One of the huge positives caused by the decrease in motor traffic during the lockdown has been the ability of families to use the road space in our residential streets not only for walking and cycling but also for play.
Skipping, chalking, scooting, kids simply running down the middle of their road: particularly for those without gardens, this reclaiming of public space has been a joy.
I believe the council should be supporting this change of use and taking much more than the limited action they have taken so far.
I also believe they need to do it before the lockdown ends and rush-hour traffic comes thundering through our city again.
What is a play street?
I have been involved in running a play street in my area for many years. The idea is simple – you close the road for a few hours, say one day a month, and allow children to reclaim the space from traffic for games and activities. It’s popular and it works – but it’s only for one day.
Now is the time to make more permanent changes. I believe there are a number of simple ways we can explore making more roads “access only” so our children can play.
Modal filters (blocking the road to motor traffic but leaving enough of a gap for cycles to get through – and leaving provisions for emergency vehicle access) should be used to close residential streets to through traffic.
Instead of letting roads turn back into polluted rat-runs we could, simply by putting a planter at one end, create neighbourhood streets which retain the space for socially distanced walking, are safe for kids to cycle and become havens for outdoor play.
Supporting social distancing
It’s not just about a chance to play, either. While social distancing remains necessary, it is hard to see how our children will be able to continue to walk (as we say we want them to do) around our city without a re-allocation of public space away from the car.
The journey to school, which most families undertake on foot, will no longer be possible unless we close the roads around our schools at the start and end of the school day – and give kids the use of road space for “socially distanced” walking.
Government guidance on post-lockdown road management urges the introduction of these “school streets” and our council should act on rolling these measures out as quickly as possible.
The right of children to walk safely to school is something I have long campaigned for. Once more than a tiny percentage of pupils go back to school, this will become a necessity.
Looking to the future
Looking forward to a time when our children no longer have to maintain “social distance” – and can play with more than their siblings again – we need to hang on to their right to use our roads.
Play streets need to be encouraged throughout the city – and given a whole new standing.
Before the pandemic, residents had to re-apply every year for permission to keep holding a play street.
Yet the very nature of this – which requires gathering signatures from neighbours over and over again – normalises the idea that the simple act of children playing safely outdoors for a few hours is something that requires “our blessing” rather than it being a right to safely enjoy our streets.
In places where closing the road to through-traffic isn’t practical, but where children still need space, I would like to see “play streets” given permanent status.
Organisers in such streets would still have to agree and publicise times and dates when the road would close and the status could be reviewed – perhaps once every 5 years.
But crucially, people shouldn’t need to ask time and time again for permission for children and young people to use their own streets for play.
The pandemic has created an abrupt and temporary halt to “business as usual” which has also brought with it a chance to re-assess how we want to live and what we see as important.
As we look forward to a post-covid world, prioritising children’s right to walk, cycle and play in the streets where they live needs to become our new norm.
Councillor Sarah Nield represents Withdean ward on Brighton and Hove City Council and speaks for the opposition Green Party on the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee.