An essay written as one of many for the Royal Fine Arts Commission’s coronation publication on planning and design

As we enter the era of Charles III, the best gift for our children would be greater freedom to play, not in civic playgrounds but within and beyond their communities.  Let’s liberate our city streets and spaces for those who have had so much exploration and opportunity stolen from them.

The city, never perfect, used to be our playground, and must become so again.  We have, throughout the Elizabethan years, slowly filled our streets with vehicles and emptied them of fun.  The pushback has started with small offerings, but it seems that the short-term election cycle inhibits politicians from doing what is necessary when faced with the fury of the car lobby.

It is not good enough to condemn our children to spaces left over after planning.  For transformative change we need to see our towns and cities from the viewpoint of the child, as advocated by the anarchist architect Colin Ward in his 1977 book, The Child in the City.  For the sake of their physical and mental health, we should put children at the heart of our urban policymaking, planning with them and for them.  Encouraging starts have been made in Bristol, where residential streets have been made safe for children to play in and high streets freed on Sundays for strolling, sitting, dancing and playing.  Temporary initiatives like this allow all to experience the pleasure of traffic-free environments are easily replicable.

Credit: Playing Out

As architects, we tend to think in terms of what we can add to spaces to make them more playable, but often the greater need is to remove obstacles.  Simply getting rid of the majority of vehicles from city streets and spaces opens them up to a multitude of other uses.  For children to play freely they first need to be safe to roam, and to feel safe when doing so.

Over the past half-century we have let the car dominate while our Dutch and Danish colleagues have prioritised walking and cycling, creating civilized streets fit for all.  As Colin Ward put it, ‘a city that is really concerned with the needs of the young will make the whole environment accessible to them’.  While we should strive to make our villages, towns and cities more beautiful, while we should protect our historic buildings, spaces and skylines, we must do so in a way that makes them more welcoming.

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