Clare Rogers shares her experiences of getting street play going in her street in Enfield, north London, and the changing dialogue with neighbours along the way.
Our first play street consultation, in 2013, didn’t go too well. After three successful annual street parties, we didn’t anticipate any objections to a monthly street closure for three hours on a Sunday afternoon. We were wrong.
Two mums – who had been fine with the street parties – suddenly became irate about playing out. They got together and ran a counter campaign. We’d put up posters on trees and flyers through doors and asked residents for signatures, and they did the same (except ours didn’t use swear words). Their argument was that children might get abducted by paedophiles, and not only that, but anyone who liked to see children playing in the street must have dubious motives. They were quite intimidating, and a lot of people signed their petition (even though they’d already signed ours) just to get them off their doorsteps. In the end both petitions showed a majority in favour. This was the first play street application for our London borough, Enfield, and it was not a good experience for the council officers who’d got complaining phonecalls, or our neighbours who became nervous of answering the door. Our application was rejected.
That was when our team of organisers decided that giving up was not an option. Why is it that when anything really good comes along that can change stuff for the better, it often gets opposed? And play streets are really good. They are all about neighbourly love and community and freedom and fun and putting the weakest (children) first. So this felt worth fighting for.
I say ‘fight’, but you can’t fight your neighbours and expect to build community. I’m proud that our team never once responded in kind to our opponents, even in a public meeting where everyone got to ‘air’ (shout) their views. (I was grateful that Paul Hocker of London Play was there, reassuring us that he’d seen a lot worse: in Walthamstow they kicked tables over.) We always said hello to our opponents in the street, even when they ignored us. In the end it was resolved with a council-run ballot, proving that a majority of residents wanted the play street. We held our first play street session in June last year.
I haven’t the space to describe the ways that that playing out has transformed our street – the friendships, the kids’ growing independence and confidence, the communication network that has gone beyond organising the play street, even helping victims of crime. There was the small matter, in the first session, of one of the ‘anti’ mums barging past a steward in her car, her hand on the horn, people snatching their children out of her way. But following a visit from the police (she had after all broken the law) she never did it again. In fact her attitude changed dramatically. In December, we followed the play street with some carol singing to raise money for charity, along with members of my church. The children rang her doorbell before we could stop them – but she could not have been more warm and smiley.
Our 12-month play street order was up for renewal, and so in April it was time to consult again. This time there were lots of responses via our growing email list – 33 neighbours saying yes they did want the play street to continue, including a number who didn’t have children. On doorsteps we came across some objectors, but made as many new friends. As usual I was blown away by our street’s diversity: Polish, Bulgarian, Indian, Ghanaian, Greek Cypriot, Portuguese…
One of the team bravely asked the mum who had most vehemently opposed us: ‘Can I put you down as a yes, no or don’t know?’
None of us could believe it. Or when the other mum’s husband replied with a ‘yes’ on behalf of the household and then signed up as a steward. He brought his two children out on the street with him at the next session, and hats off for the mum, because she came out too.
So, those results: 7 against and 84 in favour. The council approved our application in May, and we don’t have to consult again for another two years. Even better, a number of other play streets are springing up around us, and they seem to be having an easier ride.
There’s the proof, if any were needed, that children playing together outside their own homes is the way to world peace. And I’m interpreting 12 play sessions without a single drop of rain as a sign of divine favour!
Photo credits: Katrina Campbell and Phil Rogers
Responding to neighbours’ concerns and objections can be difficult when you are trying to make changes in your street. Our possible concerns information might be helpful to look at but do get in touch if we can help you find a way forward.