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Encounters with reality – creating a shared, playable public realm

An interview with Liz Kessler, Urban Designer formerly with EC1 New Deal for Communities (NDC) in LB Islington. Enjoyed and written by Sarah Cheverton, PLAYLINK Associate.

I met Liz one March afternoon for a tour of developments she has overseen on local area and to discuss her views on how urban design can inform the creation of play and other opportunities in deprived areas.

Genesis: how help isn’t

In 1987 Liz watched her young daughter narrowly avoid landing in a pile of broken glass at the base of a slide in her local park. Spurred on by her husband, “Don’t moan to me about it – start a campaign” Liz recruited two local mothers to research the state of local play facilities. The results formed the basis of a research report that was then submitted to the local authority.

The report was well-received by the Council, and they put massive amounts of money into play, but they wouldn’t talk to us about what made good play provision! So, the net effect was they bought lots of play equipment, but despite the money, they didn’t really improve the play areas.

This experience of ‘official’ intervention leading to a less than desired result was echoed in Liz’s previous experience working for Shelter Housing Aid.

We were trying to house families and then we realised that homeless families were being housed in these tower blocks. It was better than what they had before, but it still wasn’t right for them…

These experiences fed into Liz’s decision to reinvent herself some ten years ago and led to the opportunity for her to work with the NDC.

I did an MA in Urban Design at Oxford Brookes University. Urban design is an understanding of what makes places work effectively for people. I did the MA at the time of the ‘Urban Renaissance’. Everyone was talking about the new: designing new housing estates, new roads and so on. But what was fascinating to me was making existing places work, retrofitting and how you make quality, urban places – place that work for people.

Spa Fields, Before, 2005

Spa Fields, After, 2009

In 2004, Liz became the Public Space Co-ordinator for EC1 NDC in LB Islington: a community-led partnership of residents, public sector service providers, voluntary and community organisations and businesses, and one of thirty-nine NDC partnerships across England to have received government funding over a ten-year period.

The central aim of NDCs – which followed on from their shorter-lived predecessors, the Social Regeneration Budgets - is to kick-start the ‘turn around’ of multiply-deprived neighbourhoods.

NDC captured my interest in bringing all aspects of design together. The central priority is to work holistically and directly with local communities.

Beyond the Home Zone

People talk a lot about ‘home zones’ [the idea of sharing road space between drivers and residents, with the aim of making residential spaces places for people, not just for traffic] and about making streets for play, but for me, the top priority is making all estates home zones
so that all areas in estates become safe.

Part of this work is to say that cars can still come into these areas but they should come in respectfully, more slowly, so that if kids are playing on their scooters or if mums are chatting, it’s better and safer. Overall, it’s about making a connection between the roads, the parks and the estates.

Wenlake Estate, Before, 2007

Wenlake blossom, After, 2009

This holistic approach – which emphasises careful design and highlights the aesthetically pleasing as functional in its own right - challenges the more conventional and popularly-practiced ‘piecemeal’ interventions that Liz believes can be damaging to local communities, and which often work in direct opposition to the regeneration agenda. These are typified, Liz believes,
by inadequate planning, and by ad hoc replacement, or identi-kit play areas being ‘dumped’ into estates.

A lack of consideration for the overall context or environment leads to the unnecessary duplication of facilities and the increased erosion of a sense of community, as residents are implicitly encouraged to stay in their own – frequently un-used – public areas.

Liz points out that this has been particularly evident in the development of local play opportunities.

I was stimulated to develop a play policy in the first instance, because the local school was asking for money for a playground, residents were asking for play areas in a local park, and the estates were asking for play areas on the estates all within a few yards of each other! I said,
‘Well, we can’t put essentially the same things so close to one another, so we need to think about what we are trying to achieve overall.’

Working holistically is central to this, so we’re never taking one aspect of an area on its own.

Radnor Street Gardens Entrance, 2009

To illustrate, Liz takes me to a redeveloped park, Radnor Street Gardens, a spacious and welcoming environment that functions as a space for all ages and uses.

[Before] this was never used by children; it was used by dog-walkers and was a dog’s toilet littered with faeces. It had no other uses at all. There was almost no visibility from one end to the other.

Radnor Street Gardens, After, 2008

The NDC funded the introduction of landscaping and planting into the park, creating an open, greener, safer–feeling space. Grass, boulders, open spaces, planting creates a peaceful ambience. Such play equipment that there is fits in with the overall rationale of the designed landscape. Even in the quiet of a darkening afternoon, the space feels welcoming and safe. A fenced ball court, or ‘kickabout area’, was introduced adjacent to the local adventure playground at the park entrance, and several boys are making happy use of this area as we pass.

‘Shared’ as criterion and rationale

[The park] is heavily used now. We introduced a tripartite agreement on shared usage of the kickabout area, between the youth club, the local adventure playground and the park, which has worked out very well. There is a sense now that the area links in to all the estates, whereas before it was completely separate. Now this park is used by people of all ages: by residents, the local primary school, the adventure playground and the youth club.

Ping pong, ball court in background

The NDC has spent money on a range of improvements: removing black tarmac from estate through-roads; planting and landscaping; improving entrances and access points and introducing landscape features, such as water and allotments. The creation of informal play and sport opportunities were part of a wider approach to outdoor space that aimed to create linkages and continuities between different spaces within a shared public realm. These improvements highlight the natural aesthetics of the estates, which, under such careful attention, emerge from their previous neglect as pleasing places and spaces.

Chadworth House, After, 2008

People look at the buildings now and say, ‘Oh! They’re lovely!’Before, no one even noticed them. And this is as important as the play areas. Play isn’t just about play areas, it’s about good environments and that’s what we’re trying to create here…space for people to use informally and imaginatively.

The holistic approach requires co-ordinating a wide range of different interests, needs and opinions. Liz has encountered a range of challenges, including that of consultation.

From the beginning the NDC was ‘resident-led’. But there was no distinction made between understanding residents’ needs and putting residents in the driving seat. This lack of distinction causes all sorts of problems and faction forming.

Beware, consultation about

Consultation is a hostage to fortune if it’s not used properly. A lot of consultation is done on the basis that you ask people what they want and then you bring in a designer and tell them to do it. And it usually doesn’t work! Partly because what people say they want can’t be delivered; and partly because no process is in place to expand the horizons of possibility of those consulted.

It’s important for designers to work closely with residents: find out what they like and what they don’t like; use that to try to address their needs; then, produce proposals based on those needs, making it clear how that links in with what residents said they wanted. Finally, deliver it!

Working together with residents, the council and organisations here – all of which have completely different agendas - is about trying to get different people to listen to each other, to compromise, in order to make sure that everyone isn’t disappointed. It’s very hard to come up with something that everyone agrees to.

Liz acknowledges there have been compromises. The introduction of a sandpit in one of the estates’ gardens was heavily resisted by the local housing management organisation and caretaker. Door covers were placed over the sandpit which have in practiced proved problematic.

One of the things done – and it isn’t completely finished and we’ve got to sort it out - was putting in a sand pit The plan were approved by the local authority but after installation the sand pit was opposed by those responsible for its management.

This surprised me since the Government endorsed guide ‘Design for Play’ seemed anxious to dispel myths and unwarranted resistance to the use of sand in play areas. Where was the problem?

Maintenance. This estate is managed by a tenants’ management organisation and the caretaker won’t maintain it. So, under those doors is the sand pit. The doors were something people wanted to cover the sandpit so you wouldn’t get trouble with cats and dogs. And what we would actually like to do –and the estate is going to be balloted and have no idea how it will go – is take that out, extend the sandpit and put in some boulders, so the sand pit will be that whole area, which I think will be fabulous. I think it’s highly unlikely that the residents will go for that, but it will be balloted as an option. Because the sandpit doesn’t work at the moment, it doesn’t work for opening and closing, the caretaker won’t look after it – big problems!!

I’ve shown pictures of the many other sites that it [sand] works in, but there is this firm idea that there will be problems with needles and dog mess. Although a lot of the mothers would love it, they’re just a small proportion of the whole.

Persuading people of the benefits of unfamiliar ideas and developments can be a challenge.

Attend to actual local cultures, not cultures as you would wish them to be

There’s not a culture of mums with toddlers using the garden for play, but there’s an expectation that there should be a play area. The play policy’s central recommendation –based partly on interviews with parents at the children’s centre, particularly mothers – was: start with the parks. Mums said that if they want to play with their little ones, they go the park, they won’t go out on the estate.

So designing spaces to fit children is incredibly hard and it’s really led me to question very heavily how you provide effectively for play on estates; the age group for which play facilities on estates are most appropriate is the 5-10 year olds who can play on their own close to home if parents feel that their estate is safe.

Creative use of public space, 2009

Quick wins, long losses

Liz also notes Government’s tendency to create programmes with relatively large funding streams and then push for fast results from its programmes. This not only in NDC, but also Play Pathfinder and Playbuilder.

One of the problems with NDC is exactly the same as with Playbuilder and Pathfinder – and when will they learn? The pressure was on NDC’s, right from day one, to spend money. But if you don’t plan – and plan effectively – you just go on making the same mistakes. Some play areas were put in instantly by NDC because it was seen as a quick win; they either just put back what was there before without asking ‘Why did it fail?’, or they put stuff in quickly that didn’t work.

In such circumstances, key issues that massively affect the quality of play opportunities get sidelined or ignored.

Money isn’t the answer. It doesn’t solve the problem unless you’ve done the thinking. One of the things I feel really passionately about, that came out of the play policy, is: don’t ever put play areas on an estate without an overall plan. Design the estate, first and foremost, to be a safe environment for children.

We see the benefit of this approach firsthand as we walk in the Wenlake Estate. We see some boys, aged about 12 years. One is on a bike, cycling in a figure of eight between two planting areas as he and his friends chat to each other. Liz is clearly delighted.

That’s exactly what we want to be seeing, kids playing together and in their own way.

She believes that the urban design approach can make a real difference to the lives of local people in the estates.

When I started here, I heard all the time that ‘everywhere is bleak – the streets are bleak, the parks are bleak, the estate is bleak.’ I spoke to a woman here who said that for years she had been suffering from depression and she stayed at home and didn’t want to go out. Now, she feels this [improvements on the estate] has given her a lift. She sees children playing out here, whereas before they never did.

Gambier House, 2009.
Improvements incorporating allotments

The spaces Liz has shown me on the Wenlake, Gambier and Chadworth estates are inspiring examples of what happens when the design of space moves away from prescriptive, identikit solutions and begins to be informed by the underlying character of existing spaces, leading to mindful design solutions that can be interpreted, used and enjoyed in different ways by communities, regardless of age or ability.

You never used to see people out and about

Liz smiles, as we head back to her office,

So that’s what we’ve tried to create – places where people can be, out and about.

Liz is currently working with PLAYLINK undertaking a review of a residential development that is a source of concern to the RSL responsible for its management.

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