found other signed routes and used my instincts to always return a different way to my outward journey, making connections between places I was getting to know.
More often, I walked – up streets, through back alleys, finding snickets, new landmarks, with friends, on my way somewhere, or just to fill time. On these walks, I found the street we later moved to and the ‘secret garden’ where I now have an allotment. These walks created so many the ties I now have with my neighbourhood, brought me closer – step by step – to feeling at home here, marking my territory by beating the bounds.
From 2015, when we started to play out on my street, I started to make connections with other streets doing the same, with whom we had to share signs, passing them on from doorstep to doorstep on the morning of our street play sessions. And in 2017, I started to develop and coordinate playing out across the borough and got to know another layer of North Tyneside’s geography – working out whether streets could be closed, looking on Google Maps at terraces and semis, cross-streets, back alleys, and cul de sacs to see how easy and safe it would be to stop through traffic for a few hours a week, then delivering letters, notices and Road Closed signs to the growing number of streets that got involved, and finally beginning to see the patchwork of play streets connect across the borough.
So, I like to think I’m pretty well connected to North Tyneside, that I know its geography at a number of scales, that I think about where I’m going and make connections to the places I pass and travel to.
Yet, during successive lockdowns and the pandemic months, my connection to North Tyneside has grown, extending to new places and new perspectives, and deepened, as I’ve seen more in the places I know. I wrote here about how walking and scooting with my daughter in our closest streets fed an increasingly granular feeling of recognition and attachment, but as lockdown lifted, we filled the summer months with cycling and, for the first time, kayaking in and around the North Tyneside coast.
With and without my daughter, I’ve been cycling more and more – for fun and to visit friends along the Sunrise Cycleway, a 3-mile pop-up cycle lane created by North Tyneside Council in July (and ripped up in November), but also all around the coast, on all sorts of roads and paths, to shop and just to get around. My old bike died, I bought a new one, and now I’ve hired an ebike, to try it for a month. I’ve filled my ageing car up with petrol just 3 times in 9 months.
I was inspired to write this blog after my recent 23-mile bike ride, a carefully-planned round trip from North Shields to Battle Hill, Forest Hall, Killingworth, Backworth, Shiremoor, Wellfield, Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and home to Shields. I spent a lot of time working out the route, asking advice, poring over Google Maps and Street View, weighing up the benefits of traffic-free routes against a fear of feeling scared. I was already developing a granular geography – seeing where there were alleyways to cut off a corner (or a few more metres on a busy road), spotting landmarks that would reassure me I was on track (primary schools, street names, the metro line, a pub or pizza takeway), and identifying places – roads, bridges, parks, paths – that I wasn’t sure I’d feel safe in. And, of course, I was connecting it to the places I already knew, from car and foot.
Heading out on Saturday morning marked the translation of this cartography of the mind and screen to a geography of body and bike, moving through these places I’d marked and memorised. At times, this meant realising that the short-cuts I’d planned on a screen took me up steep hills with sharp bends, or on narrow paths filled with families walking, or along rutted tracks and coarse gravel, or through an underpass in the earshot of the revving engines of micro bikes, that the physical, tangible geography of the real route was felt through my body – in exertion, in vibration, in anticipation and in fear. But it also meant that those bright, two-dimensional routes on screen translated into a short wooded path with a glorious soundtrack of birds and rustling leaves, a lakeside stretch fringed with reeds and new town houses, and a surprise level crossing with a warning to Stop Look Listen.
I was alert to the route, the traffic, and those with whom I shared my journey, for moments more or less brief. I observed and felt the surfaces, the potholes, the loose paving, the kerbs of different heights, the mud and the debris. I was grateful for smooth tarmac, alert to unavoidable ruts, looking ahead to see how I could navigate a turn or a crossing with the gentlest path for me and my bike. I noticed the speeds of cars, and roundels to warn me; I kept a constant eye on car doors and bends in the road, to expect the unexpected; and I looked for ways to avoid traffic if it came too fast and too close. I looked down and over my shoulder to be sure I could pull out, around a parked car or a pothole, if I needed to. I scanned ahead – and to the sides – for pedestrians, for children playing, and for dogs, tuning in for moments to witness their play, overhear their conversations, predict their next moves, at times ringing my bell, shouting a “thanks” or sharing an acknowledgement. And, at times, I listened to the voice on Google Maps telling me turn left, go straight ahead, make a u-turn.
I kept an eye out for those landmarks I’d recorded, to mark my progress and feel confident in my navigation, breathing a sigh of relief when the right path appeared or as I passed the school or shop I’d expected, and I tagged all these places on the maps in my head, to populate and animate my personal geography, and for the next time I travelled these routes. I also responded to the sites and sights that caught my attention, taking detours onto a path closer to the lake, or a road adjacent to the East Coast mainline and a speeding Pendolino, to check a noticeable street name, or take in a new housing development, to follow a path I suspected would lead me in the right direction. And I added all of these to those maps in my head.
And, of course, there were the wrong turns too, the bad choices, the moments of fear, a retracing of my steps, wasted time, a quick decision to get off and walk, or to move onto the pavement, to cross the road for more space or a better path. And each of these was accompanied by a calculation, a moment of self-criticism, of doubt and anxiety, of hesitation, felt in my body on a bike. And each was added to the maps in my head.
Some of this was bad infrastructure, a common theme in cycling narratives. There’s of course a sense of disappointment and frustration when a cycle lane appears and disappears within metres, or a painted bike directs you along a useless or impossible path, but bad infrastructure is also felt in the stops and starts, the dismounts, the endless decisions, and the continuous attention to the kerbs, the surfaces, the camber, the bends, the micro-topography of the streets and roads.
And, of course, there were the places I wanted to see – the Ryder and Yates 1967 British Gas Engineering Research Station, now North Tyneside Council’s Killingworth Site, the new town estates of Killingworth – its East and West Bailey and ‘garths’, the new-build estates of Backworth and Northumberland Park, the 1930s cycleway on Whitley Bay’s Links, and St Mary’s Lighthouse – a fairly eclectic mix of sights but ones which help me map and get to know North Tyneside’s many faces.
This is how you learn a route and a landscape. On a bike, you can’t progress without paying real attention to the details of the route, from the road names, to the landmarks, to the potholes and kerbs; this attention is essential, but it is also valuable. You have to see, listen, feel, and because you have to, you connect more. In contrast to travel by car, or even on foot, the route becomes richer, denser – more granular – every sense is invoked by the nature of your contact with the road and the route, a body on two wheels, propelling itself, in an in-between place between car and foot, between road and pavement, moving from one to the other.
These were mostly new places and new routes, but through their inscription in my head they’re mapped for the next time, not just these actual places – where to go, where to find something, how to get from A to B – but also a more general sense of what feels right when I’m riding my bike, and what I need to pay attention to.
The attention to place, at every scale, which I reflected on and recorded in this one trip plays out in more mundane ways in my everyday geographies. On those routes I travel regularly – to the shops, to friends, to the beach – I have mapped the breadth of the roads, the choice of paths, the pinch points, the steepness and camber, the changing surfaces, the worst potholes, the joyous stretches, the viewpoints, and I have felt them, in mind and body. As a ride, I map and re-map the spaces of my everyday life, making connections, feeling the places I move through, adding layers to my mental maps. I see what is possible and what is restricted. These inscribed geographies embed me in my everyday worlds and they ready me for my next trip, allowing me to see where to go and how to move as each day I find my way in North Tyneside.
I like to think we know our street pretty well, the people and places on it, the camber of the road, the front gardens and street trees (since she was little my daughter always called one end of the street ‘the tree way’).
Yet, in recent days and weeks, we’ve had more time to spend on our street and its neighbours, and we’ve been able to explore on foot, on scooter and on bike. We’ve not been limited to just three hours a month without the incessant flow of cars (though we still encounter cars, paying little attention to those they now share the roads with and speeding in 20mph zones).
Today, we scooted. We noticed which streets are smoother and which make our hands wobble and our voices tremble when we chat. We try it out and warble to each other. We spotted the places where can move onto and off the pavements easily and without incident. We misjudged this more than once and our scooters whacked our shins, hard. We bumped over or zoomed round the potholes.
We scooted over, over and over again, the drain covers and looked at and felt the different iron patterns, the noises they made, the sensations on our feet.
We scooted down the white lines, to the white lines, noticing the smoothness of the line and we thought about what the white lines do.
We trundled over cobbles, peaking through the tarmac, and talked about what our streets would have been like when they were first built.
We heard the bird in the neighbour’s flowering cherry and we tried to work out what it was.
We spotted six ladybirds on three bollards, and wondered why they liked them so much (the sun, the texture, the warmth? – there weren’t any on the matching bollards at the other end of the street).
And we met some neighbourhood rabbits. And a lot of neighbourhood cats.
And, of course, we talked and waved to neighbours, who we passed on our streets and pavements, with scooters, buggies, Peppa Pig hats, dogs, and bags of shopping, and in their front yards or on their doorsteps, some we knew, some we didn’t.
Who’s that? asked my daughter, everytime I said hello to anyone. Where do they live?
Here, I said. They’re our neighbours, these are our streets.
(And then I tried to explain why I wanted so many pictures of drain covers and white lines.)
This blog was inspired not only by my time in my neighbourhood, but by regular and wide-ranging conversations, in all sorts of forms, with Wendy Russell, Alice Ferguson and Ingrid Skeels, and by Penny Wilson’s beautiful post on her London street.
It also connects to my ongoing research: as I’ve already explained on here, I’m supposed to be researching play on streets at the moment, a task now both trickier and more fascinating. One of the questions I’m supposed to be exploring is: how regular playing out intensifies children’s and adults’ connection to the objects and materialities of the street itself, through hanging out on and exploration of its kerbs, roads, pavements, trees, walls, and other affordances. Our lockdown experiences of our streets, for me, intensify this very question.
[Disclaimer: This is a very early take on my ongoing research. I haven’t yet had a chance to work in detail with the interview transcripts or fully analyse the questionnaires – this post is based on my immediate reflections on the research as it progressed and as I began to identify themes and ideas. It is based on a paper presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference in Cardiff in August 2018.]
The “playing out” movement started around 2009 in Bristol, created by two mothers, Alice and Amy, on their street, in the hope that their children might have some of the same opportunities to play out, on their doorsteps, as Alice and Amy did. By July 2018, over 800 streets had started playing out regularly, across 77 UK local authority areas, including Hackney, Brighton, Leeds, Hull, Edinburgh, and North Tyneside, and the movement had also spread to towns and cities in Australia, the US, Spain, Romania, Germany and more. The playing out model rests on short, regular, licensed and stewarded road closures, giving children the chance to play safely near home and giving neighbours the chance to meet right on their streets.
The rise of “playing out”, as a movement, reflects the documented decline in autonomous street play, as the risks (Gill 2007) of cars, strangers and pollution, in particular, and growing pressures on children’s and parents’ free time (Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson 2014, 2018) seem to have reduced parents’ inclination to allow or enable their children to play out on their streets. Within a generation or two, the possibility for children to play out freely and safely has all but disappeared in many parts of the country (though this appears to be a pattern refracted by class and by built environment, in different ways).
There has already been a considerable amount of research about the renewed playing out phenomenon, documenting the benefits for children’s levels of physical activity and health, for their friendships, for the very local environment, and for the sense of community and belonging on the streets involved. The project on which this blog post reports picks up on this final aspect in particular and shifts the focus slightly away from children and their geographies to think about adult participants too, to ask how regular playing out sessions change the nature of everyday relationships on the streets involved.
The Research Context
At the heart of this project is an idea of everyday relationships. Borrowing ideas from the British object relations school, I use a conceptualisation of relationships, with intimate and imagined others, as the environment within which we find ways of going on being. As Gomez (1997, 2) argues: “the need for relationship is primary”. In this conception, it is the relationships around us that contain and facilitate us, help us to go on being. This is an idea developed, within geography, by Steve Pile (1996, 12) who explores the building of ‘secure personal geographies’, such that a “sense of a solid, shared world and stable sense of ourselves within that world leads to psychic and physical survival”. These ideas are developed here alongside a considerable literature which highlights and explores the key connection between children, play and streets and their everyday relationships. The articulation between community and play has been the focus of series of reports by Play England in the context of their annual Play Day events, and this has been explored more and more through debates around the child- or family-friendly cities. Rather than review the literature as a whole, there are a number of ideas to draw out here:
Firstly, it is argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between play and our recognition of and participation in our everyday spaces and environments – our own streets are at the heart of our explorations of and relationships with the world and the ability to play in them is critical to our sense of belonging to and learning within them. Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell state clearly that “play is the principal way in which children participate within their own communities” (Lester and Russell, 2010, x) and Tim Gill, in a quote cited regularly in support of street play, insists that “the street is the starting point for all journeys.”
Secondly, as Bornat (2016, 115) argues, children’s presence in the street and other community spaces is seen as a generator of social space: children’s everyday play can animate streets as they occupy pavements, gardens and driveways, and move between each other’s homes. Children playing out can draw adults out, as they watch, talk to, and care for their children. Where children play, adults meet. As Sam Williams argues, in the context of child-friendly cities, there is “enormous potential for child-centred activities such as play streets to bring people and places together” (Williams, 2017). Krista Cowman’s historical work draws attention to the key role of streets as ”social and play spaces in urban environments” (2017, 234), such that “mothers … saw play street orders as the best means to preserve them as a safe social space for themselves and their children” (251, emphasis added)
Thirdly, play itself has been identified as a catalyst for community such that the space, freedom, intergenerationality and looseness of play have the potential to create the space for connection (Play England 2015); as Play Wales (2015) suggest in a review of mental health and play, play can be seen, amongst other things, as ‘connection’ and ‘taking notice’.
Lastly, there is a need to think about and tease out the importance of children and of play – are they independent catalysts of relationships – i.e. is the presence of children enough, or is play essential too? In the context of street play, is it the children or the play that has the potential to generate ‘community’?
This post is based on a small-scale, qualitative, (auto)ethnographic and participatory project, developed with the existing North Tyneside street play organisers. It integrates data from a preliminary questionnaires, with both local and national participants, interviews with seven street activators in North Tyneside, running my own street play sessions, engaging in participant observation in others, and being involved in PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside, a voluntary group promoting and developing street play in the borough. As I mentioned above, this is very much an early take on the material reflecting really preliminary analyses – I haven’t yet had a chance to work in detail with the interview transcripts or fully analyse the questionnaires – this post is based on my immediate reflections on the research as it progressed and as I began to identify themes and ideas
Donald Winnicott and Potential Space
In thinking about all of these questions, I’m working with the ideas of Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician and psychoanalyst who was profoundly engaged in ideas about space, play and everyday relationships. Potential space is defined as:
“an inviting and safe interpersonal field in which one can be spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others” (Casement, 1985, 162).
It is a liminal space, between (or perhaps across) an individual and their environment, located between or across the internal and external such that, for example, whilst at the theatre, we find ourselves simultaneously in the physical space of the theatre, in the imaginative space of the play, and in the internal, emotional space of our minds. Potential space is, of course, a space full of potential, where new relationships with ourselves and with others can be created. It is an area of experiencing, living, culture, creating – and, importantly, of relating and playing. To reiterate the quote above, it is a space in which we are “spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others”, and in this we can identify an innate connection between play and relationships in potential space. The importance of play is founded on the presence of others who can receive, respond to, facilitate, witness, join in, celebrate, remember and enjoy the play and creativity, and playfulness creates an openness to new object relationships. Winnicott saw an innate connection between play and relationships, through the idea of potential space, which he saw as a space between people – children and adults – that is playful, safe, trustful, and creative. He believed play to be vital for those of all ages, seeing adult play – in art, creativity, humour, conversation – as equally important as children’s play in creating a liveable life.
I’m now going to shift to explore some of the key themes I’m beginning to identify in my research, organised around the idea of ‘hanging out’, of ’knowing your neighbours’ and of ‘crossing boundaries’.
The idea and experience of hanging out is something which has garnered considerable attention from geographers of young people (see, amongst others, Fotel 2009; Pyyry and Tani 2017; Tani 2015; Tani 2016). In these literatures, hanging out is seen as a collective practice of appropriating streets, the creation of a liminal space for socialization with peers. The spaces of hanging out are theorised as “loose spaces” (Tani 2015) which enable those hanging out to deepen relationships with the city and “rework the atmosphere of the city” (Pyyry and Tani, 2017, 5) through deeply affectual “moments of joyous togetherness” (Pyyry and Tani, 2017, 5). Yet, these are also often spaces and practices which are theorised as the rejection of adult supervision and an escape from the adult world, which challenges the possibility of adult hanging out.
During a street play session, all that is expected of parents (or other adults) is that they are present on the street. The ‘playing out’ model assumes that parents are always present and responsible for their own children. Parents may play, with their children or own their own, but part of the ethos of street play is for autonomous child-led play, such that parents often stand back, at the side, letting the children get on with playing.
So adults hang out together, perching on walls, bringing out garden chairs, or sitting on curbs. Often they cluster around one house (often that of the organiser), where there may be drinks and snacks.
Parents are brought together, they’re present together, sharing a collective, familiar, public space, in a way that is legitimised by the presence of children, and in a space that is open, loose – and, of course, playful. As Cathy, who has been running sessions on her street for more than five years, explained when describing what a street play session feels like the sense of space is key:
“Oh, it feels lovely, it feels wide, I mean that’s the first thing we all noticed the first time we did it, was how wide the street was … it’s quite a big space, normally it feels quite cramped and restrictive and dangerous. So, yeah, I think the feeling of space was the first thing.”
But parents also experience a different sense of time, a change of rhythm, a slowing down, in contrast to the routines of their everyday lives. Annie, for example, celebrated the slowed time of playing out sessions, where people can sit and chat and hang out, in contrast to the more ordinary experience:
“people are so busy, people don’t really have time for conversations, when you’re dashing to work and to school and things”
These were also spaces of play for adults too – playing with children, but playing with each other as well – scooter races, water fights, skipping, football, chalking, all of which appeared to allow for a different, looser kind of sociability than ordinary, highlighting the relationship between play and potential, play and others, and play and relationships.
As I’ve suggested, the presence of children seemed also to be key – adults were out because children were out and hanging out seemed to become problematic without children. Jenny illustrated this dilemma as she discussed how, towards the end of a street play session, she realised that her kids were no longer playing out (they’d gone to a neighbour’s) and suddenly she felt uncomfortable, being on the street, hanging out, without good reason.
Much of this resonates with Krista Cowman’s account of mid-20th century street play in which “children’s outdoor play facilitated women’s sociability and encouraged their use of the street” (p.236), enacted by women sitting on low walls, watching children play, and taking a break. In Cowman’s work and in the evidence presented here there are three key ideas: adults’ use of space; their use of time; and the presence of children.
Knowing your Neighbours
Here we turn to the question of what happens in these loose spaces of hanging out: what do the practices of hanging out do and what do they enable in the context of street play? It appears, following Tani and Pyyry (2017), that they reshape the spaces and atmospheres of the street, producing a particular kind of relationship between neighbours. In many cases, what is produced and remarked upon in questionnaire responses (see below) is a low-level notion of ‘knowing’ and ‘being known’, which appears to describe a level of recognition and familiarity of other faces on the street, between adults, between children, and between children and adults.
All sort of events, practices, moments emerge out of this knowing, but I want to focus in particular on the sense of safety experienced in this recognition. Respondents felt that they could address each other for help, of all kinds, and that their kids too would know neighbouring adults who they could approach for help. In interview, this was especially strong for those whose partners worked long hours or away, through a sense that they were known, seen, recognised on the street, and in this sense looked after, or contained. Annie explained:
“I like to know that if anybody needed, you know, help, you can go and call on anybody, my husband works long hours, I like to know that, you know, if we had some sort of emergency, I might just run down or across the street, give them a call”
In the immediate reports of change, then, a very particular kind of relationship dominated, but there were also many instances “when good neighbours become good friends” to quote a 1980s TV series. Relationships deepened, became more multi-stranded, and there was considerable socialising – between adults and children – outwith street play sessions, in homes, at the pub etc.. This step – the development of friendships – depended on and reflected much more personal connections, and was both enriching and excluding.
In the step between ‘knowing’ and ‘befriending’ boundaries, physical, social and emotional, became clear and flagged questions of what happens to those who aren’t included or don’t want to be? We see boundaries emerging in the delineation of friends and neighbours, but we can also see boundaries blurring and being crossed in the spaces of street play.
In a sense, we can characterise the street in this context as a micro-public space, following Amin (2002) – the street is a public space, it is not necessarily an intimate space, but it is at the same time a familiar space, an in-between, third space – between the internal and external, as Winnicott might have put it. The particular context of street play seems to make these boundaries more fluid, as there is license to move between the street and neighbours’ homes. Street play seemed to extend the publicness of the street to neighbours’ homes, to remove the barriers of invitation, but also seemed to domesticate the street by extending the atmosphere of the living room out. Living Streets (2009) describes our streets as “our extended front rooms” – street play extends our front rooms to the street and the street to our homes and gardens.
Amongst other transformations, interviewees reported:
A noticeable opening up even in the act of doorknocking to arrange the first session – for many, this was the first time they’d walked up the paths, knocked on the doors, of all but their most proximate neighbours, the necessity to consult immediatey appeared to create the potential for new connections;
Going to see neighbours extensions, gardens, renovations during street play sessions, when they had never been into each other’s houses before, and explored the resonances, the familiarity of visiting homes that were just like theirs, on terraced streets or twentieth-century semis – as Annie noted, “we have the houses in common”;
Children moving between the street and homes or back gardens with thresholds being loosely policed – several adults reported popping in for something only to find half a dozen children playing inside, such that activities of street play for adults and children took place across and in between homes and the street;
All of this activity during street play sessions extended beyond the session itself and resulted in more socialising between adult neighbours in their homes and more playdates between neighbouring children;
And things and favours crossed thresholds too – there was more lending, borrowing, babysitting, and house/pet/plant-checking after streets had started playing out.
There are two important provisos to all this. Firstly, the fluidity reflected the physical layout of the street and the microgeography of the playing out session – certain houses and certain families, located around a key point on the street (often the middle of the street or the organiser’s home), were more likely to flow and be the sites of flow; those who lived further away could be both protected and excluded from these boundary crossings. Secondly, the boundaries were policed: respondents noted that there were limits to how many people (children or adults) they would want crossing their thresholds and to whom – less known neighbours, more unruly children, adults with whom you didn’t click might be excluded, deliberately or accidentally.
As the discussion of crossing boundaries suggests, the effects of street play extend beyond the three-hour sessions. These can be seen not only in the extended relationships, but also through tangible and intangible affective and material transformations in the street, and in the imagination of new futures for the street.
One of the most resonant aspects of this is chalk – almost every street chalks with abandon during the sessions – we give out chalk with our playing out kits – and this can last for days or weeks after the session, depending on the weather, a reminder of the street being transformed, different, something else. And, symbolically perhaps, this can persist even longer – this for example is the Google Street View image of my street – with post-street play chalk markings recorded with semi-permanence.
Other transformations are created in the street too, beyond the closure itself, including Facebook and WhatsApp groups bring neighbours together to share knowledge, concerns, favours, offers, recommendations, news, events, celebrations – and anticipations of the next session, and forms of everyday sociability – waving, saying hello, chatting, planning, banter and jokes – as neighbours walk to school, go in and out of houses, jostle for parking spaces, garden, and walk their dogs.
These develop and translate into imagined and potential futures as the possibilities of street play are felt. In interview, Annie deliberated on her family’s future housing needs, reflecting on their conversations about the value of the relationships they’ve built since they started playing out, and concluding that they envisage a future of staying and extending rather than moving:
“So we’ve been in this huge dilemma of, do we stay or do we move, do we extend, do we just buy a house and get a bigger bedroom, err bigger, more bedrooms and things but, errm, it’s the neighbours and it’s the area and you just think well actually it’s so important, erm, so we’ll look at some point we’ll probably end up doing an extension so we can stay and so we can be here…”
Others have started to discuss collective, street futures as playing out makes a space for new possibilities, for a more fundamental reclaiming of the street. On one street during a street play session, the adults turned the conversation to the possibility of closing the street permanently to cars, or implementing a partial or temporary narrowing of the street, shifting the balance further away from cars. Reflecting this, on another street a child – without adult prompting – chalked No Cars on the closed road.Playing Out itself proclaims “a vision of streets as vibrant, playable spaces” and plans for its own obsolescence: “ultimately, our aim is for playing out to be a normal everyday activity for all children, wherever they live, rather than an organised, supervised event”.
Potential Space? Play, Parents and Streets
This paper seeks to use Winnicott’s notion of potential space and its tying together of play and relationships to explore what happens – or what might happen – when streets play out. The decision and desire to create a space for children to play on the streets appears to legitimate the creation of a space on the street that differs from the everyday and permits the presence of adults as well as children on the street. In this context, the centrality of play creates an atmosphere of space, looseness, and informality, and a different kind of rhythm or pace, which enables both children and adults to have fun, and to have fun with others.
The looseness appears to facilitate a new kind of sociability, a new kind of contact and engagement which rests on a sharing, a being together, a recognition and familiarity and creates the potential for material, embodied and affective flows across thresholds, animating the space of the street and nature and density of everyday relationships on the street.
What is more, building on common understandings of play being the means through which children and young people get to know, to connect to and to deepen their relationships with their immediate environments, I also want to argue that street play enables adults to connect to their streets too, to become more attached to their streets, to know their streets better and, thus, to experience their streets as spaces which have the potential to hold and contain them.
In this sense, street play can be seen as a radical act, full of potential, which can reshape affective atmospheres and spaces of the street
But it not without its challenges and limitations – and I just want to touch here on an important issue – a great deal of what I have discussed here is classed and gendered, at the very least. Playing out might be seen as middle class phenomenon, reflecting the different modalities of autonomous street play in neighbourhoods with different class profiles – it is not quite as simple as this (see, for example, this report on playing out in disadvantaged areas and this from Playing Out on street play on estates), but thinking through questions of class is an important part of my ongoing analysis. And secondly, much of the energy and labour invested in playing out is women’s – of 22 streets in North Tyneside that have played out over the last three years, just two street organisers are men; and, of course, Playing Out was founded by two mothers, Alice and Amy. Men and women appear to take on different roles during sessions, and are differentially engaged in what extends from the sessions into the everyday life of the street, so this is not to say that men aren’t involved nor that street play is not transformative for them, but again, a gendered analysis will be critical.
Notwithstanding these caveats, I argue that planning and doing playing out sessions reshapes everyday relationships on streets, creating the potential for new forms of sociability, care, connection, and fun, which in turn transform the space of the street to one of potential and possibility.