Why should the freedom of playing outside be a postcode lottery?

By Megan Streb,
young children setting up a lemonade stand and playing on the street in autumn

Megan Streb playing in the street with her siblings

Playing outside used to be the norm for children, so what's changed?

When I was younger, growing up in suburban Massachusetts, I played in the streets.

I met up with the other children on the street. We ran around, played games and rode our bikes up and down the same stretch of road. If a car came by we moved out of the way, which wasn’t often as it was predominately used by the people who lived there.

Now, nearly thirty years later, as I cycle home from Southampton city centre I pass through different neighbourhoods. Some streets are busier and some quieter, many are narrow with cars parked on both sides, but there is only one point where I am almost certain to come across children playing outside.

I don’t imagine that is the only part of Southampton where children live—so what’s the difference?

Why are only a handful of streets safe for children to play in? 

It’s because someone, probably 10 or 15 years ago, decided to close a section of that road to vehicles.

They used a few simple concrete bollards to do it. That’s it.

But why should only handfuls of children across the city have the chance to play outside safely?

Why should the opportunity to play outside be a postcode lottery?

Children have been playing in the streets as long as we’ve had streets. The freedom to go knock on a friend’s door to see if they can play, and being able to use the space immediately outside their front door, are both important for children to increase physical activity, grow confidence and develop independence.

The freedom to play outside is also an issue of social equality

Many children will not have immediate access to a private garden or safe outdoor space where they can play outside.

Of course, it isn’t just children. Older people often need more time to walk. By reducing traffic we can give them the time they need to cross the street. A focus on making short journeys easier on foot or by bike means they can get to the shop or the post office safely. Around 17% of over 65's cycle in the Netherlands—it’s transport that is easier on the knees and gets you further on the same amount of energy.

Loneliness is a growing public health concern

Loneliness is a growing public health concern, and today fewer of us know our neighbours. Loneliness has a tremendous effect on our physical and mental health, with a morbidity rate equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We know that the more traffic going through a street, the less likely people are to know their neighbours or be willing to stay outside and chat on the pavement.

All of us should be able to breathe cleaner air.

Making our streets more child-friendly actually makes them more welcoming for everyone.

Last week I outlined simple options to a group of residents at a public meeting in Portsmouth. I showed them pictures of bollards and planters as well as examples of these measures that had been in place in their own city for many years. 

I also showed them our Sustrans street kit and how it could be used to try out other ways to use their road. I also showed them how play streets and school streets close roads for a few hours at a time. 

The residents in attendance were excited about these possibilities. They could see the benefits of giving their children places to play outside as well as making it easier for them to walk or cycle to the local shops.

One woman said:

“I think we can probably all think of at least one street where this could happen.”

A survey by Transport for London found that 83% of London’s streets are of importance only to those locally - they aren’t key routes, they aren’t outside key landmarks or big institutions, they are mostly residential roads.

When up to 80% of the public space in cities is the road network, and the majority of those streets are residential, it’s time we used them differently. Why can’t all of us win the lottery?

Find out more about what you can do to change your street