Parklife: Integrating play policy and design

04.1.22 3 MINUTE READ

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The former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia, Enrique Peñalosa (Peñalosa in Thomas-Bailey, 2014) wisely identified that ‘children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.’

Last summer saw the release of the RTPI’s good practice note ‘Children and Town Planning: Creating Places to Grow’, which identified that ‘Good town planning should aim to meet children’s needs as part of an inclusive and integrated society.’

With 20% of the UK and Irish population under 16, it verges on scandalous that much of our planning policy for children and young people centres on the provision of play and formal sports facilities which often inadvertently discriminate against teenage girls, who can have distinct recreational preferences and may face barriers to the use of formal facilities. Research shows traditional play areas such as MUGA and skate parks have elements of their design that prevent play – visit for more information.

Play, defined as ‘a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated’ by the major national UK play organisations, allows children to direct their own play. This encourages children to develop their own interests, self-confidence and independence in a safe, age-appropriate way.

After all, the RTPI identifies that ‘When children and young people grow up in a quality built and natural environment it can have a positive impact on their health, well-being and future life chances.’ Whilst benefitting children and their future life choices, this has subsequent impacts throughout the community, enhancing the population generally.

Lawrence Frank (Frank in Montgomery, 2013) found that ‘if there is a park or some kind of store within a half mile of their home, school aged youth are more than twice as likely to walk’. A consideration replicated for the wider population in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF 92. c), which compels us to enable and support healthy lifestyles, especially where this would address identified local health and well-being needs – for example through the provision of safe and accessible green infrastructure, sports facilities, local shops, access to healthier food, allotments and layouts that encourage walking and cycling a requirement which appeared in the 2018 revision of the NPPF.

This NPPF requirement is a recognition of the need to get the population moving, with policy responding to the need for active transport routes, especially within multifunctional green spaces. This caters to the needs of children as an integral part of the population, and a key factor in encouraging mobility and outdoor play, while moving policy requirements for play beyond the six-acre standard. This approach is to be welcomed as it will doubtlessly expand play provision beyond formal play and sports provision, thereby widening participation.

If, as designers and planners of urban and suburban spaces, we create opportunities for play throughout a development, designing exciting, flexible options in the landscape and ‘play on the way’ features to commonly accessed facilities such as schools, shops or formal play areas, we instantly make it more appealing to get outside and moving. Such an approach helps to build opportunities for play into people’s everyday lives, and addressing the shortfall of time outdoors: children are currently playing outdoors for an average of only four hours a week, down from an average of eight hours for their parents (Natural Childhood, National Trust, 2012).

Policy is design by other means’ (Raxworthy in Ivers (ed.), 2021). This is borne out in the traditional approach to play which is focused on formal provision within a designated space. However, policy is maturing to reflect the challenges and complexity of play in well-designed environments, with the changes to the NPPF since the 2018 revision, and the release of the National Model Design Code and its flexible yet holistic approach to good design in the 10 Characteristics of Well Designed Places.

At Bidwells, we’ve been extolling the benefits of multi-functional open space for some time, however we are seeing an increased interest from a range of our clients in exploring how spaces are developed to achieve high-quality, well-designed, inclusive and deliverable schemes. We see tangible benefits where we form a partnership with clients to deliver a successful place for all in an inclusive and integrated way. We heartily welcome this shift in policy to require well designed places to properly integrate solutions for movement, activity and play.


"Cities debate: teenagers talk London, New York, Johannesburg and Rio" by Carlene Thomas-Bailey, January 29, 2014.

Montgomery, Charles (2013) Happy City: Transforming our lives through Urban Design. London: Penguin Books.

Ivers, B. Cannon (ed.) (2021) 250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know. Basel: Birkhauser.


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Danielle Percy

Danielle Percy

Partner, Head of Landscape Architecture & Masterplanning

At all stages of the development process, Danielle and her team of landscape architects and urban designers are on hand to help you.

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