Visit many of the big cities of the world – from Hong Kong to Paris, and from New York to London – and you’ll find signs warning passers’ by to “keep off the grass”.
In these cities, many grassed areas are off limits, and with it the chance to stretch out in the sun or park your family for a picnic. Saddest of all, children are forbidden from running around, kicking a football, doing a cartwheel or simply lolling about on the lush lawns.
This would never happen in Canberra. Or would it?
Heightened security concerns at Parliament House put an end to the practice of rolling down the sloping side of the hill, which seemed sad but inevitable.
But the news that children are no longer able to play on a tiny patch of turf in NewActon’s Kendall Lane should not be inevitable.
The grassy knoll on Kendall Lane has recently been barricaded by the NewActon East Body Corporate Committee. There are now heavy planter boxes around the site to keep children out and makeshift signs read “please keep off unsafe” and “smile for the camera”.
As our cities densify, we need to get better at building – and maintaining – places for children to play.
Dr Kate Bishop is a senior lecturer in the University of NSW’s Faculty of Built Environment. She says “little quirky opportunities like Kendall Lane are very rare in Canberra’s design”.
Canberra’s urban planning and design does not offer the “intimacy and idiosyncrasy” of organically-grown urban streets. While many of our streetscapes are beautiful, their layout “inhibits street life and incidental social interaction which provides the pulse of more traditional cities”, Kate says.
The layout of our streets impedes children more than any other group, as they have the least capacity for independent movement, limited access to public transport and limited economic resources.
Kendall Lane “offers an intimate, child-scale set of spaces which children recognise instantly,” she says.
“There are cues for action everywhere – climbable bollards, small stages, the astro turf mound, plants to hide behind, quirky artwork to engage with such as patterns on surface materials, big pot plants to hide behind. This space is full of invitations to children.”
Kate says children ask themselves a question of all environments: “what can I do here?”. Each place provides a canvas for action.
“Threatening to punish children and their families for naturally responding to the invitation of the built environment design is unlikely to be effective and will inhibit street life.”
Dr Cathy Hope, coordinator of the University of Canberra’s Play, Creativity and Culture project, is disappointed by the closure of Kendall Lane’s grassy knoll too.
“Kids adore the mound because it offers them joyful physical and cognitive challenges,” she says.
“Kids certainly won’t understand or indeed ‘read’ this decision. Last time we were in NewActon my eight-year-old ran ahead to the mound and didn’t even register that she couldn’t play there. She just saw the planter boxes as an invitation to play ninja style! When I told her this area was off limits she was confused and a little heartbroken.”
Children want and need to play for all kinds of physical, emotional, cognitive and social reasons, Cathy says. Play helps children to learn from their world.
“Play provides an experiential alternative to those things we must do in our lives – all of the responsibilities, customs, habits and expectations that regulate our behaviours.
“Play loosens the constraints of life and allows us, if even for a moment, to engage with our world in different or unexpected ways. When we play we reconfigure our relationship with our environment and others around us in positive and often delightful ways.”
While few studies have been undertaken on the importance of play among adults, Cathy says there is “lots of everyday evidence” that we like to play too.
“You only have to consider how much is spent on recreation, leisure and tourism, as well as the media, entertainment and gaming industries to get a sense of how much play matters to us in our ‘grown up’ years.”
Around the world, city builders have realised that play can help us make our places more liveable and engaging. Play “offers a vital counterpoint to the more instrumental dimensions of city life, like work and consumption,” Cathy says.
This may be as transient as an event, or as permanent as a playground, but when done well, play activation can “increase usage, boost small local businesses and organisations, enrich place-making and heritage value, enhance those incidental encounters that make city living so rich, and generate a stronger sense of community.”
As we work together to build a vibrant and liveable city, we are undoubtedly creating places for adults to play. But we need to make sure we create places for all our citizens, and that means giving children spaces to play too.
Feature image: Cole Bennetts