RECLAIMING THE RESIDENTIAL STREET AS PLAY SPACE
PUBLISHED IN INTERNATIONAL PLAY JOURNAL
DRAFT COPY ONLY
Final copy published as:
Tranter, P. and Doyle, J. (1996) Reclaiming the residential street as play space. International Play Journal.
Paul J. Tranter and John W. Doyle
Department of Geography and Oceanography, University College, University of New South Wales,
Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, ACT 2600.
This paper explains how the residential street has progressively lost its function as a play space. In many
cities, spontaneous informal child play on streets has been largely replaced by car-dependent, adult
supervised games which are more formally organised and distant from the local neighbourhood. There is an
assumption by many parents, politicians and planners that a large number of parks, playgrounds and large
back yards will satisfy children's recreation needs, and there will be no requirement for children to use
streets as play areas. This paper argues a case that streets need to be reclaimed as play space. Research
incorporating children's views reveals that they place a high value on streets as play space. Allowing
children to play in the local streets has benefits not only for the children, but also for parents involved in
their transport, for adults of the neighbourhood concerned with building a sense of community involvement,
and for the community at large in terms of lowering traffic congestion and related problems. Strategies that
may assist the process of reclaiming residential streets as play space for children are discussed.
Keywords: child, recreation residential area, road user behaviour, urban area, personal mobility, traffic.
"MAKING STREETS LIVABLE ... is the topmost action that would advance both children's access
to diversity and the child's right to play" (Moore, 1986, 51).
Residential streets have played an important role in cities as play spaces for children. In many residential
areas, even in car dominated cities, the streets still perform this function, albeit to a lesser degree than in the
past. In many western cities, there has been a gradual trend towards the loss of the street as an environment
for children. The reasons for this are complex, but are related to the effect of mass car usage as a form of
The implications of the loss of the street as play space for children are profound. Not only are children
disaffected, but there are negative implications for their parents, for the wider environment, and indeed for
the whole community. Yet streets can be reclaimed for children, and many models exist, especially in
sections of many European cities such as Munich, Delft and Hanover, to show how this can be achieved
(e.g. Eubank-Ahrens, 1985). However, before there is likely to be any widespread reclaiming of the streets
by children, there must be a change in the cultural view of the role of streets. The popular view of streets as
places for the exclusive use of cars needs to be challenged. For this to happen, residents may need to more
fully appreciate the way in which all city residents have been disaffected by the children's loss of an
important play environment. Adults as well as children will benefit from a city designed to be child
friendly, mainly through the creation of more sociable neighbourhoods.
A truly child friendly city is one in which the whole environment is accessible to children (Ward, 1990). In
such a city children are allowed a high level of independent mobility. They are freer to explore, in ever
increasing circles as they mature, without the constant threats of traffic danger and assault and molestation
(Elliot, 1985, 149-150). Public spaces in cities such as streets, parks, squares, trains, buses and stations, are
all viable, sociable and populated, rather than being deserted and dangerous. As Young (1980, 93) argued,
"the busier the street, the more appealing to children". In a child friendly city children can experience
neighbourhoods with a strong sense of "community", and feel that they are an important part of that
community. In such an environment, neighbours know one another and look out for each other's children.
Consider the following statement, quoted in Colin Ward's (1990) book The Child in the City (73).
"One should be able to play everywhere, easily, loosely, and not forced into a 'playground' or
'park'. The failure of an urban environment can be measured in direct proportion to the number of
Notwithstanding research which suggests that parks and playgrounds are highly valued by children (Homel
and Burns, 1986, 109), perhaps this argument is not as absurd as it seems. It helps us to realise that the way
we have been seeing 'children's spaces' is "culturally constructed". This quote is highlighting the possibility
that parks and playgrounds are among the few places left for children in our cities. It is saying that a truly
child friendly city should be one big playground. Cities in the developed world can hardly be described in
such terms, mainly because of the way in which streets are seen as barriers for children, rather than as a
useful resource for play.
The changing function of the street
Until the age of the motor car, it was an accepted use of residential streets that children could play in them.
Indeed, the social function of residential streets for citizens of all ages was an important component of the
idea of residential streets. It is important here to recognise that the arguments in this paper refer to
residential "streets" rather than any form of "roads".
There have been a number of changes in society which have influenced the freedom of children to play on
residential streets. For example, there has been an increase in the number of two income families, thus
there are now less adults at home to provide support for children playing in the local area. Related to this
trend is the increase in the use of after school care, which means that fewer children are present in their own
residential neighbourhood even after school hours. When the children are home there is a greater use of
within home entertainment devices, including computer and video games, CD players, and television. (The
average child now watches 25 hours of television per week.) When children do engage in outside activities,
there is now a much greater chance that they will be taken (usually driven) by their parents to organised
sport or leisure activities outside their neighbourhood. Many of these pressures on families and children
have two notable effects on the nature of local streets:
• they produce an increase in the level of motorised traffic; and
• they also lead to a reduction in the number of local children and adults present in the street as
Perhaps the main provocation for the gradual reduction of children's freedom to use the streets as play space
has been the growth in levels and the speed of motorised traffic, and consequently the increased concern of
parents and road safety lobbyists about child pedestrian accidents. A number of other factors are related to
the issue of traffic and traffic danger. One of these was the concern of technical professionals such as
traffic engineers to design streets so that vehicles could travel safely in them at the posted speed limit.
(This speed limit in most residential streets in Australia is 60 km/h.) The engineers were concerned that
they could be liable to prosecution if the design was the major contributor to an accident (Brindle, 1982).
Thus the design of many residential streets concentrated so much on safety for motor vehicles that this
encouraged much higher traffic speeds. In turn, this reduced children's safety, and prompted parents to
accept more of the responsibility for their children's safety by keeping them "off the streets". There is also a
clear relationship between the speed of traffic and the attitude of motorists to pedestrians (Engwicht, 1992,
50). Fast flowing traffic reinforces the drivers' perceptions that the street is their territory rather than the
legitimate territory of playful children.
Traffic levels have not only taken away the street from children, but in some cases they have a more
extensive zone of influence (Engwicht, 1992). As the volume of traffic increases, and the speed and noise
of traffic increase, children are initially forced off the street onto the footpath or sidewalk. Their play
activities are then forced into their front yards and then further and further towards the back (private) parts
of their home territory.
Apart from the risk to children from traffic danger, another major concern for parents is the risk of assault
and molestation. There is a link between traffic and fears of assault and molestation in residential streets.
As traffic levels increase, more and more people (adults as well as children) cease to use the streets as
pedestrians. This is partly a response to traffic danger, but also a response to the loss of local shops and
services, and hence people's reliance on the motor vehicle for access to such services as shops, schools and
even playgrounds. Eventually, residential streets are perceived as being deserted, lonely and hence
dangerous places for children, in terms of the fear of assault and molestation. There are few adults around
to provide surveillance and support for children. In particular, there are few adults who know their
neighbours children and can look out for them.
As Hillman and Adams (1992, 20) explain:
"The rise in the volume of traffic and its accompanying noise pollution, danger and unpleasantness
have contributed to a feeling of insecurity owing to the continuing retreat of street life and, at the
same time, to a rise in the proportion of people outside the home who are strangers".
Another reason for the loss of the street as play space has been the way in which parents have assumed the
responsibility for their own children's safety. As individuals, parents strive to provide the best upbringing
they can for their children. However, in doing so, (e.g. by driving their children to school, sport or
recreation) parents may well be contributing to a more dangerous environment for children generally.
Parents have accepted the idea that "streets are for cars; back yards and playgrounds are for children". This
is a strongly held belief, and parents have little choice as individuals but to keep their children off the streets
if they do want to protect their safety. Yet little has been done in many cities to counter this belief and to
withdraw the threats from the children, instead of withdrawing the children from the threats and hence from
Instead of children playing spontaneously and informally in the streets, many children have been forced into
"car dependent" and "formally supervised" play. In past times, adults in local neighbourhoods could
provide passive/informal control/surveillance/presence for children playing on local neighbourhood streets.
Now, in situations of spatially demarcated play, parents must be "on duty" and exercise more formal
control. This is most evident on weekends, when children are driven to sporting fields for formal adult-
organised sport or play.
There is substantial evidence (Hillman et al., 1990; Hillman, 1993; Tranter, 1993; Tranter and Whitelegg,
1994) that children's freedom to independently visit places within their own neighbourhood has been
decreasing significantly, even over the last generation. Data from England show clearly the extent of the
reduction in children's freedoms over a period from 1971 to 1990. Researchers visited the same schools and
asked children the same questions in 1990 as they had asked in 1971. As perhaps would be expected,
children had less freedom to travel around their own neighbourhood in 1990. However, the extent of the
differences was surprising. For every indicator examined there were dramatic reductions in the levels of
freedom given to children. For example, when the percentage of 9 year old children allowed to visit leisure
places alone was investigated, 68% of these children were allowed this freedom in 1971, but by 1990 the
percentage had fallen to only 37%. The percentage of 9 year olds allowed to go to school unaccompanied
fell from 88% in 1971 to a mere 27% in 1990 (Hillman et al., 1990).
Information from studies in Australia and New Zealand (Tranter, 1994, 1995a, forthcoming) supports these
findings from England. When Australian and New Zealand parents were asked to reflect on their own
childhood experiences, most parents remembered having more or far more opportunity to go out on their
own than their own children do today. This situation is a product of today's children being much more car
dependent, and hence more adult dependent, than children in previous generations.
The idea of 'the street as a place for play' has been replaced by the notion of 'the street as a place for cars
only'. The reasons for these changes in the way children play may also relate to the idea of a "democratic
deficit" for children. Children are seen as a low political priority; they are not provided with the means to
participate in decision making or planning. Their views on the use of streets are rarely incorporated by
adults. If children were involved in the decision making process, especially in terms of the design of street
space, then they may well argue, as did Cunningham and Jones (1991, 311) that residential streets must be
legitimated by design, as play spaces, and motor traffic functions assigned the lowest instead of the highest
The value of reclaiming the street as play space
"The designs of our environments have not yet accepted children's activities and their play as the
most necessary function of early life" (Pollowy, according to Matthews, 1992).
Play is widely regarded as being supremely important for children. Indeed, it has been recognised as a
basic right by the United Nations. Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
requires that governments recognise the right of children "to engage in play and recreational activities"
(Rosenbaum, 1993, 22). The highest justification of play is the joy of the spirit. It is fun. It requires no
extrinsic justification. Yet at the same time, play has a vital role in children's development. It is important
for preparation for adult life. As Green (1992, 50) explains "children's play is the serious business of
learning the innumerable skills it takes to be a human being". Children's play also needs to be allowed to
happen, rather than be taught by an adult. There is an important distinction between play and adult directed
intellectual, cultural and leisure activities. These are important to the child, but are not a substitute for play.
For many children, the loss of the residential street as play space has dramatically reduced their opportunity
for creative, self-directed, spontaneous and interactive play.
Many parents and planners genuinely believe that many parts of western cities are already well designed for
children. There are numerous parks and playgrounds, and many children have generous back yards to play
in. Yet the popularity of the street as play spaces for children has been well-documented (Moore, 1986;
Matthews, 1992). The street is frequently a preferred play environment for children, particularly when
natural or "wild" spaces are less accessible. Cunningham et al. (1994) discovered, even in 'Radburn'
suburban designs, children can be "just as likely to play in the street and close to the home as in the
specially designed open space system".
Research involving interviews with children themselves indicates that they highly appreciate the value of
streets as play space. For example, Homel and Burns (1986) investigated children's evaluations of their
environment in suburbs throughout Sydney. They found that when 9 to 11 year old children were asked
"What's good" about their neighbourhood, high on the list of "good things" was "quiet streets for play, bike
riding". High on the list of "not so good things" was "too much traffic". Indeed, "many streets can provide
excellent play opportunities - depending on traffic density" (Moore 1986, 104). Young (1980, 85) supports
this argument, suggesting that even in an Australian urban context, "the view that children should not play
in the streets, therefore they do not, is an evasion of reality." Recent data from Australia and New Zealand
(Tranter, 1994, 1995b) suggest that in some areas with low traffic levels, over 60% of 9 to 12 year old
children are allowed to play on the street.
Play on residential streets may have a number of advantages for children. These include:
• the provision of play space where it is most needed (near the home). (This is particularly important for
young children, especially girls, whose home range is much more restricted than that for boys
(Cunningham and Jones, 1991; Matthews, 1992, 21-27). Thus children who may otherwise depend on
their parents to take (or drive) them to a local park, can have access to stimulating play activities in
close proximity to their home.)
• allowing children more control over the type of play they want to participate in.
• opportunities for enhanced play by allowing equipment and play materials to be brought from the home
by the children.
• the provision of a hard flat surface which is ideal for many ball games. (Streets can also provide more
opportunity for imaginative play. In some situations, for instance in winter in Canadian cities, the
streets are the only spaces cleared of snow, and are thus very popular as a venue for games such as ball
hockey. The snow piled on the side of the streets is also used for a range of activities in opportunistic
• a greater feeling of security for children in their play. (Children can play under the passive
watchfulness of their parents, or other children's parents. There is less concern about children's activity
being too independent of adult or parent control. If the streets are used for play, and for social
interaction by adults, then it is also more likely that adults will know other children, and be able to look
out for them.)
• more opportunity for social interaction with other street users, including other children and adults such
as other parents and post deliverers.
Another advantage of having streets where children can play is that this also enhances the freedom of
children to use the streets and the sidewalks themselves, to get around their own neighbourhood. Children
need to have some independent mobility to experience the life and activity of that neighbourhood (Tranter
and Whitelegg, 1994). This is believed to be essential to children's development, socialisation and
membership of their community (Lennard, 1992; van Vliet, 1983; Kegerreis, 1993). This depends on
"active exploration", which is not provided for when children are passengers in cars being driven to
playgrounds. Such children may "see more", but they "learn less" (Nicholson-Lord, 1987, 195-196). As
Lynch (1977, 58) suggests, children should be "able to use the diverse city as a learning ground". Keeping
children off the streets denies them this experience.
Thus reclaiming the residential street is important for children, not only in terms of providing space to play,
but in terms of enhancing the ability of children to use the streets and sidewalks themselves, to get around
their own neighbourhood, and experience the life and activity of that neighbourhood.
Allowing children to play on the streets, and be part of the local neighbourhood-based community, will not
only benefit the children, but it will also benefit the adults, by allowing them to have contact with children.
Noschis (1992) argues that "it is precisely because of the way our society has developed that the contact
between adults and children has been cut". In creating cities where the car is a toy for adult's "inner child",
the car facilitates play for the adult. Yet those adults have lost the opportunities for "encounters with real
children that would have transformed this inner child into a less arrogant one and brought nourishment to
the adults life" (Noschis, 1992, 53). In modern cities, many adults have virtually no contact with children,
and simply see them as a nuisance. One of the features of modern cities is not only large scale segregation
of land uses, but very sharp segregation of adults from children. As Guichard and Ader (1991, 123)
suggest, there needs to be an "intentional lack of segregation between spaces, between types of land use and
between categories of users". Playgrounds may simply add to this segregation, contributing to what
Matthews (1992, 223) referred to as childhood ghettoization.
Parents may also benefit if children are given more freedom to use their local streets for play. There are
very significant "costs" for parents associated with transporting their children to sport and to other play
locations. The economic resource cost of parents transporting children to various locations may be
considerably higher than most people would expect. Recent research in the United Kingdom estimated that
this cost in Britain for one year - 1990, was between £10b and £20b (Hillman et al., 1990).
The environment also suffers when street play is replaced by play in formally designated areas such as
school playgrounds and parks. There are traffic congestion, pollution and safety costs associated with the
extra traffic involved in transporting children. As our roads become more dangerous, more parents drive
their children, thus contributing to increased levels of danger for the remaining pedestrians (especially at the
traffic jams near schools at the end of school day).
Another cost of the loss of streets as play space for children may be the loss of a sense of local,
neighbourhood-based community. As children and adults cease to use the streets as pedestrians, the streets
become less sociable places. The opportunities for children and adults to have the spontaneous exchanges
which help to develop a sense of community are reduced. This can be self reinforcing. If fewer pedestrians
use the streets, this in itself exacerbates fears associated with assault and molestation of children.
Reclaiming the streets as play space will be of benefit not only for children, their parents and other groups
such as the police, but even those adults who claim to dislike children may find themselves part of a more
sociable and more sustainable urban community. Given the potential benefits of this goal, the next section
of the paper outlines some strategies for reclaiming the streets for children.
Is it possible to reclaim the streets as play space for children? The role of
traffic calming or "play streets".
The issue of reclaiming the streets for children is an intricate one, which involves a whole range of lifestyle
issues such as families attempting to juggle a more complex daily activity pattern than in previous decades.
However, the key issue is the way in which residential streets are used and perceived by both adults and
children. Such streets in Australian cities are still predominantly used as traffic corridors. As Brindle
(1992) explains, "a local street with a mean speed of 65-70 km/h and an 85th percentile speed around 75
km/h is not unusual". Dirk Grotenhuis, Chief of the Traffic Department in Delft, Holland, said in 1978, "if
you design a quiet residential street just as you do a main road, you should not be surprised that cars drive
on it like on a highway ... you get a quiet but unsafe street dominated by traffic, even if there are no cars at
the moment" (Smith, 1986, 108).
Fortunately for children, new design philosophies have emerged over the last 20 years which have led to a
revolution in the way residential streets are perceived. Smith (1986) explains that there has been a
"rediscovery ... that the street had a public function beyond its mere capacity as a conduit - as a meeting
place, for conversation, learning and play".
There are now many examples, especially in European cities, of how streets have been 'reclaimed' as play
space for children. One strategy that has proved to be effective, at least in certain contexts, can be
summarised as "traffic calming". Traffic calming includes a range of initiatives aimed at reducing the
volume and speed of traffic, either in local areas, or on a city-wide scale. Localised traffic calming involves
the application of a variety of specific techniques to reduce and slow traffic, and to change the
psychological feel and use of the street. The techniques include changes in road surface, paved streets,
speed tables, neckdowns (where short sections of streets are narrowed), speed humps, changes in direction,
street planting and chicanes, all of which are usually used to support substantially lower speed limits
(sometimes 15 km/h or lower).
The way in which traffic calming can change the psychological feel of the street has been illustrated in an
interesting experiment in Germany. Newman and Kenworthy (1991) reported a German Federal
Government study in West Germany where badminton players set up in nine streets before and after traffic
calming. Before the traffic calming, drivers would show aggressive behaviour toward the players, braking
at the last minute and sounding their horns. After the traffic calming, drivers began braking earlier, and
there was a greater acceptance of pedestrians. Traffic calming had significantly changed driver's attitudes
towards other street users.
Like Hass-Klau et al. (1992, 2) we do not claim that traffic calming is a kind of "wunderwaffe (magic
weapon)" in the quest for reclaiming the streets for children. Yet in many situations, traffic calming has
produced many complex interactive effects, leading to a sense that children have been able to 'recapture' the
street, and more importantly, that they have been able to do this in safety. Traffic calming may also help to
foster a change in such societal attitudes, by creating a street environment which is safe enough for children
to play in, and by helping to question the view that streets are for the sole use of cars.
Traffic calming is strongly supported by organisations lobbying for increased play opportunities for
children. Britain's National Voluntary Council for Children's Play has stated as one of its objectives:
"working together with other organisations and agencies to implement area-wide, city wide and settlement
wide traffic calming schemes". Some activists in Britain are following the European lead on traffic calming
with children's play needs in mind. One group, in Leicester, has set up the "Children's Today Street Play
Project", which involves children, residents, engineers and planners in a project to reclaim the streets for
children (Green, 1992).
Systematic monitoring of traffic calming schemes has demonstrated conclusively that they can reduce
traffic speeds, traffic volumes and accidents, and that they are most effective in controlling speeds
(Geoplan, 1990,72). Benefit cost analyses also indicate a high return on traffic calming investments. One
important benefit of traffic calming for children is its potential effect on child road accidents. Many
Australian parents may fear that if children are allowed to play in the streets, even in very low speed "traffic
calmed" streets, then the injury accident rates will increase. However, the evidence from Europe suggests
that this is not the case. (There is however, the danger that children living in such "safe" environments,
may be less aware of potential traffic danger, and hence more exposed to risk when they leave a traffic
calmed area.) A number of studies have reaffirmed the success of traffic calming in terms of reducing
accidents (Engel and Thomsen 1992; Faure and de Neuville 1992). Whitelegg (1988, 115) reported the
results of a careful 'before and after' analysis of large scale traffic calming projects in the Netherlands. This
analysis "revealed a dramatic reduction in the number of accidents involving an injury. The actual number
of accidents involving injury in these zones was 50% to 60% lower than expected, on the basis of
developments in certain control areas". These findings are typical of most analyses of accident rates after
traffic calming. In many cases, accidents have been reduced to a fraction of their previous levels (Tolley
1990, 26). These accident reductions apply to children's road accidents as well as other accidents. As Elliot
(1985, 222) argues, "reducing the speed of vehicular traffic in residential streets is likely to have a major
effect on all categories of child road user accidents by lowering the incidence and severity of those
accidents ... Speed reduction is best achieved by physical/engineering means and not by lowered speed
There is now an extensive literature on traffic calming (e.g. Hass-Klau, 1990; Hass-Klau et al., 1992;
Hawley, 1993; Brindle, 1992; and CART, 1989). Thus it is not necessary here to discuss the fine detail of
traffic calming and its implementation. Instead, what follows is an account of the links between traffic
calming and children's use of street space in the recent history of some European cities. This account shows
how traffic calming can play a role in reclaiming the streets for children, but that its success not always
In European cities over the last 20 years, especially in The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark there has
developed a two-tiered approach to traffic calming in residential streets (Geoplan, 1990, 82). The first tier
consists of 30 km/h residential zones, and the second consists of streets with speed limits of 15 km/h or
even lower (e.g. 5 - 7 km/h). The second of these has been clearly identified in many cases as places where
children can play. Such streets are clearly marked by special signs, indicating children playing.
In Denmark, the importance of such streets for children's play is clearly indicated in the name given to the
streets: "Rest and Play" streets. Similar streets in the Netherlands are called "Woonerf" or living yards.
These "woonerven", introduced in the mid 1970s, were the first of such very low speed streets. They
incorporated extensive new designs which took away the division between pavements and carriageways,
thus reinforcing the idea that the "woonerf" was a shared street. This "changed the overall character of
streets and created more space for social activities; it implied giving back again to pedestrians and children
the road space they once had" (Hass-Klau, 1990, 227). In these woonerven, children were permitted to play
everywhere, and pedestrians allowed to use the entire street, as long as they did not hinder cars
unnecessarily (Schweig 1990).
The Dutch, German and Danish experience has shown that the residential street can be made into a place
which allows play. For example, in an observational analysis of woonerven in Delft in the Netherlands, it
was found that "children's play spreads out more over the entire outdoor space, and includes more place
oriented activities such as sitting, watching, or playing with materials rather than mobile, 'passing through'
activities" (Appleyard, 1981, 307). Similar findings have been made by Eubank-Ahrens (1985) who noted
that in woonerven in Hanover, the streets were used more by children who stayed there longer, engaging in
such activities as wheeled toy use and more fantasy play, music making and dancing.
One European city which is developing a reputation for being a "playful city" is Munich. Since the early
1970s, the combined efforts of play organisations and city authorities has led to Munich evolving as a
model playful city. The key aspect of the approach taken is the realisation that children need time and
space for open, non structured play, and that such play is a crucial part of a child's positive development
(Zacharias and Zacharias, 1993). It is argued that playing should be allowed and possible in all the
everyday environments of the city, rather than simply in specific playgrounds. There should be a "playable
city" where the entire environment is conducive to children's play. In many parts of Munich, the streets are
seen as appropriate places for children to play (Moore, 1993).
To support the ability of children to play in the streets, a number of "verkehrsberuhigter Bereich" have been
developed. Many of these are similar to woonerven, and they have a special sign that says: "children can
play in this street". Cars must travel very slowly (5 -7 km/h) and they can only park in marked areas.
Knecht (1995, pers. comm.) has recently conducted a project in Munich called "Play in the streets and
yards". His observations were that children do in fact play in such verkehrsberuhigter Bereich where they
cover a large area, as in an area of Munich called Moosach. In one street in Knecht's study, Hirschstrasse,
children painted a mini golf course with chalk on the street. They made 20 stations with wooden material
and toys and other material. A huge number of children from the neighbourhood streets (also
verkehrsberihigt) come to Hirschstrasse to join the game. Children also play tennis, roller skate, play ball
games and so on. One of the most important findings of Knecht's study was that if there are a lot of
children playing in the street, the car drivers proceed very slowly. Sometimes they even turn around and
look for another route. Thus, children have been able to successfully reclaim the street!
However, even in Knecht's study in Munich, if there was only one verkehrsberuhigter Bereich street, drivers
still maintained control of the street. The children and pedestrians tended to keep to either side of the street,
and children were rarely allowed to play in the street because of the fears of parents caused by cars
travelling at speeds over 30 km/h. Another study of traffic calming in the North-Rhine Westphalia state of
Germany found that it was difficult to make cars keep to a walking speed in areas where children were
allowed to play on the streets, and that there were also problems with a high incidence of cars parked
illegally in areas designated for pedestrians (Just, 1992). This indicates that isolated local area traffic
calming may be ineffective in an environment where broader planning policies allow increasing levels of
car ownership and use. In such cases, traffic calming may simply provide parking lots rather than places for
This raises an interesting point about territoriality (the claiming and defending of territory). Not only is it
important to physically calm the traffic in residential streets through engineering means, but if this is not
followed by an occupation of the streets by non-motorists, then the motorists will once again take control.
Just (1992, 52) noted that in traffic calmed precincts in Germany, "playing children and pedestrians will
have to utilise the area intensively to ensure that due care is taken by drivers, and that the area is not
blocked by illegally parked cars".
It appears that innovative street design to achieve traffic calming will not in itself allow children to reclaim
the streets if such a scenario runs counter to the ethos of society. Before there can be any substantial
reclaiming of residential streets by children, there needs to be a change in the societal attitudes, so that
children and their rights to play are seen as more important than the needs of motorists for speed in
residential streets. As Zacharias and Zacharias (1993) argue, "the crucial thing is the willingness of
responsible adults to rethink their previously held priorities".
This does not mean that traffic calming is not worthwhile in an attempt to improve opportunities for
children's play. However, until some radical change occurs in our social ethos to reclaim the value of
community and collective behaviour, the best we can do is create spaces which allow such behaviour. If we
assume that the behaviour will occur merely because the space is there to allow it, we are falling into the
trap of environmental determinism.
Traffic calming should be seen as one part of a strategy for achieving an evolutionary change in the way
residential streets are used by our communities. By making the streets safer, traffic calming encourages
more walking and cycling, and helps to reinstate the social functions which streets performed before cars
made them too dangerous (Maxwell, 1994). Streets once again become places where people of all ages can
interact with each other. Clearly, children stand to benefit greatly from having a playground at their
doorstep, where they can interact safely with other children, in the presence of adults, who provide a feeling
of safety and surveillance for the children, merely through their proximity.
Implications for Policy and Practice
There are already a number of in-action models to show how residential streets can be reclaimed for
children in European cities. However, in cities throughout the world, most residential streets are still
dominated by motor vehicles, and are not seen as the legitimate territory of playful children. In this section,
we raise a number of issues that should be of particular concern to the professionals whose activities
impinge, in both direct and indirect ways, on the play opportunities of children.
Allowing children to play on the street is integral for the policy of developing a truly playful city. In such a
city, children are not restricted to "children's areas" such as parks and playgrounds. Thus, city planners and
other professionals need to consider the argument that simply providing more parks and playgrounds will
not satisfy the needs of children for play space. As Moore (1986) Ward (1990) and Matthews (1992)
suggest, we cannot create a truly child friendly city simply by increasing the supply of parks and
playgrounds. Parks and playgrounds perpetuate the idea that the worlds of adults and children should be
segregated, kept artificially apart. They reinforce the restriction of children from certain parts of the city,
and localise children's experience to groomed and controlled parklands. Also, unless the streets leading to
these parks and playgrounds are also child friendly, young children, especially young girls, cannot get to
them alone. Without reclaiming the streets for children, it may be necessary to have parks and playgrounds
much more closely spaced than they are at present. Cunningham (1987) suggests that in Australian cities,
parks ideally need to be provided within 200 metres of the home, if children are to be allowed to travel to
them without an adult.
Another important issue for policy and practice relates to the terminology used by professionals to describe
changes to streetscapes. Cunningham et al. (1994) have argued that streets should be primarily designed as
play spaces - social places for children and adults. Thus rather than using the term "traffic calming"
schemes, we should perhaps be lobbying for more "play street" schemes. Relatively few traffic calming
schemes have ever been designed with the explicit intention of reclaiming the street for children. They
usually have a multitude of aims, including reducing accidents, reducing environmental impacts of traffic,
and improving residential amenity. A change in terminology from "traffic calming" to "play streets" may
help to challenge the attitude that "streets are for cars". It may also challenge the view that traffic engineers
should have the main responsibility for the design of residential streets.
If the design of streets as social places for children and adults is seen as an important objective, then it
would be useful to involve other professionals, as well as the local community, in the design process.
Urban designers and landscape architects could work together with local residents (including children) to
design play environments in their streets, while also allowing (controlled) access for motor cars.
To achieve this, it is important to actively encourage the introduction of more "street play" schemes,
especially in areas where the necessary "traffic calming" can be supported by other strategies aimed at
facilitating the actual occupation of the street by the children; an actual claiming of their territory. These
other strategies include:
• commitment to lower vehicle speeds through community pressure as well as through speed limits and
through engineering means to lower speed.
• commitment to the development of area wide schemes of traffic calming, rather than the application of
the principles to individual streets.
• government supported advertising to not only allow children to play on the streets, but to actively
• the widespread dissemination of the reasoning that children playing on the street will encourage the
development of local neighbourhood based communities, with potential benefits for adults as well as
• the strengthening of the idea that streets are social places for people (children as well as adults) rather
than solely places for cars.
• the implementation of city wide traffic calming. This refers to a general policy or philosophy for
transport planning in a city, based on increasing the modal shares of walking, cycling, and public
transport (especially light rail), all of which are child friendly modes of transport. Not only can
children use these modes independently of adults, but when adults use them, children are not put into
extra danger. Localised "traffic calming" or "play street environment" projects may simply not be
enough to make cities truly child friendly.
• the application of the "play street environment" concept in all new residential developments. This is of
particular importance, because of the higher percentage of young children in such areas.
Inherent in all of these strategies is the importance of consultation with the community, including children
in the community. Such consultation is recognised as being crucial to the success of traffic calming
schemes, but unless children's perspectives are incorporated into the process, it is likely that their views and
their need for play space close to the home, will once again be overlooked. Instead the main concerns may
continue to be fast roads, big car oriented shopping centres and sports complexes, and large scale separation
of land uses (Cunningham et al. , 1994, 84).
Children, unlike car travelling adults, see streets as more than simply corridors for movement. Even when
children do use the streets to move from one place to another, they can also use them for creative play: "as
places to dilly-dally on the way ... as endless sequences of exploration for its own sake in ad hoc side trips
(Moore and Young, according to Matthews, 1992). Even the journey to school can be an important play
experience in itself, if children are allowed to use the streets independently (de Monchaux, 1981, 97-99).
By denying children the opportunity to play on the streets, we are also reducing their independent access to
the environment and the community. The importance of the use of local streets for children is expressed
very powerfully by Engwicht (1992, 39):
"... freedom to explore the local neighbourhood ... gives [children] an opportunity to develop a
relationship with the placeness of their physical environment. Robbing children of a sense of place
robs them of the very essence of life".
An understandable reason why parents do not allow their children to play on the streets is the fear of traffic
danger associated with the dominance of motorised traffic, even in residential streets. There are of course a
number of benefits for children which arise from widespread car ownership. For example, children can be
driven to more places (and more distant places) than they could go (or be taken) without access to a private
motor vehicle. Yet these benefits are outweighed for many children by the restriction of access to their own
neighbourhood, by a loss of a sense of place, by reductions in their levels of independent mobility, by loss
of contact with local children, and by the loss of local play opportunities. Also, "for parents of young
children, the benefits of wider car ownership have been substantially offset by the constraint imposed on
their freedom owing to the increased need to escort their children because of the rise in traffic
danger"(Hillman and Adams, 1992, 19).
If children are allowed to play on the streets, walk around their own neighbourhood, get to know their own
city and community, then when they do become adults themselves, they may be less inclined to defend the
levels of motorised traffic which are limiting children's access to their environments.
Making provision for children's play throughout a city's public spaces, including its residential streets, will
not only be of great benefit for children, it will create a physical and social environment of superior quality
for all the city's residents. If we can encourage more people to use residential streets for walking, cycling,
social interaction and playing, then cities will become more sociable, more livable places for all city
residents. Cities will once again become places which facilitate exchanges between people of all ages.
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Paul J. Tranter is a Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University College, University of New South
Wales, where he has been teaching and researching since 1980. His special interests include the design of
child friendly urban environments, with a particular focus on the importance of reducing the dominance of
the private motor vehicle in residential areas. He has recently conducted research in Australia and New
Zealand on children's independent mobility.
John W. Doyle is an Associate Lecturer in Geography at the University College, University of New South
Wales. He has made observations on children's behaviours in wide-ranging international environments.
The authors wish to acknowledge the role of Chris Cunningham (University of New England, Australia),
both for his initial encouragement to write this paper, and his constructive advice on the limitations of
traffic calming in reclaiming residential streets. We would also like to acknowledge the comments from the
two anonymous referees for the paper.