It’s approaching crunch time in our street’s efforts to hold, or resist, a formal street play event. For some time, and on the back of a couple of road closures to hold a play event and a street party, a group of residents have been trying to lobby the Council to allow a formal road closure no more than once a month to allow children to play, with supervision, in the street without having to worry about traffic. A smaller group of residents have also been lobbying hard to prevent it.
Most adults you talk to will remember their own childhood playing in the streets. Street play was the first thing I did when I went outside as a child. I had a brother, and there were kids of a similar age in the street. We used the street for football, for hide and seek, for meeting one another. You looked out on the street to see who was around. I remember playing in the street much more vividly than going to the playing fields around the corner, or playing in the garden. We lived on the coast, and we played in the street more than we went to the beach.
I believe that parents generally have a desire to see their children play out, close to home with other kids in the neighbourhood, and I believe that most parents would understand the benefits of allowing that if pressed – the opportunity for meeting and making new friends, the chance to improvise play, to meet kids of different ages, to understand responsibility and road safety, to become more aware of their surroundings and, perhaps most importantly, to get fresh air and exercise. The street is an ideal place to do that, as demonstrated throughout our urban history. There is a strong groundswell of political and ideological thought currently to encourage more street play to get at these benefits, and our street’s efforts are caught up in this.
However, our modern world is complicated by fear, cynicism and a superficial mainstream media which can entrench views and prejudices, and constrain innovative ideas. The campaign to promote the formal road closure has been countered by a rather aggressive campaign against. This campaign has been characterised by references to paedophilia and kidnapping, by arguing that the nearby park is perfectly adequate as the only playspace available to children, through a fear of damage to cars and property and by arguing that the street – which has over 150 households on it – has insufficient children to justify the apparent inconvenience of closing it for two hours a month. These are all perfectly valid concerns, of course, but not insurmountable and not necessarily specific to the idea of street play; some of the arguments apply to the world we live in anyway.
And so crunch time is about the street voting one way or another. The Council dilly-dallied over the case presented to them for a street closure given the hostile minority that presented a case against. A public meeting designed to overcome the issues between the two camps failed to reach a conclusion, and now every resident on the street will be allowed to vote one way or another – by December 2 – to finally put the argument to bed.
Our street’s predicament is very unusual; street play events – and the legislation around it – are being used very constructively throughout the country and with the backing of London Play and Boris Johnson in the capital itself. There is usually very little negative reaction. Indeed, our case is so interesting that representatives from the street will be presenting their experience at City Hall on December 3 at a street play conference at which Boris Johnson and Diane Abbott will both be present. This will perhaps be with the benefit of a ‘yes’ vote.
Of course, kids can always play in residential streets where traffic isn’t a problem without the need for formal road closure orders. But, the momentum to close streets to stop traffic and enable street play is building across the country, even across political party boundaries. The case studies and best practice that feeds this momentum will surely enable more and more children to experience street play safely by closing their street temporarily and allowing them to enjoy the benefits of this that are ordinarily denied them. It will also build stronger communities. It remains to be seen whether the vocal and occasionally aggressive opposition in our street will prevent it happening in ours.