It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon and young children are out on their local streets playing while their parents stand around almost in awe at such an unusual event.
One little boy asks his mum if he can play on the street again tomorrow, but she replies that it’s okay today because the street is closed to traffic, but tomorrow it won’t be safe again.
We are here to observe and chat with participants of the first Playful Streets event in Taylor Hill, Balbriggan, Co Dublin. The plan is that Fingal County Council will support local residents’ associations to close off streets in their neighbourhoods a few days throughout the summer months, so that children can play safely within minutes’ walking distance from their homes rather than having to be driven to a park or playground.
The young children seem a little shy at first, but soon they are circling their small bodies through hula-hoops, knocking down giant skittles, playing softball with racquets or painting on the road with chalk. The idea is that families bring out toys they have in their homes, rather than buy special equipment for outdoor play.
Candice Marx, her husband and five-year-old son moved to Taylor Hill from South Africa about six months ago. “It was hard for him to leave friends behind so playing on the streets is an opportunity for him to meet new friends,” she says. “It’s nice to have children close by for a quick play in the afternoon after school.”
Sweta Sinha and her husband bought a house in the estate two years ago, having moved to Ireland six years ago from India. “We lived in Rathmines before this and it’s a very good change to be here. It’s quiet and peaceful and we’ve ample space. Our son already has friends in school, but it’s good to know that they can play on the street too.”
Built in 2018 on the edge of Balbriggan, Taylor Hill is typical of many new housing estates, with cars parked in front of houses and a green space at the centre of the estate. It has a mix of cost-rental, social housing, private rentals and home-ownership, with people from 45 different countries living there.
It’s beyond walking distance to the north Dublin town for many people, and the main road into the estate is bizarrely called Boulevard Road, perhaps indicating how vehicular transport remains the dominant means of transport. What is clearly missing are large, colourful strips of pedestrian and cycling lanes which would encourage residents to walk, cycle or scoot back into the town.
Mary Osakwe is the chair of the Taylor Hill Residents’ Association, which has an active WhatsApp group and Facebook account. “One of the children had a near miss with a car last night and the parent driving the car was very shook up afterwards. We need to educate drivers that they need to be careful,” she says.
The concept of play streets dates back to 1914 in New York, where the absence of parks in the city’s poorer areas led to an initiative to create safe areas for children to play close to home. In London, the first play streets were introduced in 1938; however, by the mid-1980s, the UK’s play streets had almost disappeared as congestion grew. In 2012, play streets made a comeback and many London boroughs now have local play streets. Permanent and temporary play streets are also common in other cities around the world, including Bilbao and Barcelona. In Ireland, playful streets has been trialed in Cork city, Portlaoise, Co Laois and Sallynoggin in South Dublin.
Everyone is aware of all the risks to children’s mental, emotional and physical health by spending so much time indoors. Yet people are often not comfortable letting their young children out to play— Neasa Ní Bhriain
At the event in Taylor Hill, other community groups have come along to see how it’s done as they plan Playful Streets events in their neighbourhoods throughout the summer months. “We plan to invite the whole village to our Playful Streets event on Clonmethan Green in Oldtown,” explains Fiona Byrne.
“The children already cycle their bikes and scoot and play tennis on the road, but it will be good to introduce other games we played when we were younger and for all the children in the village to mingle,” adds Miriam Andrews.
Aaron Copeland and Neasa Ní Bhriain have been running Playful Streets as a social enterprise for about six years now. During that time, they have helped communities to set up playful streets in their areas. However, this is the first time that a local authority has fully backed the initiative. “The idea is for spontaneous play so that parents don’t always have to accompany their children to playgrounds to play. It also gives parents a chance to chat at the end of the street while the children play outside their own homes. We are interested to see how Playful Streets will work if the whole county has a play policy,” says Copeland.
Ní Bhrian adds that initiatives like Playful Streets remind many older people about how freely they played outdoors when they were growing up. “Everyone is aware of all the risks to children’s mental, emotional and physical health by spending so much time indoors. Yet people are often not comfortable letting their young children out to play. But when you show them how it works, they see what their estates are missing.”
Robert Burns, director of service for housing and community development for Fingal County Council, is very enthusiastic about the initiative. “We will apply for road closure on behalf of the residents’ associations and we’ll absorb the costs of doing so. We will also give communities funding to get insurance and the council will provide insurance cover for any liability on playful streets on public roads as long as there aren’t any trampolines or bouncy castles. It’s about simple outdoor play,” he explains.
Burns says that it’s important for local authorities to facilitate programmes like this. “We’ll get streets cleaned beforehand and give bags for waste which will be collected the next day. We believe communities have a right to decide what to do on their own streets.”
The aim for the summer of 2023 is for communities to run playful streets right across the Fingal area from Dublin 11 and 15 to Howth, Malahide, Swords, Lusk, Rush and Balbriggan.
Tackling driver behaviour is the biggest challenge for playful streets to work and, ironically, it’s often the parents with young children rushing home after long commutes who are the worst offenders. The Love 30 campaign is a national alliance of individuals and organisations which supports 30km/h as the default speed limit in urban areas. Some areas have already introduced these new speed limits in residential areas.
“It’s really about addressing the culture of street space which has been looked at [predominantly] as space for cars, not as places where children go out to play,” says Copeland.