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Since 1980, when playing out was still a normal part of children’s lives, car ownership in the UK has doubled. Many residential streets have become ‘rat-runs’, pushing people and especially children out of what was once a shared, communal space. Many studies have shown that increased traffic danger is the main reason children play out less than they used to. And there is a vicious cycle: the less children are seen outside, the more roads become just for cars.
Play streets, and snow days, show that when traffic danger is removed, children choose to play out together, rather than being indoors on screens. Safe space, right on the doorstep, is one of the key things children need in order to get outdoors and be active every day. Safer streets also make for friendlier, more connected communities.
At a neighbourhood level, safer streets also enable children to get around under their own steam. They can more easily walk or cycle to school, the park, or call on friends. As they get older, they can gradually explore further afield and gain more independence. This freedom to roam has huge benefits for children’s health and so much more besides.
So how can we make streets safer for children? Here are a few ideas.
The following organisations campaign for safer streets and offer lots of different ways to support their work, from signing petitions to writing to your MP or taking bigger action: 20 is plenty, Living Streets, Sustrans, London Car Free Day and We Are Possible.
Or you could create your own local campaign, like these South Bristol children did with this funny but hard-hitting short film about speeding in their local streets, as part of a child-led ‘safer streets’ project with Playing Out. Councillors and police were invited to a premier screening and committed to taking action as a result.
Led by co-founder and artist Amy Rose, Playing Out has done many creative projects to change the feel and use of streets. In fact, the play street model itself began as a creative vision in Amy’s sketchbook!
Artist Ted Dewan, aka Road Witch, was an early inspiration for us, using ‘pranks’ to change the feel of his street and slow down cars. These temporary ideas eventually led to more permanent changes to his street.
We also love the work of ex-advertising executive Tom Flood, who now uses his skills to raise awareness about the need for safer streets. There are many other examples. Unleash your creativity!
Many of us own a car, so we can all be part of the solution. Things we can all do include:
All these actions will help make local streets safer for children and encourage others to do the same.
If you want to go further, take inspiration from the Tactical Urbanistas, a group of women in London who use tactical urbanism to change the feel of streets in a very low-cost (and sometimes unofficial) way, using paints and recycled junk to reclaim space from cars.
For a more official but still community-led and low-cost approach, Bristol-based organisation Sustrans ran a pilot project called ‘DIY Streets’, using things like planters, seating and road markings to slow traffic and create a more ‘liveable’ street. We still think this was a great model that could be revived if councils were willing to get behind the idea and put the right processes in place. Get in touch if you’re interested in talking about this.
Councils can do a lot to make local streets safer and reduce car-dominance, where there is a will. They have the power to implement lower speed limits, such as a blanket 20mph limit across cities. They can get government funding to create low-traffic or liveable neighbourhoods, build cycle lanes or implement congestion zones. Following the people-friendly design principles in the Department for Transport’s Manual for Streets is a key way councils can make streets better for children and for everyone.
Support and lobbying from local residents enables them to do these things, which can face fierce opposition from a ‘vocal minority’ of drivers.
Ultimately, alongside all this, we need Government to implement a national strategy for moving away from the car-dependency which has caused so many problems for our society, health and environment. A simple shift from petrol to electric vehicles is not the answer. We need a shift away from cars altogether, towards healthier streets where people come first and children are free to play out.