About 12 months ago, the Playground in Fitzroy Gardens Kings Cross got a much needed upgrade for the increasing numbers of children and families living in the area, who have little or no access to any other play space. The upgrade was fought against by a lot of locals, with the noise and flourish of children playing seen as being too disruptive to their current lifestyles and out of keeping with activities in the Cross and Fitzroy Gardens. The playground is now full most weekends and after school. However, local kids have been subjected to a number of retaliations. About 12 months ago children were pelted with eggs from high by a resident of an apartment in the Gazebo, a child could have been seriously hurt. And recently, a child's swing was effectively burnt down by a local (unidentified at this stage). It would have taken a fair bit of planning to manage to burn down this structure which was leather and steel.
This raises the questions of how we design and manage our public space, within increasingly high density areas, to be child, youth and family friendly. About how we create more tolerant communities who are respectful of the competing activities that occupy limited public space. And about how we design play opportunities within our streets for climbing, jumping and through colour and imagery. We constantly complain that children are never out riding their bikes, not being active, or that they are always on their iPhones. But we do not create places for them to play informally and be kids without fear of being moved on or told to be quiet for being too "playful". Those places that are created are full to the brim. Take the Darling Harbour Playground for example, which is the only playspace in the Sydney CBD/Haymarket area. The playground is packed, standing room only, despite their being more than 2,300 children aged 0 to 9 forecast to live in that area by 2026. Where are all the future kids going to play? Not to mention the tourists?
We know that a child's ability to play has significant long term social benefits to both the child, and the broader community. Places like Copenhagen, which has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, understand this and include play opportunities through play streets and play yards as a normal part of their urban design. In London, there is a program called "play streets", where neighbourhood streets are closed to traffic and activated for play at regular times. Children, just like we used to do, can kick a ball, ride a bike, run around unsupervised, without fear of being hit by a car, or told to get off the street. Providing places where children can play also creates economic activity. A study of adventure playgrounds in London showed that for every 1 Euro spent, the local economy saw a 1.32 Euro return.
So where can the children play? With so many new high density neighbourhoods being planned, and existing communities increasing in density, we need to make sure that the needs of children to play, be healthy, active and safe is an integral part of our public space and street design and management. It will not just benefit the kids, but the broader community both socially and economically. Thinking about the needs of children as part of public space design and management, will also hopefully address the potential conflicts that might occur with so many more diverse and competing needs within limited public space.