Playable cities: How?

In the previous chapter we learned WHY it is important to make child friendly cities. Now we can use these reasons to identity the conditions to realize playable cities. Based on an extensive literature study I come to ten main criteria. Principal factors that influence where, how and how long children play. Ingredients for policies, design and programs to stimulate outdoor activities. The principles that differentiate 'normal' cities from playable cities and that make a place work.

Summary | WHY? | HOW? | WHAT?Sources

The main message is that a child friendly environment is more than just simply providing some playgrounds. First of all because there are many factors that can support or discourage kids from using or even going to playgrounds. Such as the accessibility, aesthetics, lack of desired features, lack of friends to play with, and unsafe routes. The second reason we have to look further than just playgrounds is because there are so many more playable public spaces, such as bushes, courtyards, gardens, parks, plazas, schoolyards, sidewalks, sport courts, streets, squares, and trails. With other words: kids can play everywhere. They give their own function to places. But to do so, at least a few preconditions must be met, summarized in ten conditions/criteria (see the middle circle in the image below).

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Even though I mention ten separate criteria, they do reinforce each other. The overall-idea is to work with an integrated, holistic, multi-sector approach. And at the same time with an user-centered approach: it's about the challenges, the needs, possibilities, experiences and views of children. If you combine these approaches you get connected, multifunctional, intergenerational and sustainable public spaces.

You can design a public space beautifully, but when it is hard to reach nobody will use it. The degree of accessibility depends on the proximity in distance (availability of good destinations) and the proximity in time (easily accessible).

The closer people live to public spaces the more likely they are to use them. So, logically, first of all these destinations should be present. And when it's close to home, close to other kids and close to other amenities (shops, school, library) the use increases. Supply creates demand. When the space is too far kids are not allowed by their parents to go alone (activity range). That's why the presence of wide pavements in front of the house are so important for young children. Here they are allowed to play independently without supervision. But distance can also affects the willingness of parents with strollers to walk to a certain place. If a neighborhood want to be attractive for families you need a (good) school within 500 meters and a park (and shops, playgrounds and other families) within 1.000 meters from a house. In the United States people speak often about a quarter of a mile and half a mile.

Besides the distance, the proximity also depends on the length of time. A playable space can be very close, but when it is not easy to reach - due to physical barriers such as highways or unsafe features - it is still far away. The walkability also declines when places aren't interconnected by a good infrastructure. Expressed in time people often speak of a ten-minute walking radius to shops, public transport and other facilities. And policy makers sometimes speak about the twenty-minute neighborhood (using active transport: walking, cycling, public transport). In the next chapter (WHAT) you can read the specific actions to realize this.

          "We have given an disproportionate amount of our street space to vehicles, and the time has come to start giving some of it back to the pedestrians from whom it was taken." William H. Whyte, 1980

Public spaces are more popular by kids and their parents when they are attractive. Although this seems to be a subjective term, there are some universal success factors. Besides clean, the absence of noise/pollution/smells (see 'Livability' below) and the presence of amenity factors (see 'Comfort' below) it is also about the environmental quality: attractive landscaping such as trees, bushes and flowers provide shade and attracts insects and bird life. Water features also often work like a magnet. Together with the architecture of the surroundings these factors play an important role for the visual richness of a place. The attractiveness is increased when the human dimension is taken into account: physical elements that match the size and proportions of humans and correspond to the speed at which humans walk. Meaning that small facades with different colors, shapes and details are more appealing than monotonous, long facades, a blank/dead wall or passive units. Those are comfortless, dull, formally, and impersonally. If it looks good, it also strengthens the imageability: the quality of a place that makes it distinct, legible and recognizable.

The enchantment of a place not only depend on physical factors, but also on the presence of activity of other people (vividness, liveliness). Locations are more popular when there are strong possibilities of interaction with other people. Both for children and parents. For kids it means a buddy to play with and for parents the opportunity to socialize and for people watching. This is also known as the 'honeypot effect': seeing other kids play stimulates passers-by to approach, observe or join.


For kids it is extremely important that the public spaces are challenging. When there are exciting elements these spaces have a long-term attraction. Kaboom!, the American non-profit dedicated to bringing balanced and active play into the daily lives of all kids, calls this 'wondrous'. Meaning that a place should encourage adventure, exploration, and imagination. So we should look beyond the conventional playground (monotonous, flat, sterile, fenced-off and age-defined) with its fixed and manufactured play equipment. Kids want a stimulating playscape that feels new every time they visit it. So that play can evolve and increase in complexity over time, as their abilities progress. And meeting the needs of children: the uncertainty and challenge of much play is a very large part of its appeal to them. In addition, it enhances the development of their brains and bodies, making them more adaptable and resilient as they grow. And kids need - although parents sometimes think differently - small dose of danger. They need to tumble sometimes. Scanning and pushing boundaries is unique to playing and growing up. That helps to develop their risk assessment.

The diversity of the natural environment can meet the children’s needs for a stimulating and varied play environment. Tree climbing is more complicated than a climbing frame. And (moveable) natural elements expand the play repertoire with more unorganized free-play. Besides, children who play in natural areas score better on physical fitness tests than children who play in conventional playgrounds. Incorporating natural environmental features into play spaces, such as vegetation and changes in topography, can also result in improved motor skills among younger elementary school students. 

          "Parents prioritize safety and hygiene, politicians focus on design and image, and children desire enjoyment and risk." Mireia Baylina Ferré , Anna Ortiz Guitart & Maria Prats Ferret, 2006 

There are some things that make public spaces a more pleasant destination. For kids and parents. Conditions that make life a little bit easier. Such as sunlight or places to shelter from wind or rain. 

It's all about convenience. Things that make you feel comfortable. The kind of coziness you get in informal (gathering) places and when things are designed with the human scale in mind (see 'Attractiveness' above). Compare it with the way coffee and free Wi-Fi are preconditions for libraries. For caregivers the most important thing are sitting opportunities with a good view (although coffee is also welcome). Nature (green and blue) in a city also brings comfort and makes a place more attractive and inviting (research shows that children play longer in a green environment than in a stony environment). In the next chapter (WHAT) I will give examples of actions that makes public spaces more comfortable and playable.

Diversity in things to do
Children go to public areas more often and for a longer period of time, if there is a lot to do. The more play opportunities, the better (quantity). Especially when these activities are appropriate for different ages (toddler, school age, teens), strength, types of character, skill levels and courage/bravery (quality).

Diversity can be achieved through many things. By a variety of surfaces (paved, grass, sand), variety of spaces (green-water-stone, passive-active), through height differences, by organizing several activities (programming), by the presence of a wide variety of juxtaposed spatial elements (open-closed, bright-dark, large-small), and by a diversity of play equipment (fixed and loose elements). It is especially important that the equipment is not repetitive. Fixed play equipment (climbing structures, balancing surfaces, indoor play space) affects motor development and risk assessment, but have lower intensity of physical activity. That is more realized with structured activities and organized games.

This desire for variation applies to a specific location, but also on a higher scale level. A neighborhood is child friendly when there are multiple (and different) playgrounds, but also when there are different kinds of public spaces. This variation ensures that children can alternate, which makes it more fun to play outside.

A space can be accessible, attractive and challenging, but one should also be able to enter the space and feel welcome. There must be an open access to all children, including disabled children, minority communities and other potentially marginalized children.
Younger children are mostly less concerned with traditional adult fears (traffic, pollution and stranger-danger fears) than with the risk posed by other young people (bullying, intimidating, territorial behavior). That's way they look for a safe physical and emotional space where they can be themselves and are free to choose their own activities (no restrictive supervision). In other words, a public space has to be an inclusive space. One in which everyone feels safe, supported, where diversity is recognized and accepted, and where there is an exchange between different social groups. A gathering place for everyone. 

          "Instead of being 'melting pots' public spaces sometimes become battlegrounds for youth."
Yorkin, 1989 in Loukaitou-sideris, 2003

Detached paving stiles, neglected parks, poorly maintained equipment, street lights that are out of order, broken street furniture and contaminated squares are unattractive and will prevent people from visiting a public space. That's why the public space should be taken care of. Meaning that is clean, unpolluted, unbroken and without incivilities. It should not be forgotten that the eyelevel of toddlers is much lower to the ground and that they pick everything they encounter. That’s way tidiness has another meaning for this target group. To reduce maintenance time and costs public spaces are sometimes covered by asphalt or being standardized. However, the other criteria presented in this chapter show that this has a negative effect on playability.

Social safety
Parents have become increasingly reluctant letting their children play outside alone. There is constant vigilance due to the fear or apprehension of the behavior of other people: stranger danger. That has to do with crime rates (being safe), but in most Western countries also with a certain mindset (feeling safe). This is affected by the land use of the surroundings, the physical condition, the maintenance and the presence or absence of people. The presence of for example homeless people or ‘strangers’ can make parents decide that they won’t let their children be left alone. It is possible to turn this around by the presence of some supervision or (preferable) by organizing enough eyes on and in the streets. That creates a kind of informal social control, a self-policed space.

Social safety has also to do with the presence or absence of 'unruly' and bullying kids, which I also mentioned at the condition ‘Inviting’. In other words, it’s about creating an environment in which people can feel at ease and secure. Where kids can explore and roam and where their caregivers can feel confident that their children are safe. See also the article 'Girls and outdoor play: looking for more equality and equity'.

           "A city street [...] must have three main qualities: a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space; [...] there must be eyes upon the street; [...] and the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously." Jane Jacobs, 1961

Time and motivation
Without good public spaces, cities will never be child-friendly. But even if there are enough and good play spaces this is no guarantee for success. Children should be allowed to play outside and should also be motivated. Both are declining.

The minutes of active opportunities have decreased because in their free time children often have other obligations, such as homework or music lessons. The same goes for parents. They have less time to spend with their kids because they are busy with work, taking care of the household, sport, hobbies and informal care. Shortening the duration of visits to play spaces. Also many schools have shortened their break times and spend less time on physical education. Although the last two are the most effective and inclusive means of providing all children physical activity.

Besides the lack of time, it’s also about the motivation of children. Children have received more and more toys and indoor space at home. As a consequence there are many other things competing for a piece of leisure time, such as the TV-on-demand (Netflix!), game console, board games, drawing, coloring, handicraft and expensive toys. It has therefore become increasingly attractive to stay inside.

Traffic safety
The journey is more important than the destination, is a much heard saying. This is especially true for kids and their caregivers. The journey itself is full of adventures and interesting sightseeing. When the journey is to challenging or unsafe for kids, then the destination is not reached. So, to encourage children’s active free play it is also important to consider their possibilities to travel unsupervised to play areas. It’s about the accessibility (see above), but also about traffic and road safety. On the way to it and also on the destination. Although there are many road safety measures (which I discuss in the next chapter: WHAT) it is mostly about the prioritizing of walking and cycling in city planning. Taking the human scale and human speed as starting point. Transforming traffic space in public space. Creating enough safe roads to schools, parks, playgrounds and other public spaces. All research shows that when streets are safe they encourage more active use of the street, sidewalk and the neighborhood (see for example this video of the Livable Streets research in San Francisco). It increases the freedom of movement (independent mobility) because parents will give permission to play out. Kids then can explore their surroundings (spatial skills) and can foster their personal development and autonomy (identity and self-esteem).

          "If people rather than cars are invited into the city, pedestrian traffic and city life increase correspondingly." Jan Gehl, 2010

Last but not least
All these conditions result in more intensive use of public spaces and in a greater diversity of users. Together they create a good basic level, after which a flywheel effect can occur. Kids will attracts other kids. And where children go, adults will follow. And the other way around.

These criteria have been determined on the basis of an extensive desk research of international publications and websites about public spaces (for kids). For the ease of reading I have omitted the literature references. On the page sources you will find all the input I used. In the next chapter (WHAT?) you can read more than 100 specific actions to realize a playable city.

(c) Photos ans images by Gerben Helleman 

Last update: February 14, 2022

Summary | WHY? | HOW? | WHAT?Sources