Summer calls for a reimagining of street life

Architects have a pivotal role to play in transforming streets into inclusive spaces suitable for children’s activities, interaction, and play, says Cristina Monteiro

The school summer holidays are in full swing again, and countless parents and carers are hyped by the possibilities of stopping the routine and changing the rhythm of the week. As a working parent myself, this is a period of juggling, characterised by trying to reply to emails or Slack threads from a kayak on the Ouse.

For many, especially in urban and even suburban areas, the options are much more constrained. Children in this context might experience far fewer outdoor adventures and more screen-based activities.

This situation would be very different if somehow our streets could become more equitable spaces, enabling children to spontaneously play with their neighbours, fostering a sense of community without the need for constant parental supervision.


While this might seem implausible, it was a reality for previous generations, including my parents’. Prejudices associating children’s street play with neglect and intolerance alongside safety concerns related to road traffic have contributed to the decline of something that was literally ubiquitous half a century ago, and which has obvious social and health benefits.

Research is increasingly examining the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of such spaces for individuals of all ages, especially children. Various movements are gaining momentum, inspiring people to repurpose their streets.

A great example is the ‘Making London Child Friendly’ design guidance led by the Mayor of London’s planning and regeneration teams, followed by boroughs publishing dedicated supplementary planning guidance, such as Hackney’s recent supplementary planning document, ‘Growing up in Hackney Child-Friendly Places’. Architects should breathe this guidance, ensuring that their projects, whether new builds or retrofits, align with its principles, and ensure someone in the design team is there to champion this matter outside red-line boundaries.

These ideas are not novel. The anarchist thinker Colin Ward saw the decline of the street as a civic space, and made it one of his many projects to highlight the importance of environmental education, as seen in works such as The Child in the City and Streetwork: The Exploding School, the latter co-written with Anthony Fyson. Ward advocated for equitable public spaces and argued that children ought to engage in active play, highlighting that dedicated playgrounds can inadvertently restrict children’s freedom to play freely in their neighbourhoods, with all their challenges and risks.

In London, practices like muf, Publica, Erect, East and ZCD (all women-led practices!) have been instrumental in changing design culture, exploring ways of enriching the street with design that encourages dwelling and existence over simple movement.


In a recent Guardian report, Harriet Grant interviewed Alice Ferguson and Ingrid Skeels, founders of the Bristol-based Playing Out initiative (as well as children and their carers), to showcase their pioneering work triggered during Covid-19. The programme collaborates with local authorities to temporarily close streets, providing children with safe spaces to play, an innovative approach which underscores the detrimental impact of cars on community life.

Re-evaluation is necessary in terms of how we allocate space on our streets calling for nuanced approaches like restricted access for non-residential vehicular movement and increased greenery, the fostering of biodiversity, and planting trees. It is really striking how the presence of cars – and their drop-kerbs – can make the simple planting of a street tree a serious challenge to the urban designer. Such efforts can transform streets into ‘centres’ of ordinary daily life, connecting neighbours and nurturing a sense of community.

It is imperative to change the narrative from considering streets as mere transit corridors to making them comfortable, welcoming spaces for everyone, including cars, celebrating that they are spaces of encounter as well as of movement. This reimagining is crucial given the scarcity of outdoor spaces in our cities that are safe for children and elderly people to dwell in.

Today people are finding it hard to engage in small daily conversations with their neighbours and wider communities, and tools such as WhatsApp are slowly and perniciously taking over as the primary tool of community communication. What would it take for the street to function again like a WhatsApp group message? As architects, let’s design spaces between buildings that are incredibly irresistible, encouraging people to linger on their front doorsteps, have a cup of tea with neighbours, and enjoy a bit of small talk, and where children can muck about on lush verges.

Cristina Monteiro is an architect, author, and co-founder of DK-CM

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