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Connecting Parks and Policy: revisiting the implementation and consequences of the Play England Design Guide

7 May

Introduction

Last year Sutcliffe Play ran a Homeshow where we invited Aileen Shackell to come and talk about the 10 design principles embodied within the Play England publication “Designing for Play”. Her audience on two days were Sutcliffe Play customers, mainly from Local Authorities parks departments responsible for the design and purchase of playgrounds. During the course of these discussions several things became clear. The first was the effect of austerity on Local Authority policy, particularly in relation to Playgrounds and maintenance and, secondly, the extent to which Local Authorities had moved back to the design principles prevalent before Play Builder and Pathfinder money had been made available to them. Thirdly was the redundancy of Play Officers and the loss of Play Policies. However, it was also clear that there was a feeling of regret about this regression to previous attitudes and a sense of something lost.

 

Following these days and in discussion with Aileen and several Officers we believed that there was an opportunity to discuss how we might reconnect previous aspirations with today’s reality and several of us decided we would have a second debate where these issues could be aired. The second meeting, also hosted by Sutcliffe Play brought together experts with both practical management experience of providing spaces for children’s play and designers and policy makers, Nicola Butler, Chair of Play England and co-author of Design for Play; Helen Woolley, Landscape Architect and Reader at Sheffield University and Noel Farrer of Farrer Huxley, Landscape Architects. All of whom have experience of creating interesting and challenging playgrounds. We hoped that the meeting would help to Reconnect practice and theory.

 

Postcards

We began by spending five minutes taking ourselves back to 2008, when £235m was announced for play and imagined how we dreamt playgrounds would look, ten years later, in 2018.

 

The result was interesting and very diverse. It included, amongst other things, excitement, appropriate to place, the elements, diversity, accessibility, natural, loose parts and anarchic on the one hand and sustainable, durable, low maintenance and affordable on the other. Thus, rather than sense that we were all working to a basically similar dream, it became apparent that we were not.

 

In the ensuing conversation a number of topics were covered and issues became apparent. I have tried to list these below rather than describe the seminar as it took place.

 

Design for Play

Design for Play was not written to be applied as a statutory instrument or a quality standard, it was only three days before publication that the authors became aware of the use intended by the DCMS when they announced the funding for children’s play. Consequently, it was a mistake that the ten principals were used on a tick box basis, the more ticks the more points a playground scored and funding approval given. This was quite wrong, some of the best playgrounds have only one sort of Play to offer. Equally it was never intended that such emphasis would be placed on Natural Play.

 

During the course of the day it became clear that there was agreement about the principles and that in a new document, they would need little change, other than perhaps greater contextualisation. However, there are other issues that need to be addressed, which are now more important and urgent. There was universal agreement about the need to reduce fencing to only the places where it is really needed (although at Sutcliffe Play we rarely see this reflected in the schemes we are asked to design! RS). Synthetic surfacing was less clear. The justification for synthetic surfacing is related to potential litigation, maintenance and cleanliness, with several officers indicating that they are using rubber grass mat wherever they can as a more attractive alternative to wet pour or tiles.

 

Interestingly, when asked about the 6 Acre Standard produced by FIT (NPFA) several people thought that it was still being referenced in development plans and policies. Feelings were mixed about this, some feeling that the influence was negative (product specification) and others that it at least set a space benchmark, necessary, although sometimes hopelessly inappropriate.

 

Natural Play

Issues around Natural Play came up throughout the day. It became apparent and agreed that this was a concept that was neither understood nor applicable in most places; why on earth put tree trunks and rocks in the middle of a natural playable landscape? There was clearly an issue of advocacy and the case had not been made, nor the concept understood, prior to imposition. The fact was that at both Fribourg and Sterling the work of play Gurus and advocates for natural play had been subsequently undone (the tragedy of the Playbuilder and Pathfinder programmes and the creation of Play England within the NCB was that the there was no resilience, value systems cannot be imposed; in order to be understood they have to be discovered. RS). There was also anecdotal evidence of people asking where the playground was, when faced with a natural playground and criticising the playground for lack of conventional features like swings, roundabouts and slides. There is definitely a case for conventional equipment signposting play. Equally access to the natural world was agreed by all to be beneficial for children.

 

Training

The subject of training was raised and it was noted that there is no formal qualification for play design and installation, except in the Landscape department at Sheffield. It was felt that Play and design for play should be far more widely included in professional qualifications (personally I think that this would be a vital element in establishing resilience and embedding quality and understanding in playground, housing and public realm design RS).

 

Maintenance

The impact of reduced funding has driven Play Officers to putting maintenance at the top of their Agenda in considering the specification of playgrounds. There was some lack of clarity here as it was suggested that the cost of maintenance in percentage terms of capital cost for natural playgrounds was the same as for conventional playgrounds at 5% and that Natural Play has a cheaper capital cost than conventional playgrounds. This was interesting as it was also agreed that many Natural Playgrounds had been removed due to maintenance issues, rotting trunks and accidents.

 

Funding for Play

This was a major issue during our discussions and in many ways framed all the questions around design. Almost all Play Policy Officers with an understanding of the principles of play have now been made redundant. That means that playgrounds are back in the hands of Parks Officers and occasionally (my adverb) Landscape Architects and it was clearly stated by participants that really Parks Officers are not trained for this role.

 

The possibility of a statutory requirement for play, as exists in Wales was discussed, but, however desirable, was recognised as being highly unlikely in England. However undesirable, the move from local playgrounds to destination playgrounds was observed, as they are cheaper to maintain. Increasingly responsibility for doorstep provision is being written into development agreements with house builders, greatly to the detriment of quality.

 

It is not just revenue funding for staff that has been cut, but capital spend as well and without the stick of Playbuilder, responsibility and process has returned to the previous default. Inevitably this has more or less led back to the known solutions of the past.

 

Alternative funding streams

The role of friends organisations and the voluntary sector was raised (on which so many social functions now rely) and while it was not dismissed out of hand, the complications of using people without the necessary training and knowledge were identified. There was also a clear and understandable acknowledgment of employment insecurity in all alternative solutions.

 

Revenue from cafes, both direct or through franchises was being realised by a number of those present as was the use of parks for events, although these do have attendant problems of wear and maintenance. Indeed, one participant stated that they were now obtaining 50% revenue funding from “commercial” and alternative sources. (the provision of cafes is, of course, symbiotic, in that they provide a function that has always been recognised as valuable in terms of play and particularly in relation to accessibility, as well as providing alternative revenue).

 

Pay to Play was dismissed out of hand, but then discussed in some detail. It was agreed that it is simply too politically hot to handle. Different models were put forward, such as local residents being given free passes or passes based on free school meals and it was observed that many commercial destination playgrounds are covered in children, but . . . . . . . . . .

 

Procurement

This was agreed to be a major issue in achieving good design. Procurement is generally done through purchasing offices that have neither understanding nor interest in the needs of children. Understandably, their remit is to get best value for money. However, in the case of play this tends to be judged on the basis of numbers and quantity of hardware and not on the potential play value of space or quality of product. There is never money for design or consultation, Design being carried out in competition between equipment suppliers and consultation taken out of the Parks revenue stream, resulting in a beauty parade for children to choose and therefore inadequate and inappropriate. The German model of specification by Landscape Architects, which seems to produce far better quality and more appropriate spaces, was suggested.

 

Managing Risk and RBA

Almost all of those present had returned to conventional risk assessment and the use of standards as being the most relevant to their needs. The high level of claims and the prevalence of No Win, No Fee litigation continues to drive caution. The HSE were not identified as a problem and a really depressing case was cited of a Local Authority taking a claim to court in the belief that they would win and then damages being awarded against them. The Barrister concerned advised against appealing. However it was acknowledged that with non-standard situations RBA was a valuable tool.

 

Advocacy

The need for stronger advocacy for play ran through the seminar like a gold thread, weaving its way in and out of almost every subject. Perhaps the strongest element was the call for more recognition of the need for play and investment in play. The link between play and health being perhaps the platform on which we should build. The beneficial link with well-being, obesity, diabetes and youthful unrest, all have a clear evidence base and should be being used as a platform on which to promote the sector.

 

While in the past the Children’s Play Policy Forum has been focussing on engaging with the administration in power, it was now felt that the time was right to produce a position statement laying out the true aspirations of the CPPF as a baseline for any future discussions. It was felt by the CPPF that bringing the Landscape Institute, the Forestry Commission and National Trust onto the Forum would strengthen the case for play and its advocacy.

 

If Design for Play was to be reviewed then it was felt that, to be successful in creating better places for children to play, whilst retaining the principles, it should move the emphasis and focus more on the practicalities and barriers currently facing Parks Officers.

 

Conclusions

So, I think that this was even a little more depressing than I had anticipated, just the divergence in aspiration of the postcards should have warned me, but in that case the need for dialogue and a listening spirit is even more important.

 

Clearly, we all know that the three-year timespan of the big spend was too quick and resulted in a very mixed bag of products and understandings; but overall everyone agreed it was worthwhile. For me the message was clear, coercion does not win hearts and minds and if this sort of money were to be found again then resilience and advocacy would be my door posts through which policy and process would have to pass.

 

It is difficult to synthesise the messages of the day. I feel that if Design for Play is to be republished then the context and intention of the guidance needs to be made more clear, but the actual principles remain valid as does the Golden Rule, although I might personally want to simplify it and relate it more closely with Genius Loci, the essence of place.

 

Audit Playbuilder

It seems to me that the implementation of Playbuilder sites through Design for Play was aspirational. At the time to me it felt wonderful! However it was based on a set of paradigms accepted and understood by the policy and strategic players within the sector, but not by the sector ultimately responsible for implementation and maintenance. I would suggest that before embarking on such a programme again we need to audit the Playbuilder sites, draw lessons from the results before identifying the aspirations of another round of capital spend. We would then need to embed these principles proven by time across the sector through dialogue and training and to inform future advocacy.

 

Either within Design for Play or as separate documents each of the above topics might qualify for a paper in their own right. Perhaps the most important would be procurement. Indeed, some of it might come under the remit of the CPPF?

 

For me this was an exhausting day, but that was probably as much the heat as the content. It was very useful and should perhaps be the first in a series of cross sectoral focus groups.

 

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The city that got serious about child-friendly urban planning

5 Apr

Perhaps th most important thing we could do for children and universal to all children.

Rethinking Childhood

My last post on Antwerp showed how political priorities shape what is possible. That city’s ‘speelweefselplan’ or ‘play space web’ approach shone a light on how children get around their neighbourhoods. But in Antwerp, closing streets to traffic or losing parking spaces were steps too far for an administration fearful of being seen as ‘anti-car’.

So what happens when a city’s leadership faces up to the impact of traffic, and decides to do something serious about it? Ghent – Antwerp’s near neighbour and the second European city I visited on my Churchill Fellowship study tour last month – points to the answer. And the emerging results are impressive and revealing.

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OFSTED supporting the need for risk!

12 Mar

 

It is really encouraging to read in a recent Telegraph article about the recognition by OFSTED for the need for managed risk in playgrounds. Going even further indicating that Inspectors will receive training in the importance of risk in Children’s play, with a very nice supporting quotation from Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman.

 

New Arup report places children at the heart of urban planning

8 Dec

Absolutely no point in doing anything other than passing on Tim’s Blog. It is really good and really worth a read!

Rethinking Childhood

Cover of Cities Alive: Designing for Urban ChildhoodsA new report from planning and built environment firm Arup argues that children should be central to good urban planning and design around the world.

Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods takes its cue from the oft-quoted maxim of Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa that the child is an indicator species for cities. Part of Arup’s Cities Alive series of publications, it shows that child-friendly urban planning is about much more than providing playgrounds. Rather, it is part and parcel of making cities more livable, sustainable and successful for all citizens.

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An issue of disconnect

4 Oct

In the context of play, the last four weeks of September have been challenging and interesting. They began with the Sutcliffe Play Home show, followed by the opening of the new Square Chapel Foyer and concluded with IPA Conference at Calgary. These occasions always give an opportunity for reflexion, which, for me, caused quite some concern! So now I am trying to draw the threads together and discover if there are any common messages, which might be relevant to all of us!

At the Home Show we invite speakers to address some of our customers about what we think might be interesting for them in play. This year Aileen Shackle spoke to them about the ten principles from the Design for Play Guide that she co-wrote for Play England as part of the BIG Lottery funding and I spoke about the role that the UK plays internationally in our field of play and risk. Naturally RBA was part of my presentation.

Aileen having a look at the new inclusive roundabout

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Afterwards in questions and answers it was interesting that of the local authority officers and others present virtually none used either the principles of design or RBA in their work. There was a consensus that at best the design guide had reduced the use of fences, but then many of them claimed that they were already reducing the use of fences before the Guide was produced. Most of the audience claimed to be unaware of RBA! Aileen and I were very shocked about this gap between what I would call the mover and shakers and the real world of parks officers.

Immediately following the home Show Jessica and I celebrated the opening of the new Foyer we have been involved in building for Square Chapel, the performing arts centre where we have been Trustees for the past 29 years! An emotional roller coaster in itself, but not irrelevant to my thesis here; play does not stop at 18 and Square Chapel prides itself an engaging with young children and retaining their interest into adulthood!

Square Chapel’s new foyer

 SC for Blog 171002

Then the following week straight onto the International Play Association (IPA) Conference at Calgary, where Tim Gill had put together a thread relating to risky play, in which I had a 15 minute slot. As always with these conferences there was far too much to participate in, but I did get a flavour of the threads around risk, play in situations of crisis and the way that parents are often a barrier to play. The Conference opened with a brilliant plenary speech by Peter Grey, who concluded with the observation that, given the current state of engagement of governments globally and with the deteriorating environments in which children play or don’t play, the retiring generation (of which I am one) have more or less failed, with which I wholeheartedly agree (along with climate change, closing the wealth gap, and generally raising the aspirations of society!)

So moving on to IPA Calgary. The importance of risk ran though the conference like a name through a stick of rock; inclusivity, play in crisis, play in schools, risk was there in all of them. Indeed towards the end of the conference I was beginning to feel the need to say “hey, wait a minute, there is more than risk to play, indeed there are other issues that may well be more important, stop! Let’s get back to play!” I felt that everyone knew about RBA and were enthused! What a contrast with the home show, but this was the IPA, the movers and shakers, playworkers, naturalists and adventure playground enthusiasts rather than those who actually do the delivering across the parks of the UK.

The second theme through the conference was play in crisis. I didn’t get to hear all the sessions on this topic, but the ones I did get to and the subsequent references during the conference and reading the IPA Magazine, have left me with some quite distinct thoughts about this subject. First is the different categories of crisis that were researched as part of the IPA project and the different roles that play can take and contribute to the children in those different situations. It seems to me that they divide into those children suffering trauma after an event like the Tsunami in Japan or the refugees in Lebanon and those that have been born into what we would consider critical situations but which for them are the norm, such as the Squatter children of Kolkata who play between the Railway and the Ganges.

 Picture1

I am also reminded of the wonderful talk that a Canadian Landscape Architect gave at, I think it was, a Child in the City conference, where she described building a playground in Sarajevo, after the civil war in Croatia and where the process brought families from the two warring factions together again for the first time since the war. Old friends re-establishing broken relationships. It was a very moving talk and an experience which I felt had left her, the Landscape Architect almost as traumatised as the participants!

So whereas play can perform a healing role in situations of crisis and trauma, I felt that it could be argued that the children of Kolkata were actually enjoying a better play experience on the railway tracks and Ganges riverside than their counterparts in richer cultures exposed to parental fears and ambitions. Maybe this reflects the lower crime rates in Mumbai squatter colonies than in the wealthy suburbs! Who would want to be wealthy?!

Which leads me onto my next topic that also ran through the conference and that was the problem of parents; such a nuisance, parents! It is interesting that at the end of the BIG Lottery funding we held a Play England member’s meeting where we tried to prioritise the issues that Play England should focus on in the immediate future and the one that came out top was persuading parents of the importance of play and risk. This was echoed in Calgary and, interestingly at the Sutcliffe Play Homeshow.

A relevant slide from Dr Roger Hart’s plenary

Picture2

Before I try to bring this to a conclusion, I must also mention the flip side (does anybody remember what a flip side actually refers to?) of both events. The pleasure of meeting people one really respects, but rarely sees, people with whom, briefly one can have relationships intensified by brevity. Meals and conversations and of course alcohol and I haven’t mentioned conversations around the really interesting genesis and birth of Outdoor Play Canada.

So, I think my biggest concern, here in the UK is the one first recognised by Aileen after the home show. The disconnect between the austerity affected practitioners and officers responsible for play provision across the UK and the movers and shakers trying to influence their projects and services. Their isolation, besieged by parental anxiety and squeezed by swingeing cuts in funding of Local Authorities, whilst being entreated to follow the aspirations of what might be considered the movers and shakers of play. I am sure that many of our concerns, the role of play not just in crisis but in everyday life for children, the need for risk to engage and develop children’s faculties and the parental barriers to offering those things, are shared across our sector, but we still haven’t found a path to their resolution.

 

 

 

 

Hundreds of playgrounds set to close

13 Apr

Research undertaken by the Association of Play Industries has uncovered the extent to which local authorities across the country have been closing children’s playgrounds.

This new research revealed that between 2014/15 and 2015/16 local authorities across England closed 214 children’s playgrounds, and when asked about future plans they admitted their aim to close a further 234.

These closures come at a time when childhood obesity and wellbeing are high on the Government’s agenda.

Commenting Mark Hardy, Chairman of the API said: “With increasing childhood obesity and the health benefits of activity and play well known, now is not the time for community playgrounds to be closing. This action goes against the Government’s clear intention to get children more active and needs to be stopped as quickly as possible. Our survey revealed a 37% cut in Government funding to local authorities.”

Their report published today, ‘Nowhere to Play’, shows that £100 million could reverse the decline and get us back on track to increase the number of playgrounds available to children across the country. We are also realistic in realising in this period of austerity that direct government support may simply not be available and therefore urge government to support reinstatement of funding from the Big Lottery.

“We know that money is tight for councils across the country, but we can’t just stand by and watch as children’s playgrounds close. We are calling on the Government to halt this decline and invest in the next wave of playgrounds to ensure our children have access to free play and activity,” adds Hardy.

 

—– END —-

 

 

 

EDITORS NOTES A Freedom of Information Act request to all councils, carried out by the Association of Play Industries, revealed the following number of playground closures:

  • 2014/15: 112
  • 2015/16: 102
  • The request also asked for future plans to close playgrounds and revealed the following number of playgrounds earmarked for closure:
  • 2016/17: 80
  • 2017/18: 103
  • 2018/19: 51
  • Figures for 2017/18 and 2018/19 do not include information from over a third of councils questioned as they had yet to make plans for this time.

The full report ‘Nowhere to Play’ is attached and will be available online Thursday 13th April 2017 here http://www.api-play.org/news/nowhere2play-campaign

BBC news story flagrantly manipulates statistics on school accident claims

7 Apr

Somehow doesn’t this just fit the steady erosion of our liberal culture? thanks Tim for blowing the whistle and alerting us.

Rethinking Childhood

A major news story on the BBC website this morning uses false comparisons and basic errors to create a highly misleading picture about the sums paid out for accident claims in schools. Far from revealing a ‘claims culture’, the figures actually show that payouts make up a tiny proportion of education budgets, and are not on the rise.

Screengrab BBC News home page 7 April 2017 with school payout story circled

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