Guest post by Claudia Draper
In the face of remorseless torrential rain, much of our street committee’s carefully planned programme – including tug of war, giant street feast, and open mic sessions – had to be shelved.
By the evening, it was a pretty pathetic scene with just a handful of us grown ups ‘partying on’, shivering together over mulled wine under hastily erected gazebos. Meanwhile a group of school-age kids played nearby. Tearing around, playing football, scooting and skating off the road humps, they seemed oblivious to the dismal weather. Though some looked a little blue with cold!
Later as we began packing up I checked in with my son Laurie, 9, whom I’d barely seen since breakfast. ‘Mum I’ve had the best day ever. Please can we do it again next week?‘ he asked.
Blimey, I thought, I don’t fancy arranging one of these every week. It had taken months of committee meetings, distributing flyers and hassling neighbours for their ideas, participation and donations. But maybe we didn’t need the bunting, cake contests and expensive PA system after all. What if we could just shut the street – and do nothing else. Maybe all we really needed was the opportunity to come together and simply enjoy the space around us?
By then I was already aware of the Bristol Playing Out project, where two neighbours campaigned successfully for regular road closures purely for the purposes of play. The project now works across Bristol and beyond to give advice and support to residents and local authorities keen to promote a culture of street play.
I started chatting with neighbours and friends about starting a campaign for Hackney to adopt a similar street play scheme. Buoyed by pretty much universal support I decided to go for it, guided from the start by Playing Out Director Alice Ferguson. I also made full use of helpful tools and advice on the Playing Out website, such as a well-constructed set of Q&As addressing some of the key objections we might face along the way. Alice also directed me to local groups like Hackney Play Association and London Play who offered lots of ongoing expertise and advice.
I’d like to say that it was a tremendous battle from then on. That I had to use all my persuasive skills to convince councillors and Highways bods to take me seriously. But actually as I picked off my targets – first the ward councillors, then the key Council Cabinet members for Neighbourhoods, Health and Children’s Services – they all just seemed to get it, and want to help. Result!
One useful step was setting up a local Facebook group Hackney Playing Out so that people across the borough could join forces in their lobbying efforts. We were also very fortunate to be featured in a BBC News piece.
Just two months into my badgering campaign, I got a call from the Neighbourhoods Councillor Feryal Demirci who announced excitedly that the following month they would launch a one-year pilot of the Temporary Play Street Order scheme – as used by Bristol. This means that where there is strong neighbourhood support, Hackney residents can now apply for a TPSO to hold weekly or monthly road closures.
So on Sunday 9 September 2012 we kicked off Hackney’s first official Playing Out session. This time the sun belted down as about 60 or so children took over the street – rollerblading, riding bikes and scooters, whilst others mellowed out on the pavements chalk drawing, constructing lego, and playing with their dolls.
Neighbours who’d never really known each other before now chatted together as they watched their kids playing, and brand new friendships blossomed – a welcome side-effect of the playing out afternoon.
It was just a perfect day. I felt very proud of my community and of Hackney Council for what we’d achieved together.
The only real challenge was winding up the session. I felt like a miserable party pooper. Nobody really wanted to move and deep down I didn’t want to be the one to shift them.
Learning point number one: next time we’ll invest in a whistle and air horn!
Hackney Play Association supports play opportunities in the borough and is supporting Hackney Playing Out.
For more information on activating street play in your neighbourhood go to the Playing Out website.
For support around bringing play streets to London and in approaching your council contact London Play.