Communal outdoor spaces within social housing and mixed tenure estates
An abridged version of a report to the Guinness Trust

This brief paper discusses shared, outdoor communal space withinhousing and mixed tenure estates.

The immediate prompt for this paper is the now completed PLAYLIdevelopment of the ball court and play space at the Guinness TrustStamford Hill Estate. That development was jointly funded by the Guinness Partnership charitable fund and by the Learning Trust, Hacthrough government’s Play Pathfinder programme.

This paper’s strategic intent is to promote and support the potentineighbourliness of residential estates and the quality of residents’ experience of the outdoors. This encompasses, but is not limited taddressing design issues.

We hope that in describing a PLAYLINK project, drawing out both itlimitations and its benefits, this paper will help illuminate a wider fipossibility.

Acknowledgements

The Stamford Hill Estate play space and ball court development was made possible by the collaboration between Officers of the Guinness Trust and the Learning Trust, and the construction company Richardsons.

PLAYLINK wish to thank:

Guinness Trust
All staff who assisted in this project and in particular: Philip Sharpe, Rolston Dennis, Howard Skepple.

Learning Trust
Matt Davies

Richardson Ltd
Spencer Marshall Craig Saxton Huseyin Kaynakci

Residents
The residents - adults, teenagers and children – and youth workers and other Guinness staff who attended the engagement sessions in the community hall. And of course the resident’s who kindly made great food to serve at those events. Their efforts were very much appreciated.

Part One

Preamble

This paper is a form of invitation: an invitation to reflect on how play and recreation opportunities are catered for in social and mixed housing developments. The paper is in two parts: Part One offers a brief outline of the Stamford estate scheme; Part two looks briefly at some of the wider issues that affect design decisions.

Stamford Hill Estate project: brief background

The previous government’s Play Pathfinder and Playbuilder programme aimed to create 3,500 new or refurbished play spaces across England. In Hackney, the programme was in the hands of The Learning Trust, Hackney. PLAYLINK was commissioned under that programme to undertake four Hackney projects in 2009/10 (following two completed in 2008/09), one of which was the Guinness Trust’s Stamford Hill Estate.

Initial aspiration: a whole neighbourhood approach

PLAYLINK’s initial aspiration had been to take a ‘whole neighbourhood’ approach, and to look at the various pockets of outdoor space on the estate and how they might form part of an integrated approach to the out-of-doors, for the benefit of all residents. 

However, in the event, this aspiration was not to be met. This was mainly due to the inherent inadequacies of the then government’s capital play programme which set an unrealistic timetable for all involved in the programme. The effect of this, in many schemes around the country, was a sense of manufactured urgency, a dash for an arbitrarily determined finishing line. In such circumstances creating a measured and thoughtful approach to the whole estate was not going to be possible. The second level of aspiration was that the ‘footprint’ of the Stamford Hill Estate scheme should encompass both play and ball games area, and that the frontage of the community hall should be included (In the event, funds were not sufficient to improve the frontage of the community centre). We wanted to create an attractive shared social space. Taken as a whole, this might be described as a ‘village green’ approach.

fig1

Stamford Hill Estates, play area. Before

The outcome

The scheme – refurbished ball court, expanded play area – has been judged a successful one by the client and residents. It is certainly aesthetically pleasing, significantly more so than the original play area. It also has more play value with the introduction of elements that offer challenge and allow for some flexibility in use: for example, sand; a simple wooden tepee that forms a frame for children to add to and amend; the mound offers height and different ways of engaging with it; generally ‘greening’ and softening the area.
fig2

It is reported that adults – parents and grandparents of younger children in particular – are spending more time in the play area partly because their children are more engaged by the features on offer, and because it is a pleasant place to be. This meets one of PLAYLINK’s key wider objectives: to create the context for informal socialising – making the outdoors of the estate a pleasant place. The project has been described as ‘small but significant’, and that seems about right.

Wider implications

From PLAYLINK’s perspective, there are extensive opportunities for securing better value for money for schemes of this type. Take for example just one element, manufactured, fixed-play equipment – it tends to be relatively expensive. In many cases disproportionately expensive to any benefit secured. Much can be done – and money saved - by creating bespoke pieces, designed in sympathy with individual locations and contributing to a ‘sense of place’. There are also possible benefits to be drawn in terms of securing local employment and creating training opportunities.

This paper now turns to consider the outdoors more widely. It does this in the context of PLAYLINK’s beliefs, experience and aspirations.
fig3 fig4 fig5

Stamford Hill. Play area. After

Part two 

The wider context

‘Children and teenagers being seen and heard in shared public spaces is the hallmark of a society at ease with itself’ PLAYLINK policy.

Overarching aims

We believe that the local outdoors  – residential  estates, streets, parks and open spaces – has the potential to fulfil the vital function of nurturing informal sociability across the generations.

‘When outdoors nothing stands between us and the world…When we meet other people in this outdoor world, we are more likely to meet them as free agents and autonomous individuals than we do in the graded and contractual world of institutional or commercial life…The park and the street give us our freedom, and the buildings, too frequently, take it away’.

Sadly, however, too often the outdoors is experienced as a fearful, unfriendly space. Spaces where the overriding call is for ‘security’, to be conjured by the technology of surveillance and a web of prohibitions which, in PLAYLINK’s view, together can exacerbate the illness they purport to cure. We stand, therefore, for an opposing paradigm: a presumption in favour of a culture of permission. This value-based stance is linked to and informs an approach to outdoor space and its use that is set out below.

Informing rationale

There has been the tendency to conceptualise outdoor space and its use by mechanistically fusing the category ‘age’ with that of ‘function’. In short, the conventional idea is that children need designated play areas; teenagers need Multi Use Games Areas (MUGA) or their equivalent; adults need communal gardens and allotments. There is of course some truth in this. However, when this approach is deployed as a rigid template, the effect can be limiting and in practice weaken the possibility of nurturing a sense of social ease across the generations.

There is an alternative view, one that cuts across the traditional perspective. This view understands outdoor space as potential and actual venues for a range of encounters. Here outdoor space facilitates and encourages mixed use and informal sociability. The term ‘village green’ acts as a sort of shorthand for the understanding that shared, playable public and communal spaces can be created such that play opportunities – and therefore children and teenagers - are not as a matter of course hemmed into bounded, designated areas.

Below we deal with some of the practical implications of this approach.

Play and informal recreational provision

Traditionally, the informing assumptions governing estates’ provision for play and informal recreation has been that it should:

  • be limited to designated areas – usually one per estate
  • be fenced off and therefore separate and distinct from shared, communal space
  • have no role in engendering a wider sense of neighbourliness, more a ‘hiving off’ of a segment of the population
  • focus on standardised, manufactured equipment, often in metal and in primary colours
  • be focused on a particular age range
  • be age segregated within the play area
  • have no seating or free (‘slack’) space
  • not need to be attractive nor contribute to a local, individual ‘sense of place’.

The net effect of this approach is the mass production of unattractive spaces that, by signs and symbols, both implicit and overt, de-legitimise the presence of children and youngsters within their wider neighbourhoods. This is not good for children, teenagers, or adults or for enhancing the possibilities of social cohesion.

In contrast, alternative objectives might usefully be to:

  • create the conditions for informal encounters across the generations
  • legitimise children and teenagers’ presence within shared, communal space
  • provide play and recreational opportunities
  • create ‘green’, more natural and attractive environments

Ball courts

Typically, ball courts are tarmaced caged areas – fenced to a height of 3m or so – with goal posts and/or basketball ring. Almost without exception these areas are unattractive. They are also a source of noise as the ball regularly hits the fencing that too often rattles in response.

fig6

Example of ball court: partial low fence

Ball courts, certainly in residential settings, not infrequently give the impression of having been parachuted into an area with no thought given to their visual or sound impact or relationship to the immediate surroundings. Ball court provision is locked into a series of assumptions, for example, that they:

  • need to be large enough to accommodate a five or seven a side football team
  • must form a rectangle
  • require the fencing to be uniformly high at 3m – 3.5m
  • cannot be aesthetically pleasing and linked to their location
  • should not afford opportunities for sitting and watching the play.

fig7

Example of ball court: no fence

PLAYLINK’s experience is that ball courts can be approached in a more imaginative way. It’s true, of course, that they are likely to have high visual, and to a degree sound, impact. But this simply underscores the need to put a bit of effort into mitigating their negative features. For example:

  • it is not to be assumed that all sides of a ball court need to be at full height. Having a lower fence on at least one side immediately changes the court’s visual impact and takes a significant step toward making the area feel part of its surroundings

  • seating (though not necessarily conventional seats – boulders, timbers, etc are possibilities) should be provided; people of all ages enjoy watching play. The aim must be to make ball game areas  attractive venues where people feel able to linger and congregate.

Maintenance and health and safety

The feasibility of developing a broader-based approach to communal, shared space on estates is sometimes called into question because of two areas of concern. One is ‘maintenance’, the other is ‘health and safety’. The two categories too often become inter-woven such that maintenance questions become also health and safety issues, and vice versa. There is of course some overlap, but the general point that this paper seeks to establish is that, in principle, neither maintenance concerns nor those of health and safety, need impede progress towards developing different approaches as outlined in this paper.

Although not without difficulty, PLAYLINK has developed schemes that include, for example, varied mowing regimes according to the requirements of a particular area; sand in unfenced settings; sand with water; tree swings. One can see, even from this limited list, how maintenance and health and safety issues might coalesce to render any one of these features beyond the possibility of implementation. Our point here is that much more is possible than is often imagined. Saying this is not to minimise the challenges, but to suggest that they can be overcome with thoughtfulness and commitment.

Lord Young of Grantham’s report, ‘Common Sense, Common Safety’, made a number of recommendations that have been accepted by Government. In respect of play and leisure activities the report says:

Extract from section on Children’s play areas
A further area of concern is the impact of health and safety on children’s play areas. In legal terms, play provision is guided by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act. There is a widely held belief within the play sector that misinterpretations of the Act are leading to the creation of uninspiring play spaces that do not enable children to experience risk. Such play is vital for a child’s development and should not be sacrificed to the cause of overzealous and
disproportionate risk assessments. This is a further example of how legislation primarily conceived to be applied in a hazardous environment is being brought into an environment for which it is unsuited with damaging consequences. I believe that with regard to children’s play we should shift from a system of risk assessment to a system of risk–benefit assessment, where potential positive impacts are weighed against potential risk. These ideas inform the play programme developed by the Department for Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport and I would like to see them developed more widely. Furthermore we should consider reviewing the Health and Safety at Work etc Act to separate out play and leisure from workplace contexts.

This extract underscores a point that PLAYLINK, with others, has been making for some time: that there is no impediment in law to developing a more creative practice in respect of play and shared outdoor, communal space.

Conclusion

This paper began by describing itself as a form of invitation. An invitation to reflect on the approach taken in the play area and ball court development on residential estates; to consider its scope and its limitations; and, most significantly, to consider how a ‘whole neighbourhood’ perspective can contribute to a sense of social ease.

PLAYLINK is eager to make further progress in revivifying shared communal space within social housing estates. To achieve this, PLAYLINK works across the board fulfilling consultancy, advisory, policy development and designer roles.

PLAYLINK clients include:

Argent; A2Dominion Housing; Barrow upon Furness Borough Council; Bath and NE Somerset Council;
Black Country Consortium; Bournemouth Council; Bradford City Council; Brighton & Hove Council;
Bristol City Council; Bury Council; Carterton Town Council; Chelmsford Borough Council; Cheshire
County Council; Coventry City Council; Cumbria County Council; Dudley Council; East Sussex Council;
Forestry Commission; Glamis Community Nursery; Groundwork, N. London; Guinness Trust;
Hounslow Heath Infants School; Places for People; Hull City Council; IPPA, Irish Republic; Lancashire
County Council; Learning Trust, Hackney; LB Camden; LB Greenwich; LB Hillingdon; LB Hounslow; LB
Islington; LB Redbridge; LB Richmond upon Thames; LB Tower Hamlets; Learning Trust, Hackney;
Liverpool City Council; Manchester City Council; Mindstretchers; National Trust; Oxford City Council;
Oxfordshire County Council; Peterborough Council; PlayBoard, N. Ireland; Play Wales; Plymouth
Council; Poole Council; Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames; St Edmundsbury Council; Sefton
Council; South Gloucestershire Council; South Somerset District Council; Southampton City Council;
West Ardnamurchan Community Council, Scotland; West Play; Wokingham Borough Council;
Worthing Borough Council; Wolverhampton City Council.

PLAYLINK: brief outline of activities

Consultancy and advice.
Work areas include: policy and strategy development; space assessment; feasibility studies; masterplanning; analysing and addressing difficulties.

Design
PLAYLINK’s designers and landscape architects design shared public and child friendly space in a range of settings: residential estates; parks; urban mixed developments.

Publications/conferences/workshops
Bernard Spiegal has articles published by various journals. In addition PLAYLINK web-publishes articles by a range of people who have something interesting to say. These can be found at: www.playlink.org.uk