Children’s Play in Regeneration and the Public realm

20 Feb

I was recently asked to write an article for Public Sector Build Journal and having written it felt that perhaps it might deserve a blog! I hope you will judge and let me know (corrections are also welcome).

The relevance of Children’s Play to Regeneration and the Public realm

“The sound of children playing is a symptom of a healthy community, a community without the sound of children is a symptom of a dying community” Brian Cheesman.

Traditionally children’s play has been contained in fenced off areas tucked away in corners of parks, with a set of more or less entertaining ironmongery; somewhere where children could be sent with a reasonable degree of security and a certain amount of fun. Sadly as Standards got more stringent and litigation more common the most interesting and exciting items of equipment, plank swings, witches hats, high swings and slides were removed, making these places increasingly dull and less attractive.

One response to this has been to make people think more closely about how, why and where children play, which has proved productive and stimulating, particularly in the field of regeneration.

Public Realm

On the Continent there has been a longer tradition of making public space more playful with the best and earliest known contender being the Architect Aldo van Eyck in the 1950s. He recognised the power of making public places more playful, providing focus and respite across generations.

Another early contributor was the sociologist Jane Jacobs in the 1960’s, most famous for her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, where she argues passionately about the mutual contribution that street life makes to children’s lives and children to the life of street.

More recent interpretations have been through such schemes as the Dutch Woonerf system in the Netherlands, on which our own Homezones were based. In this case residential streets were designated as giving pedestrians priority over cars, opening up the spaces and making them less structured to encourage children to play in them. Sadly Homezones in this country have fallen victim to the car lobby and nimbyism and in the few that have emerged many are quite formal and definitely not child centred. However the battle is not yet over and there are more viral approaches that may perhaps prove more effective!

Much of this has been underpinned by the Child Friendly Cities movement, which, whist primarily being concerned with social policy, has also had a very strong element of urban landscape and provided a platform for debate sharing experience in this field.

All this work has proved productive and stimulating, particularly in the field of regeneration, where increasingly it is being recognised that children playing enhances the quality of public life.

The term public realm is best left undefined allowing the imagination to roam freely over all possibilities, but if a definition had to be given, then the best would probably be “all freely accessible public spaces”.

Increasingly Town PlaFrederikshaven water play?nners and Developers are recognising the value of improved public realm. One only has to think of such places as Somerset House, in London or the route between Sheffield Station and City Square, where in both instances programmed fountains have attracted families to play. Another recently created space is Granary Square in Kings Cross. In this instance they are building children’s play into their master planning. The use of programmed fountains in this way is becoming rather ubiquitous and it would be nice to see more water sculptures like that in the Town Centre of Friedrichshafen or better still simple playable features or sculptures.

Interestingly the experience that Sutcliffe Play has had working with Local Authorities to make their public realms more play friendly has resulted in the use of our loose parts system SNUG being utilised, enabling local authorities to introduce play facilities that can be used for public events but have the flexibility to remove it when the space is required for other events such as markets..
Neston Public Realm


Consultation in making the public realm more child friendly is a very powerful tool giving identity, ownership and pride to communities, as well as bringing together groups of disparate and sometimes antagonistic people. Sadly, when abused it merely becomes a way for professionals to abrogate responsibility. Here are three example of successful consultation making a real contribution to the regeneration of communities.


The first example is from Sarajevo just after the Civil War. It was described to us at a Child in the City Conference in Bruges in 2000 by a Landscape Architect from Canada who led the process. She described how the two communities of Serbs and Croats came together through consultation and involvement for the first time since the war to create this playground. People who had been very close friends before the war and who had become bitter enemies during the war, who at the beginning of the process were unable to speak to each other, slowly rediscovered their friendship. After completion it became the first place of political neutrality, where both communities could meet in safety. It is one of the best examples of how a common interest in children’s play, shared by all humanity, is healing and unifying.

On a much lesser scale, but still important is the need for this sort of unification within all regeneration. In my experience one of the commonest symptoms of the need for regeneration, other than poverty, is a breakdown of social cohesion.

Upton, Yorkshire

Upton village, where Sutcliffe Play is based, is a remote community in the top tenth percentile of deprivation as a result of mine closures in 1965. It divides neatly into the West End, which is the wealthier and generally home to incomers and the East End which is the more traditional mining community.

Groundwork (Wakefield) began by scoping the community structure and created a committee to include representatives of the Parish Council, Groundwork, the Local Authority and Sutcliffe Play. Slowly a plan emerged to develop a play map of the village through consultation with the school, the Youth Centre and by door to door leafleting and canvassing. All of the consultation was led by experienced Playworkers and resulted in maps of where children of different ages played and where their parents had played (usually the same places!), where they felt “safe” and where they felt insecure.

The maps were then used as a basis for playful interventions and playgrounds across the village, which were themselves the subject of further consultation. Teenagers located themselves mainly in the 70 acre wild recreational area of the village, while the younger age groups were nearer to areas of housing.

The project was definitely successful in bringing together the community of Upton and making the village into a more child friendly place. It also developed a strong relationship between our factory and the village. It was a fascinating process, subsequently described in a Groundwork leaflet. Upton Play area

Cutsyke Playforest, Castleford

Cutsyke Playforest was the winning design by Steve Warren of Estelle Warren, Landscape Architects in Leeds of a regeneration competition sponsored by Channel 4 and Wakefield Council as part of a project to involve the media more in the process of regeneration. The brief for the competition was put together by the community of Cutsyke and the winner was selected by the children.

We got involved to help realise the winning scheme, which involved inclined “trees” that were cantilevered from the ground, supporting 4 metres high nets, not an easy task!

However working with the Steve Warren and the community we succeeded in developing a site specific installation that was both playful and iconic. From the perspective of regeneration it has acted as a focus for the community, it has never suffered from vandalism and gives Cutsyke an identity that previously it lacked. It is to Cutsyke what the Angel of the North is to Gateshead! Cuttsyke

So in conclusion there is real evidence that use of children’s play in the public realm, particularly through consultation makes communities cohesive and resilient, but also enhances their quality and pleasure.


2 Responses to “Children’s Play in Regeneration and the Public realm”

  1. Amy Katoh September 4, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    Oh, Grumpy Sutcliffe – let’s play !
    I’ve got lots of riverside and quiet streets where we live – perfect for play
    and Azabu Juban where Blue & White is is an old fashioned neighborhood where our children used to run around and be naughty with gay abandon.
    But mostly there are old people – like me !
    Where are the children ?
    Bring them on !

    blue & white amy

    • grumpysutcliffe September 5, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      Hello Amy, I have been to Azabujuban on severall occasions, now very classy, but still at a lovely scale. Jane Jacobs would have loved it! I also have visited the Blue and White shop several times. A lovely shop successfully comercialising Japanese craft. So I am delighted that you found my blog and grateful for the comment!

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