Play streets are a gateway drug to better streets for all – and it’s now easier to play!

Did you know there’s a human right for kids to play? From today, it’s finally going to get easier for anyone to get a Play Street happening in your neighbourhood. Hooray!

Readers will be well aware of the importance of Play Streets to kids, communities, and the quality of urban life. And that right now in Aotearoa a sad confluence of factors has made it far too damn hard to run a play street. Much harder than in similar places overseas!

Now, finally, Waka Kotahi has released some guidelines for how councils should treat a play street when locals want to do one: The Play Street Guidelines (AKA Guidelines For Restricting Traffic for Play Streets).

The guidelines are the product of some absolutely magnificent mahi gaining pace over the last two years…

  • There’s been play street trials in Ōtautahi and Lower Hutt, thousands of hours of optimism-fuelled volunteerism (including by council folks doing this beyond their “real jobs”).
  • There’s painstaking work with traffic management consultants and Traffic Management Controllers (whose jobs and professional reputation are put on the line if they don’t do things By The Book)
  • There’s Wellington officials elbowing important words and phrases like “community” and “place” into the legislative amendment processes of the Land Transport Act and Local Government Act.

And it’s not stopping here!

But the guidelines are a big milestone and great for several reasons. Here’s how they’re already useful….

You can help your council help you

If you feel they’re being unreasonably difficult about your play street you can point them to the guidelines and give them a cheerfully encouraging nudge, or a friendly shove. “Good news: here’s a thing that The Authorities have endorsed so you can do right by a play street!”

You can help (yourself and) your neighbours organise good play streets

“No, Brayden, your enormous keg party is not a play street”. “Hey Tania, how about any of these residential streets by the school instead of Main Street on the bus route?” “Look, we only need 75% of the neighbours to say yes, so we can stop trying to contact neighbour Ruth at one of her other three homes to get her permission, and we can just go ahead”.

For yourself, there are cool resource-kits available in some places including Hutt City (inspired by the magnificent Playing Out UK), and hopefully soon all our councils will have a policy and good resources.

Grownups’ play (street BBQ) in Palmerston North (Credit: PNCC)

We can all start pressuring the powers that be to change how “streets” are described and managed

This is the biggie. This is where the starry-eyed enthusiasm of “Play streets can CHANGE THE WORLD!” mightn’t be wholly crazy talk.

Hold on… how’s that?

Despite a plethora of stuff saying “most streets should be places for people as much (or more) as they are about movement of vehicles”, NZ law and road management still enshrines… the wrong stuff. And does so on a lot of real estate: “roads” (no, not streets) encompasses a hugely broad range of public realm spaces in New Zealand. And the top-priority uses of those spaces, under the Land Transport Act, are the unimpeded movement of vehicles, and vehicle storage.

And this privileging is baked into…

  • how they’re designed (enabling cars to go too fast),
  • how they’re maintained (prioritising minor traffic lane repairs over major footpath repairs), and
  • what you’re allowed to do on them as of right, vs what’s a massive rigmarole of permission and hassle (driving through for 12 seconds, vs playing tag, learning to bike, having a neighbours’ BBQ).

(This privileging has endured preserved because lots of us go bonkers when a bit of car privilege is rolled back: witness the kick-backs against survivable traffic speeds [PDF], and the disgustingness around a low traffic neighbourhood trial. And that bonkers behaviour scares our leadership and our public servants, who retreat.)

But this is changing: as play streets help Kiwis see that carmageddon does not fall upon us if our car use is restricted for a bit, and see the outrageous goodness that this enables, the bonkers behaviour will become less common. Rational people will come out and play, and come out in favour of play streets, and start thinking “hey, what if we dialled back the car-dominance and dialled up the people-stuff a bit on other streets?”

Meanwhile, in the background, good stuff is happening. The Ministry of Transport and Waka Kotahi are (slooooooowly) redoing the legislation, guidelines and standards for roads and streets to create a broader range of types (including, we hope, the “living street” concept). So we can hustle that along –  drop an approving email to the Transport Minister if you like.

main purpose: living (credit: Dick van Vreen). (This is a “living street”)

And good change is happening locally too: we hear that some councils are creating guidelines for new subdivisions, and their own road management, to make neighbourhood street play a bit less hard.

Credit: Hackney Council

So, this summer, start thinking seriously about doing like Jeypore Street in Berhampore, or dozens of streets in Lower Hutt, and taking over your street for play!

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