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  • Bobby Lee & Grant Menzies

Play-Full & Playful Cities


If we accept that there is more to life than existence, work and everyday functioning, and we acknowledge the role ‘playing’ has in our development as individuals and society, then we must recognise that the well-functioning city must be at once play-FULL and playful. ‘Play-FULL’ in the sense that it provides an array of opportunities and opportunities for all, and ‘playful’ in the sense that our public spaces are inviting, challenging and creatively engaging.

Our recent research, ‘Play-full and Playful Cities: The Infrastructure of Play in the Netherlands was a pilot study exploring select elements of a ‘Playful(l) Cities Manifesto’. The study aimed to understand; the Netherlands’ renowned bicycle infrastructure, how it emerged, how it alters the way in which people use the city and how it affects the lives of children and their experience of the city; and allowed us to explore the city’s vast array of playgrounds and playable space in the hope that we might define a range of typologies to better communicate how play can be integrated into a city.

Our study took in the experience of the Dutch cities, Delft and Amsterdam:

Delft was the birthplace of the Woonerven in the 1970’s, streets where pedestrians take priority over motorised traffic; spaces that can be adopted by the residents of the street; restricting, if not blocking traffic and allowing kids to play. The woonerf was a novel way to activate and reclaim vital public space and they are now common across the whole country and form a part of a widespread, yet extremely dense, network of cycle-able routes.

Around 27% of all trips in the Netherlands are taken by bike, increasing to around 60% in Amsterdam city centre. Safe, continuous and convenient bike routes are used by all kinds of people of all ages for everyday journeys.

So, naturally, we arranged cycle tours to visit many of these points on the map. Interestingly, the Dutch spend £24 per person per year on cycling, compared to the UK's £1.39 (outside London), resulting in a country perfectly suited to the cyclist.

The country's infrastructure accommodates 'shared roads' - that either prioritise cyclists or provide dedicated cycle lanes – as well as separate bicycle roads that cross the whole country. Prioritising cyclists and pedestrians makes the city seem smaller, making it more of a human scale, allowing people to travel further in shorter timescales. Cyclists are offered a unique feeling of safety, enforced by strict liability laws which state that, in a collision, the faster, larger vehicle is found liable by default – because if you pose a greater risk you must accept more responsibility.Motorists are genuinely respectful of cyclists because a) The Law obliges them to b) The Infrastructure allows them to flow harmoniously, if not, independently and c) they are likely cyclists themselves.

For us, this means children and young people are afforded a unique privilege in being able to explore and appreciate their city in relative safety.

"The truly cycle friendly city is also a child friendly city" - Meredith Glaser

A child friendly city, in the context of life between buildings, is one that encourages active and passive engagement with the built environment, local culture, community and heritage. Here, children learn form a young age how to cycle in and around the city. Firstly, by travelling on their parents’ bikes, then progressing to cycling alongside them, and eventually travelling by themselves. They learn how to operate and control a bicycle as well anticipate and navigate traffic. They develop a better understanding and appreciation of their local area. They are more competent and independent, and importantly they are given credit for their competency in that they are permitted the freedom to play and roam.

In Amsterdam, this network of routes connects a huge variety of playgrounds and playful spaces. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ model; each of these ‘Places of Play’ fit carefully within their context and many are uniquely designed.

Here, children's play seems valued, and integrated within the city's design as opposed to being an appendage - which we assume began with ethos of Aldo van Eyck, who believed in the ‘interstitial and in-between’ approach, weaving human scale spaces and playgrounds into the urban fabric.

Of his 736 playgrounds only 90 still exist, however that abundance of play is still present within the city and so too, is a recognition of the needs or wants of parents and carers – which are programmed either in or around the hub of children’s activity. Many of the playgrounds and playable spaces we visited were located adjacent to homes, cafés, convenience stores, schools, community centres and green spaces. The obvious benefits of this are two-fold; play becomes convenient for carers and therefore more accessible for children; and parents can more easily adopt the mantra of Tom Hodgkinson’s ‘Idle Parent’ whereby children are free to dictate their own play without oppression or direction.

Amsterdam Playground Typologies.

Amsterdam has a variety of different types of space that squeeze play into the cracks of this dense city. This may not be a comprehensive list and we recognise that there may be some overlap however we have defined 8 types: Corner Infill, Play Street, Off Street, Micro, Private, Multi-Functional, the Public-come-School ground and Nature play areas.

1. The Corner Infill

Traditionally, in the city’s dense, residential blocks the corner properties contained amenities to service the neighbourhood such as shops or workshops. Although many of them have now been converted into homes, the tradition lives on in the provision of playgrounds for the youngest residents.

The corner infill playground often occupies a vacant building plot and can abut neighbouring houses – in some cases with doors opening into the playground - and they are immediately adjacent to the road. We usually observed 3 pieces of traditional early years play equipment offering opportunities to play right on their doorstep. Fencing and enforced speed limits for cars offer age appropriate protection.

2. The Play Street (Speel Straat)

The Play Street or ‘Speel Straat’ is as it sounds: a street closed off to traffic, providing a dedicated place to play. The play space occupies the full width of the street, excluding cars, with no segregation from the neighbouring properties. Again with front doors opening into the playground. Residents may have opportunities for parking nearby, but it is likely that do not have a car and instead travel by bicycle. We observed a mix of off the shelf and custom play equipment aimed at preschool and school age children, and street furniture for community integration. We did not observe any continuous fencing but did note road barriers to prevent the entry of motorised vehicles.

3. Off Street Play

Off Street offers street play but doesn’t necessarily exclude cars. The playground will occupy a part of the street and may utilise a barrier and jut out, to narrow and create a chicane in the road. These may also be located adjacent to the road occupying a wider pavement. They are never located next to main highways, but residential streets and woonerven, and in particular can be found at entrances to inner city schools. We observed a mixture of off the shelf and custom play equipment aimed at children of pre-school to school age. The presence of barriers seems to be dependent on the age range the play equipment is suitable for. Again, there is no segregation from neighbouring property - and doors open onto play space. There is usually provision for both adults and children.

4. Micro-Play

The Micro ‘playground’ is identified as a deliberate single inclusion prompting play. Although we did notice some of these near schools they don’t necessarily seem to be associated with any particular context. Common are these hopscotch paving slabs, and Aldo van Eyck’s concrete stepping stones or replicas of these. You might also find art works dedicated to children or that can be directly ‘played’ with.

5. "Private" Playground

The “Private” playground is usually a secure facility with high fences and a lockable gate along with some form of supporting facility – there is some variation in this but they are usually occupied by community hall or nursery building. These can be, but are not all, membership only where access is limited and the playground is funded and maintained by the local group. Some are managed by a local community organisation but not limited by membership. While others can be occupied by a nursery or 'sessional' play facility who will also make use of the playground. In some cases, these also service several local schools at break times. We might also consider, within this category, playgrounds as part of restaurant or beer garden as these are segregated and offer separate facility to distract adults while kids play. The commonality is that they are all secure, observed and cater for needs beyond that of the children.

Where space is particularly at a premium these playgrounds can occupy a backcourt space where they are secured and can be passively monitored by neighbouring residents. These are larger than the other typologies so far and offer a much greater range of play experiences, incorporating off shelf and custom equipment, sand and water play and some sports facility.

6. Multi-Functional

The multi-functional space, we feel, is the best representation of a ‘place of play’ – because a playground is a ‘place of play’ but a ‘place of play’ is not necessarily a playground. These are non-designated and cater for all. They not only allow play but promote it without it being the primary function of the space. Amstelveld is an excellent example of what the Play-full and Playful City should represent.

It is a hard surfaced square used to host various markets and events but it also has a permanent set of football goal posts and a marked pitch. Around its edge are places for playing boules, a play fountain and water rill, sand pit, a slide and climbing frame - so we have designated areas of play, for varying ages, within a wider area of multiple use. These are also located alongside an alfresco dining area or beer garden for the ‘idle parent’. This is a space where several functions of the city are integrated, creating an inclusive, dynamic space, allowing for incidental and organised use all year around.

What we also found interesting is that this multi-functionality is really embraced by the people, so much so that the playgrounds themselves aren’t necessarily deemed exclusive to children. We found parks and playgrounds being used for the health and fitness of adults too.

7. Public - come - School Playground

Another variation of this multi-functional space is the public-come-school playgrounds. There is a theme running through these typologies that space is at a premium and this is no different in the that the city centre schools rarely, if at all, have their own playground. So rather than it appearing that the playground is publicly accessible it seems that the schools appropriate the local playground – in some cases sharing with other schools. We observed that younger children are monitored by a small group of staff but are allowed to play freely.

The design of the playgrounds or public spaces also seems to respond to the age range of the adjacent schools with age appropriate equipment and sports provisions.

8. Nature (Water) Playground

The nature playground is probably the most famous European play export in recent years so it might not be a surprise that you can find both formal and informal nature play settings around the City. However, being that this study is specific to the Netherlands we should focus on what is unique about them, and call them Water Playgrounds.

Most of you will be aware that the Netherlands has a unique geography, in that much of it lies below sea level. The country has a complicated system of canals, swales, drainage ditches and pumping station which keep the land dry. Most of these waterways are open and accessible. So, it is perhaps unsurprising that an abundance of water is often a main feature of these play settings. They have embraced their vast water management infrastructure as a valuable source of fun and learning.

The Play-Full and Playful City

In short, we feel that the success of this city in regards to children is the quality, quantity, diversity and inter-connectivity of its play experiences.

We realised that ‘a truly cycle friendly city is also a child friendly city.’ - Because, if you consider the measure of child friendliness being – on one hand - the experiences on offer in a neighbourhood or its affordances for play and – on the other – children’s ability to access those experiences (as in the framework proposed by finnish academic, Marketta Kytta) then you realise that the two are interconnected and that our experience here can be consider extremely child friendly.

Their infrastructures are integrated and interconnected, considering the needs of children in their traffic management and water management and they have utilised whatever pockets of space they have at their disposal to integrate play. Highlighting to us that with a little creativity that there is no excuse for the contraction of children’s space to play.

Further, the recognition that play is neither exclusive to children nor the playground has developed a culture that appreciates and supports the child’s innate desires and natural play behaviour. All in all, our experience of the Netherlands was truly ‘Play-full and Playful’


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