CYP & Built Environment InquiryWatch it here!
CYP & Built Environment InquiryWatch it here!
I live on the 14th floor in a tower block in Barton Hill, central Bristol. Our estate has eight tower blocks and 99% of the flats are occupied by young families. I think it is over 2000 school aged children. The largest group is the Somali community but there are also families from other backgrounds. There’s a small bit of green space in front of the flats and a very small play area.
Our play street happens on a small road next to our tower blocks. The road also has a special needs school and a GP surgery on it. We decided to choose Sundays so that parents and patients would not be inconvenienced by the road closure. At first I had wanted to close a big road, but with buses and other things I saw that would not work, so we looked closer to home.
I saw something on Twitter where someone had closed their road and I tweeted that we would love to have this in Barton Hill. The idea fits with all the other work I am doing to bring families together, like setting up Barton Hill Activities Club and sharing our experiences in the Find Your Village film. Lucy at Playing Out got back and offered to support me, and together we put in the council application.
I sent a letter to as many people as I could and I also put it out on our Block Whatsapp group and the groups of the other blocks. Also word of mouth carried it about. No one had a problem with it and everyone was positive.
We decided to do every school holiday – so 6-8 over the year. This feels the right amount for us as we organise lots of other activities for children in our community. But on Lucy’s advice we got permission to close the road every Sunday all through the year, weekly, so we could have the freedom to move or change things.
Things are very different. Tower blocks are just for hotels or offices. No one actually lives in them. Houses are usually just one storey and life is mainly lived outside. Children play out from the moment they wake up before school until they go to bed and adults spend a lot of the day outside and together too. This is what we are all missing and want to change.
Ever since the 1990s civil war, when lots more Somali people started to come to the UK, Somali families have mainly been put in tower blocks. The total opposite to life at home. Can you imagine? High up, crammed into small spaces, indoors all the time, not knowing anyone. As there is nowhere to come together, people can’t meet. And many don’t have the money or confidence to try new things or go to new places in the city.
Not surprisingly there are so many mental health and other problems. You see people going in and out of the flats and people seem really depressed, downcast. The truth is, even without Covid, there is always a kind of lockdown for a lot of people in our flats.
All this is so hard on children. They are on screens a lot of the time. They don’t move around enough. There are many behaviour problems and anxieties. And also poor health. Children should be allowed to be children. To be free and to have fun!
We don’t feel safe for this to happen. As well as traffic dangers, in our area there are a lot of drug users and sellers hanging around. Racism is also a barrier – overt racism, or people who are afraid of difference, or people who are just struggling in their own lives and see us as someone to blame.
There are too many risks for our children and we don’t feel they are safe. They need a trusted adult to keep an eye. We want them to socialise and play and be active, but in a safe and managed way with good role models around. This is why I set up the Activities Club and shared our experiences in Find Your Village, and also why I liked the sound of play streets. (Read more about the barriers to play and activism to change things in Samira’s blog).
My motivation was to open up a different space for children and families, right on the doorstep, and more informal, so people could continue to come together and children could play. It was still creating somewhere safe, with trusted adults around, but there was a new freedom because it was the road and green space together.
It was wonderful. Younger children came out and were chatting and playing, whatever they wanted to do – chalking, running, hide and seek, kicking a ball around. Even singing. Mums came and chatted together in a different part of the road. People stepped up to help, to steward the ends of the road so that the few residents who needed to drive in and out could do so. We actually had lots of mums wearing a high viz so that children could see them. Our community bus driver went to the market and got huge boxes of oranges, so everyone was eating and even playing /juggling with oranges! Everybody loved it.
As with our Activities Club, getting together outside gives our children a community – friends who are not even necessarily in the same school, trusted adults around them, a feeling of belonging. In Covid they missed this a lot. And when all people are outside together, even just for 10 minutes, talking and playing, they feel happier and healthier. It’s like being back home! Going outside, talking to neighbours, children playing, people all around. It’s ‘the village’!
I would say just do it! It gives more confidence and sense of belonging. A tower block is a very isolating space. It can be depressing. This is an opportunity to connect and for people to come together. It also gives a feeling of ‘this is our road’ and ‘we can do this’ that people take away. Children have even started seeing roads or other spaces and saying: “can we do it there too?” !
Children need to be in an environment that is not controlled all the time, like school is. They need to feel free. They need more chances to be children and not restricted all the time and indoors, being told what to do. Childhood is such a short time really when children are able to play. And within that, the opportunities are so tiny, around school and other things. So they need more freedom and they need it to be safer.
I see how different people have access to different things. People with less money, in tower blocks, have less access to green spaces and to spaces where children can play. We need to make it much, much more fair for everyone. We don’t need more consultations about this – we and children have been asked so much – we need it to actually change.
Please see our Support for Bristol play streets page if you’re a parent in Bristol who wants to organise a play street and would like some help to get started. And on our Housing page, you can see how Playing Out are working with housing providers to encourage them to understand and prioritise children’s need to play out on their doorstep.