Playable cities: What?

Now that we know the reasons (WHY) and conditions (HOW) for playable cities we can zoom in on the specific actions that we can undertake to create vibrant places. The underlying goals and criteria for child-friendly spaces help us to remember that we have to operate on multiple levels. In this chapter you will find a lot of actions and efforts that can make a difference if you want to create safe, entertaining and enriching learning spaces for kids.

Summary | WHY? | HOW? | WHAT? | Sources

Before we go into these 100 actions (and many inspiring examples), I want to emphasize the importance of a diverse package of measures. Playable cities are so much more than ordering some playground equipment. As said, it is also about things such as accessibility, comfort and safety. This plea for diversity and for looking at the big picture isn't a recommendation for large-scale interventions. Most of the time it is not about big renovations of squares or parks (redevelopment). It is often a matter of small, low-cost, temporary interventions that can lead to a huge improvement (programming, management, maintenance). Hopefully these actions and examples will inspire you and offer you guidance in prioritizing and implementing the right measures for stimulating active free play in cities around the world.  

The accessibility of a public space begins with the availability. Here are several actions for increasing the quantity:
  • Build compact urban environments and public spaces at strategic points. Higher densities will increase the availability, the accessibility and use of destinations. It increases the supply of potential users for public spaces. There are more children to play with. And the (financial) support for the provision of facilities will grow. (When I mention higher densities I mean that we shouldn't build homogeneous, car-dependent middle class suburbs with only single-family houses. Don't encourage sprawl. But we don't have to build everything like Manhattan either. Find a nice balance between both: compact, mixed-use development)  
  • Create people-oriented cities through a mix of land use. When you combine different functions (living, working, learning, services, recreation) it will encourage parents and children to walk or cycle because all the daily things are nearby (the so-called 10 and 20-minutes neighbourhoods)This diversification will not only improve walkable accessibility and time efficiency, but it also will add vitality and curb appeal because most of the day people will be present (creating shared community spaces with mingle users). 
  • Create more places to play through opening up existing spaces. Many schoolyards and school sport facilities are closed after-school and in weekend hours (with sport clubs it is the other way around). By introducing shared use (with or without supervision) you will increase the quantity of playable spaces (and thereby the accessibility).
    In the project 'Haagse Sporttuin' (The Hague sport gardens) the school facilities are used in the afternoon by the neighborhood youth (with rotating gym teachers as trainers). In the city of Utrecht (also the Netherlands) they bring the sport clubs into multiethnic neighborhoods to fight the low participation in professional/organized sports. Here the local sports providers organize trainings in neighborhood facilities in the so-called project 'Neighborhood sports club'. Big advantage: it's accessible and approachable, because it is cheap and close to home (unlike many professional sports clubs). A totally different example of opening existing spaces are the interventions of architect Teresa Otto and fashion designer Ricardo Dourado with their Fountain Hacks.
  • The city is full of (small) concrete places. Transform them in destinations. Create pocket parks: tennis court sized (green) retreats for local neighborhoods to play, explore and relax.
    In Hong Kong the Pocket Parks Collective creates pop-up activities in small parks. In Toronto they are working on the renewal and reprogramming of laneways in safe, vibrant and interesting public spaces. In Ottawa (also Canada) boats are banned from a canal to make it the largest outdoor skateway.
    In Yangon (the capital of Myanmar) the alley garden project transforms unused and polluted back alleys into clean and healthy recreational spaces featuring gardens, streetart and children’s play grounds. In other cities they use the transformation of waterfronts to create urban swimming spots or former railways become elevated parks. And do not forget the roofs of buildings, like the ones in Rotterdam and Tokyo.
  • Look for funds when there is a lack of money for establishing new public spaces.
    For example, in the Netherlands there are The Cruijff Foundation and the Richard Krajicek Foundation. They both have made a strong commitment to getting sports back into the neighborhood. Together with municipalities they created - in first instance - soccer and tennis courts, and nowadays mostly diverse play areas for multipurpose use. In this way target groups that find it difficult to find their way to the sports club have a free sports and exercise opportunity close to home.
    In the United States KaBOOM! provide grant opportunities. And also in the UK their are many financing options.
  • Another way to increase the quantity is that municipalities compel developers to set aside at least 10 percent of their space for public space.
    New York City has been giving incentive bonuses since 1961 to builders who provide plazas. For each square foot of plaza, builders could add 10 square feet of commercial floor space over and above the amount normally permitted by zoning (the so-called 'incentive zoning' or 'density bonus'). In the Netherlands different cities work with play space planning norms, such as the city of Leiden where at least 10 percent of the surface must be potential play area. And the city of Rotterdam: in a neighborhood at least one central meeting place of 5.000 m² (~54,000 sq ft) for all ages and space of at least 1000 m² (~10,800 sq ft) every 300 meter.  
Next to the availability, a public space should be easy to enter, to find, to navigate, and to reach (preferably by walking or cycling). Here are some actions to support this:
  • Priorities slow traffic/active mobility. Plan the road system in neighborhoods in favor of the needs of active transport (walking, cycling) instead of the car (see the reverse traffic pyramid). Favours those who share space, those who cost less or those who use little space and discourages those who use more than their share. See also this awesome comparison and the paragraph 'Traffic safety' below.
  • Make convenient, safe, obstacle-free, user-friendly cycling and walking routes to key places such as schools, shops, parks, playgrounds and other play areas.
  • Connect these routes together into a network. Shorter blocks (and therefore many crossing) and interconnected streets, sidewalks (on both sides) and bike paths provide a high degree of travel continuity and decreases travel time. Use parks, squares and other public spaces to knit it all together and creating multiple use.
  • Clear bike lanes from snow and leaves so that they can be used throughout the year.
  • Hold on to a minimum sidewalk width. A parent walking with a child in hand requires 1,5 meter/5 feet of space. Two parents walking side-by-side pushing strollers requires 2 meters/7 feet (and enough turning space at the corners). 
  • But the streets are not just pathways, they are also important places to spend time and meet other people. In the words of Jane Jacobs (1961): "Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs." The desirable width for a sidewalk for playing is around 3 meters/10 feet. So that children can chalk, cycle, jump rope, and run back and forth. 
  • When designing streets think about toddlers (who are just taking their first steps) and parents with a pram/buggy/stroller. Provide paved (park) paths with a smooth surface, and no cracks or potholes. Do not overload the sidewalks with billboards, charging points, lampposts, road signs, trash cans, or waste containers. This will limit the space for playing. Their (and those of others) accessibility and convenience is also increased when there are enough curb cuts, slopes, ramps and handrails at child height (60 centimeters/2 feet). 
  • Decide within your municipality the acceptable walking distances between houses and play or green spaces (proposal: 500-1000 meter/half a mile). And/or ensure a minimum amount of green space per person. And then let those rules apply to every resident. Remember: when it is too far for kids they are not allowed by their parents (activity range).
  • Ensure adequate, reliable, safe and convenient public transport (easier to achieve with higher densities). This will also in a way promote physical activity (since transit use usually involves walking or cycling to a bus stop) and will save travel time to interesting destinations.
    For some inspiration see the wonderful TED-talk of Enrique Peñalosa, the bus rapid transit and bike path network in Bogotá and the urban cable cars in Medellin, Caracas, La Paz, and Rio de Janeiro.
    In London public transit is financed in part by road and congestion charges during rush hour.
  • Improve pedestrian crossings by increasing the frequency of (controlled) intersections, refuge islands, and clear markings (see for more traffic calming measures the theme 'Traffic safety' below).
  • Shorten the distance in time by reducing the waiting times at signals for slow traffic/active mobility and by making cattle underpasses at infrastructural barriers. 
    You can use roundabouts and a multi modal control strategy for traffic lights to reduce waiting times.
  • Close streets from traffic.
    Temporarily for some hours (
    Playing Out) or with car-free weekends (open street events) in your own street. Or on highways (see for example Paris, São Paulo, Bogota and many other cities). Or structural by introducing (nearly) car-free zones (such as the Superblocks in Barcelona; Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden; the suburb Houten in the Netherlands - a country where you also will find many living streets).
  • Make places easier to find (legibility) with good signage.
    When I was a toddler I lived in a high-rise apartment. Every floor in the stairwell had a different picture of an animal so that I knew when I arrived at my floor. The same concept can be applied to beaches by placing orientation posts with different cartoons so that kids can find their parents. Or use street paintings, planters or a specific color/material to mark routes to schools and playgrounds, so that children will find their way (see also Save Routes to School Online Guide). 
A public space should be appealing and practical. The visual richness of a place - and therefore the attraction - can be influenced in different ways:
  • Provide a diversity in surface with different color, materials and structure. Such as asphalt, bark, brick, concrete, dirt, grass, gravel, metal, planting, rubber, sand, stone, water, and wood chips. Good for the view, but also for the diversity of playing opportunities because you create different target areas. Keep in mind that gravel paths limit the play and movement options. For chalk, (tri)cycling, (stunt) scootering, skateboarding, roller skating and hopscotch you need a flat and paved surface.
    In Gwangju (South-Korea) the architectural firm MVRDV realized in collaboration with school kids the I LOVE STREET, with all kinds of surfaces
  • Make paved spaces, such as schoolyards or market squares more interactive by adding markings (for example color-coded activity zones). They are a suitable stimulus for increasing children's physical activity levels.
    Think of board game-like activities (tic-tac-toe/nought & crosses, twister, goose board, snakes and ladders) or ground markings which makes kids dance or go crazy on their bike (tricycle track). See for another example this before and after picture of a restyled playground.
  • Increase the attractiveness of a trip for children.
    Get inspired by Pathways for Play or the project 'Play Everywhere' from KaBOOM!. The latest is trying to incorporate play into the normal routines of kids. Think of a sidewalk with some different tiles, numbers, letters, arrows, dots, footprints, runway, public chalk walk, assignments, painted pavement games (sometimes only visible during inclement weather). Or think of designing a playful bus stop or a touch-screen game which lets strangers play a Pong-like game as they wait for a pedestrian crossing signal.
Besides the perspective of children, it is also important that the parents find a place attractive. This has to do with 'comfort', 'livability' and 'safety' which will be discussed later. But it is also important to create appealing aesthetics with varied architecture and natural features.
  • Use the surroundings, the unique strengths and the identity of the place in your design. A situational approach and a custom-made design makes it unique and much more attractive than the traditional playground with his standard attributes.
  • Create a human scale architecture. Physical elements should match the size and proportions of humans (and kids in particular) and correspond to the speed at which humans walk. Our senses are positively stimulated in compact streets where the facades of the buildings continually change in color, shape, material, function, height, ornamentation, set-back and detail. 
  • Provide a soft transition between the buildings (private) and the street (public) - the so-called edge zone - through active ground floors, transparent (non-reflective) windows, street furniture, flower pots, and front yards. See also 'Architecture' in my top 10 of how to make inviting and attractive public spaces.
    In Melbourne (Australia) developers should devote at least 60 percent of the ground-floor as open and inviting, for example through retail and food-uses.
  • Prevent playable spaces near loading and unloading areas, parking lots and garbage collection. This kind of 'back stages' aren't attractive, nor inviting and don't create a feeling of social safety. At the other end of the spectrum you find historic buildings. Adults have a strong affection for them, because they remind us of the past, they carry narrative and are most of time interesting to watch due to all the ornaments.
  • Adults are especially attracted to places with different natural elements. Use arbors, awnings, planting beds and trellises for attractive landscaping. And take care of the presence of beautiful (evergreen) trees, a water feature, fragrant flowers, large planters and/or colorful groundcovers. Pleasing to the eye and other senses.
    See this example from The Hague (the Netherlands) how a change in subsoil can make a huge difference.
  • Pay attention to the design of the amenities. Public spaces are a lot more attractive when trash cans, bicycle stands, benches, poles, tiles and street lights don't look cheap but have a good design.
  • Try to design a room-like quality in which the public space is visually defined by a good arrangement of the buildings, street furniture and natural elements. This enclosure and coherence creates a sense of visual order and makes it distinct and recognizable.
  • Be aware of your own success. By applying all measures in this chapter there is a change that your public space will become a popular destination. The presence of many people is no problem (rather it has an appeal), but it shouldn’t get overcrowded because people are not comfortable with that. If so, look if you can make alternative playable spaces in the neighborhood (outspreading).  
  • Last but not least, ask kids and adults what they find attractive (and comfortable). What would they change in their street or neighborhood? And support them to arrange this. Here lies an important role for municipalities.
    In the Living Streets program of seven European cities, citizens can (temporarily) transform their street into the sustainable place they have always dreamed of. The program allows residents to bid for and design street improvements, swapping traffic and car parking for things such as vegetable patches or public seating. Groundplay is a similar project in San Francisco who works with ordinary San Franciscans to build temporary installations that turn underused public spaces into joyful community places (such as Play streets). This municipality is also very active in involving residents by issuing various toolkits (see the project 'Better Streets'). The Green Connections Design Toolkit for example includes twenty intersection and block elements, to give communities a broad range of options for street improvements and creating Green Connections routes in their neighborhoods. But there are also guidelines for Mixed-Use Streets, Sidewalk Landscaping and Street Furniture.
Scanning and pushing boundaries is unique to playing and growing up. When a public space has complex elements that encourage exploration, discovery and practice it will have a long-term attraction on kids. Here are some measures you can implement:
  • Keep all ages in mind. When something is primarily designed for younger children you will get age inappropriate play equipment (which my daughter calls "baby stuff"). Swing seats are great for the youngest. Normal swings for preschoolers. Basket swings serve all ages. A flying fox is also interesting at a later age. And place climbing structures with different degrees of difficulty for new challenges every time they visit a place. Make calisthenics spots with outdoor gym equipment available for the young adults.
  • Do not completely determine the use of a public space through design. A fixed play environment that is strictly arranged or classified has limited flexibility and play value. Keep in mind that many children prefer open spaces to designated play areas. It's in their DNA that they re-purpose settings for play purposes. That makes it attractive to them, because children want to adapt, transform, or invent special places for themselves. Which makes it new every time they visit. And it stimulates spontaneous activity and multi-purpose use (in contrast to for example a soccer cage).
  • This also applies to a higher scale level. Be aware and make sure that there are enough spaces for unstructured play. In the words of Colin Ward (1978, p.73): "A city that is really concerned with the needs of its young will make the whole environment accessible to them, because, whether invited to or not, they are going to use the whole environment". There are many public spaces that are seen as play areas by children and not by adults, such as alleyways, cul-de-sacs, derelict sites, vacant plots, and wasteland. For children these are exciting locations in which they can have adventure. Preserve these informal and 'unprogrammed' spaces and make them accessible.
    As a kid I played a lot in densely grown shrubs (building huts, climbing trees, hide-and-seek, picking leaves) before it was removed for a new bus lane. And I jumped ditches and looked for water animals in the meadows at the former edge of the city. No playground could compete with that.
  • Create height differences (slopes, cliffs, plains). That creates different challenges at different ages depending on their stage of motor skills development.
    See how the elevated layout of this Maritime Youth House in Copenhagen (Denmark) is used by kids for sliding. Or this roof of an entry to a parking garage in Rotterdam (The Netherlands).
  • Do more with water. It is great for every age and it provides plenty of play opportunities (and constant activity to look at). There are enough (interactive) possibilities: fountains, ice rinks, meandering brooks, mist machines, nozzles, rapids, reflecting pools, paddle pool, ponds, sluiceways, water tunnels, and water walls. Three important conditions to make water playable: 1) make sure that children can easily access it, 2) that they are allowed to touch it and adjust the flow, and 3) that the water is shallow and therefore safe for toddler wading.
    The most inspiring I ever witnessed: the Crown Fountain at the Millennium Park in Chicago. A golden oldie is the Auditorium Forecourt Fountain in Portland. Multifunctional is Guelph Market Square (Canada), in the summer it is a water pool and in the winter an ice rink. Beautifully designed and frequently used is the Diana Memorial Fountain in London.
  • Safety comes first, but don't exaggerate. Make sure in your design that unacceptable risks are avoided, but keep it exciting enough with for example climbing equipment, loose bricks or a mud pit. After all, playing is also about excitement, thrill-seeking, experimenting, and experience risk.
  • Create more parks. Natural environments represent dynamic and rough playscapes that challenge motor activity in children and makes them aware of natural processes. Such as the seasons which gives new challenges every time.
  • Use more natural materials in your design of public spaces. Branches, leaves, logs, shrubs, sticks, stones, and trees are great ingredients for a challenging play environment. They provide endless opportunities to engage in such as building shelters and huts. So, in addition to the green areas to look at - such as flowers, plants - there should also be greenery that can be touched and used.
    Here are some of the best climbing trees.
  • Provide enough portable equipment/loose parts. Just like many natural materials, non-fixed equipment can be moved and used in many different locations and ways. With that it provides a range of activities and play experiences. It encourages open-ended and spontaneous play. And as their skills and abilities progress over time it creates new possibilities.
    You can only slide from a slide, you can only swing on a swing, but with a ball you can do a lot of different things. The same goes for things like batons, blocks, boxes, hula hoops, leaves ribbons, ropes, sand, water, scarves sticks, and stones.
  • And when you install manufactured, fixed equipment choose for some interactive, brain-stimulating elements. It's not only challenging, but also educative, fun, and encourages collaborating.
    A swing hexagon for example makes swinging a joint activity. At play panels (alphabet, chalk board, four-in-a-row, musical, mazes, memory, noughts and crosses/tic-tac-toe, numbers, rotating disks, sensory) kids need to put their brains at work. Or take it to the next level with these special interactive, electronic attributes: the Memo activity Zone, the Sutu Football Wall, the Jump Stone,
    the musical 21 swings (Montreal), coloring seesaws (Montreal), the Interactive Media Wall (Boston), an interactive electronic playground (Florida), an interactive light installation (Singapore), or multisensory interactive games. For more inspiration see Rob Tuitert in the TED-talk 'Future of outdoor playgrounds'.
Besides an attractive appearance, a destination also needs some comfort. For both kids and their caregivers. Here are some specific actions you can take to make life a little bit easier in public spaces:
  • Provide enough and convenient seating for kids and their caregivers. At the right height (around 43 centimeters/17 inches), depth (40 centimeters/16 inches or more) and with a backrest. Make sure that there is enough space next to a bench for a pram/buggy/stroller or wheelchair.
  • Place the ledge, bench or chair in the sun, at a point with low noise level, with a good view (at eyelevel) and/or place it at the edge where people's back is covered. Research shows that benches with the opportunity to watch other people are the most used. This certainly applies to fathers and mothers who want to keep an eye on their child. This is the reason why moveable chairs are ideal for users of public spaces. They give flexibility: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone. Fixed benches on the other hand can be more multifunctional. Via a smart design they can also encourage clambering, hiding, jumping, and running.
    Benches and seating are not objects; they are mirrors to our social behavior. They say where you are welcome or not and are a great instrument to stimulate social contact. See this wonderful article 'Have a Seat? How Seating Shapes Welcoming Cities' from The Social Life Project.
  • Take care within the public space of a somewhat less crowded place for the adults to sit (grass or bench) and for the kids who wants to rest. A quiet space to retreat. In these 'passive spaces' (usually at the edges) kids can daydream or enjoy the spectacle of the more 'active spaces'. A sandpit is for example a safe refuge for children who don't want to engage in active, rule-bound play. 
  • Plant enough trees. They are not only attractive but also provide comfort, because they soften the noise of cars, provide shades, shelter, ambiance, rest and privacy. 
    Don't forget: only one tree has a cooling capacity of about ten air conditioners on a summer day.
  • Try to make sunny, wind-protected areas for use in the winter and shaded zones for use in the summer. If it does not work with trees, provide awnings for shelter against rain, sun or wind.
  • If possible, take care of the presence of drinking or eating facilities. This can be done on a commercial basis, but also through drinking fountains (low enough for children and wheelchair users). Allow food outlets, foodtrucks and other food, mobile and street vendors (i.e. ice cream). The same goes for barbecuing in public. The availability of a picnic table and enough trashcans makes it even more comfortable.
  • Besides coffee, free Wi-Fi is also on the wish list of many adults. Try to realize this in public space.
  • Make sure there is a public toilet nearby (with a changing table for babies, a room for breastfeeding, and a children sink). If this is not possible on the location itself, try to make a deal with surrounding building owners.
  • Make sure there are enough cycle racks that are also suitable for large bicycles with child seats and for children's bikes.
  • Ensure a good drainage. If frequent rain turns playspaces into pools parents will be reluctance to attend. Although water and mud are fun to play with, the public space must also remain accessible and playable. 
Diversity in things to do
A public space becomes more interesting (and stays interesting!) when there are many things to do. Here are some examples to fulfill this wish for diversity:
  • Create a mix of different sports, play and meeting areas. Analyze the needs and possibilities at an urban and neighborhood level. If necessary add missing places to create this diversity. Don't transform every available space in a traditional playground for toddlers. Take into account the different target groups and vary in play types.
    Resulting in a wide range of places: alley, allotments, atrium, bushes, car-free street, common, commercial center, community center, community garden, corridor, courtyard, creek, cul-de-sac, derelict site, indoor playground, garden, grassplot, library, market square, meadow, museum, park, petting zoo, playground, plaza, pocket park, promenade, residential street, schoolyard, shopping street, sidewalk, skate park, soccer cage, sport field, square, swimming pool, trail, urban forest, vacant plot, venue, wasteland, wooded area. 
  • Think beyond the standard patterns. To much play areas have the same basic characteristics: look beyond the flat, tired, fenced-off and age-defined playgrounds with fixed and manufactured play equipment. 
    There are already enough standard football fields, choose a bumpy football field (Malmö, Sweden) or a water football field (Hamburg, Germany). Or let your imagination run wild with recycled materials (Hanoi, Vietnam). Or see the website Sportspace for the potential of sports to add meaningful new places of (inter)action to the city and its public domain.
  • Provide enough possibilities to engage in a diversity of play types (at municipal level, at neighborhood level and within a public space). With the result that there is something for everybody at any time (depending on the needs of the child at that moment). These are some variations: 
    • Functional play (kids discover how things work by repetitive action): create possibilities for climbing, crawling, grasping, sliding, stacking, swinging, throwing, opening and closing things. 
    • Symbolic/pretend/make-believe play (ability of children to use objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas as play): provide loose parts such as sticks (becoming boats), branches (becoming horses), costumes, and props. Or provide theme playsets (cottage, castle, pirate ship, fire truck, train) where kids can play house or become a knight, pirate, firefighter or train operator.
    • Constructive play (creating things by manipulating the environment): provide blocks, branches, recycled materials, and mouldable materials (sand, clay, chalk, water) so kids can build towers, huts, sandcastles and draw murals. 
  • Subdivide a site into a range of areas to encourage different kinds of play. Because children have many different needs: easy-difficult, movement-rest, security-challenge, socialization-autonomy, imitation-creativity, feeling-action, and imagination-confrontation with reality. However, avoid too much separation (compartmentalisation). Playing together with different ages and skills also has its advantages.
  • Be sure that at a play area at least ten play instruments are present. Think of: 
  • Provide equipment to lent, such as a soccer ball, basketball, board games, diabolo, hula-hoop, paddle ball, paddle boats, pedal cart, scooters, sand bucket/shovel, roller-skates/rollerblades, water guns, etc. 
  • Organize activities. For example active interventions by trained staff. They can organize social activities (coloring, crafts) or playing rule bound games (hide-and-seek, tag games, sport activities).
  • Support informal initiatives or add temporary programs yourself: such as a skating rink in winter months, an urban beach in the summer, a fair or a festival focused on kids (with for example food trucks).
    Or more out-of-the-box: sports events (football, volleyball, tricycle race, ski race) on market squares, an open-air cinema, a street dinner, a flying grass carpet, a temporary splash pad or temporary water slides (Bristol, Nijmegen, Rotterdam). They all get life on the streets. 
  • Don't forget that playing without man-made artifacts stimulates creativity. Think of possibilities for climbing and scrambling, building tents/huts and hide-and-seek. Games that don't need specific play or playground equipment.
  • Increase the physical diversity of the environment through a variety in heights, surfaces and greenery. That will broadened the repertoire of children's behavior and it increases the opportunities for learning and development.
    Differences in height for example support different challenges for different ages. Paved trails support roller-skating, skateboarding, and cycling (chasing each other on a tricycle). Grass support ball games (throwing or kicking a ball). Pathways support running (playing tag). Shrubs and flowers support contact with nature (searching for insects). Sand and branches support constructive and versatile play (building sand castles, creating hut and shelters).
All together these actions will bring a lot of possible play activities. The more the better:
The word 'public' in public space means that it is open and visible to everyone, as opposed to private which is restricted and protected. To make everybody feel welcome you have to arrange a few things:
  • Make public spaces free of charge. With user fees you encourage the separation between the 'haves' and 'have nots'.
  • Organize events and various activities. These will attract a large diverse audience. Empty spaces can give the impression that something is wrong.
  • Create places that allows equal access for several target groups. Including different abilities, ages, courage, skill levels, strengths, and types of character. Which means that there is something for everyone and nobody feels excluded. A shared place. This can be realized with smart zoning through for example color use. Don't create strictly separated spaces with fences or other clear borders.
  • Provide facilities for the physically disabled. Such as ramps, swings with back and arm support, picnic tables suitable for wheelchair users, and horizontal bars at varying levels to allow children in wheelchairs to pull themselves up.
    See for inspiration the inclusion solutions by Playcore or Kilikili, an organization set up by parents of children with disabilities in Bangalore, India.
  • Not convenient for people with a pram, buggy, stroller or wheelchair: high kerbs, narrow pavements and uneven surfaces. 
  • Provide enough convenient seating, because parents and caregivers are also a target group. The presence of tables and chairs has a positive effect on them to come to a place and stay longer. Together with activities, art, events, music, and/or a kiosk you create gathering places.
  • Add a variety of play activities that encourage interaction with others, such as double slides, a swing hexagon, talk tubes, manipulative play panels and imaginary themed play pieces (grouped tables and chairs have the same effect on adults).
  • Be sure that kids are permitted to play. That they are free to roam and can choose their own activities without restrictions (rules) and restrictive supervision. It is about enthusiasm rather than limiting. 
  • Avoid the presence of physical barriers and too few entry points. This not only has a negative effect on the accessibility but also on the sense of place: the associations, feelings and sentiments that a certain place evokes. The same goes for signs, high bushes and high gates. These are all cues through design that fuels alienation.
  • Ensure sufficient visibility through effective spatial design (line of sight) so that people are aware of the existence of a play area (noticeability). Offering something attractive, contrasting, divers, special, unexpected also helps to attract kids.
  • Create a safe 'emotional' space through adopting no-tolerance policies around verbal/physical abuse among peers (name-calling, bullying) and vandalism. An ambience in which children do not have to fear for other young people trying to get supremacy in outdoor spaces. This can be arranged by appointing a concierge, park keeper, play ranger, steward, warden, youth worker or other person that keep a watchful eye on the children.
    A so-called 'playworker' is an adult that support an unobtrusive way of children’s open-ended, creative free play. They can assist a child if needed, but strive to be as inconspicuous as possible to allow the children to direct their own play. And meanwhile they keep a watchful eye on them for their safety (laid back supervision).
  • Stay away from the so-called Privately Owned Publicly-accessible Spaces (POPS). These are a specific type of open space in which the public is welcome to enjoy, but remain privately owned and maintained. This often has more disadvantages than benefits from the user point of view.
Public spaces should be clean, unbroken and without incivilities if you want to attract users. Here are some measures that can be applied:
  • Provide sufficient financial resources for the ongoing maintenance of public spaces. That is necessary because (high density) cities are used more intensively. And/or encourage resident stewardship.
  • Make sure the public spaces are cleaned up regularly. To avoid litter place enough (nicely designed) trash cans near seating.
    Research shows that green waste bins in public areas get 66% more waste than gray waste bins. An other way to prevent a place from becoming a mess is by providing picnicking-clothes that also can be used as a trash bag or by providing a bin for coal residues after barbecuing.
  • Remove graffiti as soon as possible. To avoid graffiti on walls, use climbing plants or mural art.
  • Pursue a policy for dog waste. You can do that through fines, but also by promoting pooper scoopers or providing poop bags and dog trash cans. Or create a separate grassplot for people who are walking their dog. 
  • Remove weeds and prevent overgrown vegetation.
  • Tackle loose tiles. Especially for toddlers who make their first steps it is important to prevent pavement deterioration.
  • Repair broken lamps, and broken or worn out play equipment and sitting facilities.
  • Make public spaces at a distance from factories and busy motorways, because of the noise, air pollution (fine dust) and smells (fumes). Planting trees and shrubs can reduce this nuisance. Just like stimulating walking, cycling and electric cars.
    Many cities around the world are improving their urban air quality by limiting the number or types of automobiles. And stimulating food delivery workers to use (e-)bikes instead of mopeds and motor scooters. 
Social safety
When parents have the feeling that a public space isn’t safe - because of the presence of strangers or suspicious persons - they won’t take or allow kids to go to play areas (avoidance behavior). Ask parents to do the Popsicle Test if you want to know how they experience the social (and traffic) safety of their neighborhood: do they let their child make their own way to a shop and buy a Popsicle? Here are some measures to create an environment where everybody can feel at ease and secure:
  • Buildings - especially their living areas - should be oriented to the street side (the public space). With this you create the famous ‘eyes on the street’. This give users the feeling that they are being watched (in a good way). That’s way it is also important to create clear sightlines to play areas. You have to see in and out.
  • Build compact cities with higher densities. This will automatically create more casual surveillances to protect children (‘eyes in the street’). And higher densities gets more kids on one spot. Which is an advantage, because children in groups provide a feeling of safety by taking care of each other (buddy system).
  • Take care of the aforementioned human scale architecture. Large, monotonous buildings and long facades create unsafe feelings. Provide a good transition between the building (private) and the street (public) by oblige sufficient translucent windows, detailing, vivid functions on the ground floor, or benches and flowerpots against the facade. This also mean that you actively combat shopping vacancy (for example via pop-up stores for kids) and that clad windows and fully closed steel shutters are avoided. They create a sense of insecurity (and a canvas for graffiti).
  • Provide well-lit places by applying street- and floodlights.
  • Provide the needed maintenance. A neglected, dirty, dark and deserted space influence the feeling of insecurity. By tackling the visible signs of anti-social behavior, civil disorder, crime, and vandalism you prevent more serious crimes (broken window theory).
  • Use enforcement where necessary. Although social safety usually not apply to crime rates but to a certain mindset, it is still important that police act when there are illegal activities or inappropriate behavior.
  • If necessary, appoint a concierge, steward, youth worker, usher, warden or other person that can keep a watchful eye on the children.
Time and motivation
The amount of time spend outside is strongly influenced whether kids are allowed, motivated and have the time. Here are some measures to promote outdoor playing:
  • Educate parents and caregivers with national, regional, and local campaigns about the importance of play for a child’s development (see WHY). This is necessary because parents play a crucial role through their willingness, ability and necessity to allow children to play.
    In Scandinavia, flexible working hours are a common good and many companies encourage parents to both participate in family life including the outdoors. This means that people can enjoy the outdoors during the day and work in the evening. There are even tax breaks for companies that encourage this.
  • Organize or join an event that promote child friendly and active cities.
    Get inspired by the National Walking Month, Bike to Work Day, a National Get Outdoors Day, the Worldwide Day of Play, or a Play Outside Day. Or organize an annual ride for cyclists or skaters through the city, such as the Wednesday Nightskate.
  • Promote an active lifestyle: ask parents to walk or take the bike to school instead of driving. Facilitate this with safe routes and bike racks. Or with wayfinding signs that show that it is only a few minutes to walk to a certain destination.
  • Promote play with positive signage.
    Can Do Signs is about flipping the typical negative usage of signs. Instead, the signs give users of public space amusing, enchanting and fun options. They also share messages of trust and act as invitations to interact!
  • Invest in and recruit role models. Invite famous athletes to give a clinic on local sport fields. Showing youth that physical activity is healthy, fun, and enjoyable. Give information about the existence of all the playable spaces in the neighborhood through a website or app. It will make places easier to find and will inspire adults to go outside (you can only go to a place, when you know about the existence).
    In the Netherlands people can use the website to find play areas, playgrounds, calisthenics spots, soccer fields, basketball posts and skate rinks in their neighborhood.
  • Engage in conversation with (pre-)schools, because teachers also play a crucial role in the ability for and motivation of children to play. Think about improving the quality and duration of physical education, discuss the amount of homework at a young age, talk about increasing time spend at playing (school trips, recess, breaks, playtime) and about stimulating unstructured physically active play.
    Schools can for example organize an outdoor classroom day, a Walk-to-school-week or join an (inter)national event like the National Sports Day, The Big Draw or The Daily Mile that will bring children outside and play. In Iceland, both national and local education policies emphasize that children's learning environments are not only inside, but also outside the school building.
  • Easily apply for street-closing permits. Parents and all other residents can join National days, such as open street day, Neighbors' Day or Park(ing)Day. On some of these days, you can close your street for cars, which give you more space to organize activities such as flea markets, music-, dance-, fitness- or yoga lessons. And for the little ones: bouncy cushions, chalk-, frisbee- and roller skating opportunities.
Traffic safety
One of the important preconditions for playing outside is safety from traffic. During the trip and at the destination. This can be realized in several ways:
  • Urban streets are complete streets that serve all modes, but prioritize walking/cycling over car use in city planning. 
    Studies show that in streets with low traffic levels people get together more often on the sidewalk and have more contact with their neighbors. 
  • Create sufficient walking and cycling paths with few interruptions; designing clear street profiles; reducing pedestrian and cyclist waiting times at intersections; and reducing parking space (and more playable sidewalks).
  • The Heart Foundation in Australia made an useful Neighborhood Walkability Checklist. The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute of Dan Burden made this wonderful overview of best and bad practices. Get inspiration at the website (see the guides) of the National Association of City Transportation Officials or with the Ted-talks by Jeff Speck about walkable cities.
  • Reduce the risk of pedestrian-vehicle crashes with: clearly marked edges; crossing guards; enough interconnected sidewalks (street connectivity); exclusive pedestrian signal phasing; in-pavement LED lights; good lighting; marked (elevated) crosswalks; minimum crossing distances (i.e. with pedestrian refuge islands); reflective tape on crosswalk poles; single-lane roundabouts; special intersection paving; traffic light countdown timers; tree lined streets, and visible crossings.
    See for example this do-it-yourself crosswalks in Brasil, Colombia, Mexico and United States.
  • Or create so-called 'shared spaces': roads that are designed as living space so that they are not immediately interpreted as traffic spaces. The motorist is and feels like a guest. Together with the scooter rider and the fast cyclist he adapt his speed to the other modes of transport. To achieve this, directional features such as traffic signs, traffic lights and sidewalks are absent as much as possible. Instead riding obstacles such as bicycle clips, benches and flower boxes are placed (see also keynote-speaker Ben Hamilton-Baillie during Placemakingweek 2017).
    Nice examples are the
    New Road in English Brighton and the road behind Amsterdam Central Station. See for more examples the wonderful before and after photos of shared streets at Urb-i.
  • Reduce the risk of cycling-vehicle crashes with: adequate sight distances around corners; separate bike traffic lights; giving cyclist a four-second advantage over cars; marked bike lanes; and separate, protected lanes (by a green area or parked cars).
    The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute also made an overview of different levels of quality for cycling. For more inspiration about bicycle urbanism see the website and book Copenhagenize by Mickael Colville-Andersen.
  • Discourage drivers to go faster than walking pace through traffic-control measures: bumps, bumpy cobbled surface, chicanes, chokers, curb extensions, narrow streets for cars, pinch-points, raised tables, speed humps, speed limit (signs), trees and landscaping.
  • Provide broad sidewalks. Not only for the accessibility, but also as destination. Pavements outside the home can be the first opportunity for unsupervised exploration by younger children.
    To remember: these are the 'five Cs' of a good walking network: connected, convivial, conspicuous, comfortable, convenient
  • Create an enhancement/buffer zone to separate playing children from vehicular lanes. A planting strip or parallel parking spaces can function as a barrier (and might reduce the speed of motorist).
    Designing Streets for Kids is a handbook that shows very concretely how you should design streets from the point of view of children (and their parents).
  • Make sure that the playspace is separated from traffic lanes via, for example, low fencing (high fences are not inviting). And make sure, for example in parks, that it is clear where cycling is allowed and where not.
    Not sure whether it is safe enough? Ask your most important users: the Traffic Agent is an app that allows children in Oslo to report on the safety of their streets.
  • Make use of pop-up play structures and temporary road closures to make play streets. This is often a good way to experiment and convince people.
    Playing Out is a resident led movement in England which encourage to close street to traffic and open it up for play. Restoring children's freedom to play out in the streets and spaces where they live.
These actions 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.  

(c) Photos and images by Gerben Helleman 

Last update: February 14, 2022

Summary | WHY? | HOW? | WHAT? | Sources


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