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Housing Design and Play: Exploring the links

posted this in Activism, Street Space on 18/06/2015

In October last year I embarked upon a study with my architecture post-graduate students at University of East London. In the masters unit that I run, I am interested in the design of external spaces in housing developments, specifically in relation to play. I want to know whether particular layouts encourage play and whether we might have something to learn in new housing design.

As both a parent and an organiser of a Play Street in Hackney for the last few years I’m really behind the Playing Out initiative. As a practicing architect and a teacher I’m also interested in how the built environment may have an impact on this type of play.

For the research, we looked at six housing estates in Hackney, built between 1930 and 1970; Kingsmead, Old Kingshold, Pembury, Somerford and Shacklewell, George Downing and Wyke. Housing layouts evolved during this time; from the typical brick clad, open deck access of the inter war period through to the concrete slab blocks of the post war era. Blocks were commonly arranged in landscaped settings, providing children and families with close access to green spaces, unheard of in the dense patchwork of run down streets they replaced. The vast public housing programmes completed during this time tackled an incredible demand for better housing and dramatically reshaped the inner city urban landscape.Dinah Bornat blog 1930s block2 copy

This generosity of outdoor space is now no longer seen as profitable. Instead we have a massive pressure on land to deliver, which results in external spaces being squeezed leading to less space for children to play. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the colourful balconies and tiny playgrounds of today’s housing projects are not enough to satisfy the play needs of children. Play specialists and play workers have been banging on about this for decades: children need space to roam, to play freely, to explore and meet each other. Young children need to play close to home, on the doorstep; and as they get older learn to venture further afield, to walk to school or the shops or knock on friends’ front doors. They need to be able to play by themselves, to have the option to be independent and unaccompanied by adults.

In our research we wanted to unpick the complexities of external spaces and understand what works and what doesn’t. Our background was a study carried out in 1997 by Rob Wheway and Alison Millward, into play on 12 estates. It revealed that children play most often on roads and pavements. The most successful estates, they found, had the widest range of locations available, were relatively safe in front of the houses and had a good footpath network that linked open spaces throughout the estate.1930s flats

For our analysis we used Jan Gehl’s observational methods and counted children and adults for a total of 12 hours on each estate during a warm weekend and a half term holiday. Gehl is a famous architect and urban designer, best known for his work on how people use public spaces and for his development of these ideas into practice in Copenhagen, Melbourne and the New York. He champions what he calls public life in public space and underpins this with empirical studies into where and how people use these spaces. As part of his work, Gehl distinguishes between what he calls ‘necessary’ and ‘optional’ activities in public spaces. Necessary is defined as journeys to work or the shops for example, or by people passing through on their way to somewhere else. Optional activities are socialising, hanging out, watching others or playing. This is the stuff of successful spaces; places where people want to stop, or perhaps bump into friends or simply to stop and watch the world go by. We used the same categories, and we added to this by counting whether children were accompanied or unaccompanied by an adult.Women meeting Dinah Bornat blog

Our study was hopeful. We found children were playing out on some estates and many of them were playing unaccompanied. In some estates, we saw children moving freely from space to space and in places unintended for play, amongst parked cars and on steps for example. We found that the best place for play is just outside the front door, where people come and go; if entrances are clustered and living spaces and circulation are facing onto these spaces then children will come out to play. Adults are sometimes found there too, keeping an eye on the children, or just hanging outside themselves.

Estates where front doors or entrances were separated from open spaces and where open spaces were poorly connected had almost no instances of play. One such estate; the seemingly rather pleasant Someford and Shacklewell, award winning in 1947 when it was built, had low rise blocks arranged around south facing green spaces, but was almost devoid of children playing outside. This despite repeated attempts to improve and upgrade the green spaces with good quality play equipment. These green spaces are doomed if they are not immediately adjacent to front or back doors, children simply don’t venture out there. In others, the communal gardens, whilst well kept, remain unused and in some cases their layouts present a barrier for children moving around the estate.

Much of this concurs with Wheway and Millward’s research. It also harks back nicely to the thinking of the great Jane Jacobs in her book, The death and life of American Cities published in 1961. In some cases though, it goes against prevailing urban design theories and this is really important for professionals to know. For instance, our research shows a tension between the activities of passing through and play. Current thinking is that housing estates need to be well connected, to ‘stitch’ back the urban grain fragmented by the modernist post war estates. Streets are good, cul de sacs are bad, is the mantra. Yet streets don’t encourage play; they are dominated by cars and don’t provide clusters and pockets for children and people to congregate. It is urban designers, planners and the police, not residents, who find themselves uncomfortable with confusing layouts of pockets and dead ends. We would do well to ask ourselves why.

Our findings suggest a richness of space needs to be encouraged in new housing design, generated by a new attitude to play in the built environment. We need to move away from the principle that outdoor play occurs in parks and playgrounds as part of a structured (some might say over structured), parent led life. With the growing interest in play, well rehearsed by Playing Out, Play England and others alongside a housing crisis, we are at just the right time to start the conversation.Estate model Dinah Bornat blog

For my part, I believe the built environment has a duty to facilitate play and by providing this we will create better spaces for everyone to enjoy; places where children can move around freely, places with variety that encourages imaginative play, changes in levels, attention to climate too; all these are spaces that are good for everyone. We need to value these places just as much as we value our own private spaces.

So, we are calling for a revolution in housing design policy, which embraces and celebrates play. We need more research, and we need policy makers and housing providers to jump on board. In January we presented our findings as a series of models, maps and sections, to a few of these people at an exhibition in Hackney.Dinah Bornat exhibition

The response was encouraging, everyone could identify with the issues we were raising, and I am now developing, researching and writing more on the subject. Playing Out is an awareness raising exercise as much as it is a practical model for temporary closures in streets. Well it’s done more than that for me; it has lit a spark under what I do and I’m really excited about where this might lead. Watch this space.

You can read more about the research done by Dinah  and her students here on the website for Dinah’s architects practice ZCD Architects . Some of the themes highlighted by Dinah are also explored in ‘The Brutalist Playground’ –  an exhibition and architectural installation at RIBA running until 16th August exploring post-war design for play.

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