Growing up in cities: Researching the playability of a dense prosperous neighbourhood

Growing up in cities: Researching the playability of a dense prosperous neighbourhood

_GRADUATION WORK_ by Sabine van den Berg

In my graduation research, I have built upon the work of two former Landscape Architecture students in 2008. They came up with the ‘Network of Play’ model, in which children in poor neighbourhoods would be stimulated to have more outside play and physical activity. In my research I have tested this model on dense, prosperous neighbourhoods, using the case of the Statenkwartier in The Hague.

During my research, I did an internship at the Ingenieursbureau Den Haag which is part of the municipality of The Hague. The results described in this article are taken from my research and do not represent the position or the vision of the municipality of The Hague.

The importance of outdoor play
Many children grow up in urban environments and the increasing urbanisation, with for example the expansion of car traffic and increasing densification, makes it even harder for children to find suitable playing space. Above all this, the contemporary pressure on achievements of children, for example on school, but also at the sports club or in the music classes, and the increasing modern technologies in play, for example computers and other digital applications, have reduced the time for children to go outside and play freely (Alexander et al. 2012, Berkhout 2012, De Visscher 2009).

These three pillars: urbanisation, increasing pressure on achievements and modern technologies, have decreased the possibilities for children to go outside and play freely. There are less suitable play spaces available, and children are not stimulated to play outside. This reduces their opportunities for a healthy development, because outdoor free play has proven to be advantageous for social, emotional, cognitive and physical development in children (Alexander et al. 2012).

Current developments
Little literature has focussed on the spatial characteristics of a neighbourhood creating a child friendly or playable environment for children in cities. Most sources are focussed on a broader idea of how play can contribute to health, as I described in the section above. The Network of Play model (Bakker and Fähnrich 2008) has been created with the idea to design for a playable environment, but because this model has been tested on rather spacious neighbourhoods, it says nothing about more dense neighbourhoods. Furthermore, most literature describes deprived neighbourhoods for stimulating physical play activities, because of a high percentage of overweight children in these neighbourhoods. The goal of these researches is to reduce children being overweight. However, many other literature sources indicate that when play is researched with the goal to stimulate physical activity only, the other health outcomes of free play are being forgotten. Different literature sources also indicate that children living in prosperous neighbourhoods might be even less fortunate, compared to children living in a deprived neighbourhoods, because deprived neighbourhoods often offer more opportunities for play than prosperous neighbourhoods (Franzini et al. 2010, Karsten 2005). For me, this became the reason for wanting to do research on the playability of dense and prosperous neighbourhoods. The goal was to find out to which extent children are able to play in dense prosperous urban neighbourhoods, to be able to design for possible improvements for the playability of the public outdoor living environment. Therefore the main research question: “What is the validity of the NOP model for a dense prosperous neighbourhood, with as example the Statenkwartier in The Hague?” will be answered in this research. The outcome of this research can function as example for other comparable neighbourhoods throughout the Netherlands.

Thesis structure
Thesis structure

Network of Play model
The Network of Play model reasons from both primary and secondary play spaces; bigger and smaller play spaces. On the primary play spaces, mostly meant for children in between 6 and 12 years old, every type of play is possible. On a secondary play space, meant for children until the age of 6, only a few types of play are possible.

The Network of play model starts with the current situation in a neighbourhood, in which the first step is to add extra play spaces, both primary and secondary, and the second step is to connect these spaces with each other by means of a network. It is important for children to be able to get from one play space to another.

Network of Play principles (Bakker and Fähnrich 2008)
Network of Play principles (Bakker and Fähnrich 2008)

Assigning the play spaces is done by using five spatial criteria, including subcriteria:

Criteriadiagram NOP
Criteriadiagram NOP

Research and methods
During the research for the availability and suitability of the public space for playing children, I have used three different methods. Because I use the same playability criteria from the Network of Play model in every method, I was able to compare the research and validate the outcomes.

I started doing a neighbourhood analysis in which I used a matrix to clearly indicate which spaces inside the neighbourhood scored good, bad or average on the different playability criteria. Besides this, I have done observed the different possible play spaces, using ‘behavioural mapping’ (Moore and Cosco 2010), and I have performed sample interviews with children. By mapping the outcomes of these different research methods and comparing them, I saw that the outcomes were overall the same, with only a few exceptions. Therefore, using the Network of Play model as tool for examining a neighbourhood is valid.

Outcomes of the research of the Statenkwartier in The Hague
The Statenkwartier is not child-friendly or playable in the current situation: there are too little play spaces and especially children in the age of 6 to 12 do not have many play opportunities. Furthermore, the public open spaces that might function as possible play space are not suitable, mostly due to disturbance. The main roads through the neighbourhood create barriers for children and make play spaces inaccessible. Also the possibilities for different qualities of play are too little. The few play spaces that are situated in the Statenkwartier were very crowded and are heavily used by children. The children often played physical activities and were socially active, but there were not many children playing with nature, having mental stimulation or manipulating the environment, which supported the outcome of the analysis that these different play opportunities are not given and therefore children are not able to play these types of play. Furthermore, most of the children think they have too little play spaces in the neighbourhood and they would also like to have different kind of play possibilities: Environmental manipulation opportunity, mental stimulation and nature play were often mentioned in their wishes for more stimulating play environments.

Designing for an improved playable environment
In a dense neighbourhood, creating a play space as desired in the Network of Play model is impossible. It is unrealistic to provide a play space every 100 metres, and even if this would be possible, it is going to be a very small play space, simply because there is not more space available in the narrow street profiles. Therefore I have created a few principles that show how different types of streets, in use, width and orientation, can be adjusted in several ways to make an (informal) play space for children. In the designing phase, the business of the street and the safety of the children has been taken into account. For example, a residential street is more safe than a continuous street and therefore a barrier between a playing child and passing cars would be desired in the last case.

By designing different principles and by testing the designs using the playability criteria of the NOP model, proved particularly that enlarging the sidewalks by removing two parking spaces, or by enlarging the sidewalks on the corners of the street can already be effective. Not only for creating a play space, but also for the cross ability of a street and so the accessibility of a play space.

Frankenslag floor plan

Example of a possible realisation in a residential street with a wider profile and relatively much continuous traffic.
Example of a possible realisation in a residential street with a wider profile and relatively much continuous traffic.

AntonieDuyckstraat floor plan

Example of a possible realisation for a quiet residential street with a narrow profile and having only destination traffic.
Example of a possible realisation for a quiet residential street with a narrow profile and having only destination traffic.

Conclusions for the Network of Play model
Doing research shows that the NOP model is a usable tool for examining a neighbourhoods playability. The tool makes clear which parts of the neighbourhood need more attention, what the influence of possible barriers are and which play qualities need to be added to the possible play spaces. The outcomes of the analysis using the NOP model, are the starting points for designing for a more playable neighbourhood. The five main spatial criteria of the NOP model can be used to test a design on its playability. These are also the most important criteria belonging to free play, no matter in which environment, which have also been found in other literature. However the examples given in the original NOP model are not implementable in the Statenkwartier or any other dense prosperous neighbourhood, mostly because there is much less space for a possible play space or because the appearance of the play space does not match the formal look of the neighbourhood.

In my research I have designed a few main principles that can be used for dense prosperous neighbourhoods and I have compared these with the interpretation of the five spatial criteria from the NOP model. This showed that especially the interpretation of the three criteria of quantity, location and accessibility of play, (together the independent mobility) need to be adjusted to fit the context of the dense prosperous neighbourhood. Because children, if they are allowed to go outside, cannot always reach a primary play space, the near home environment with several secondary play spaces will be even more important for free play and developmental opportunities of for example meeting other children and learning to estimate distances. However, when wanting a full developmental experience, children should be able to reach a primary play space, if impossible without, then with their parents, to really give them the play experience they need.

Alexander, S. A., Frohlich, K. L. and Fusco, C. (2012) 'Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children's play', Health promotion international, das042.

Bakker, K. and Fähnrich, F. (2008) Network of play - A research on the playability of Dutch residential districts for children, unpublished thesis Wageningen University.

Berkhout, L. (2012) Play and Psycho-social Health of Boys and Girls Aged Four to Six, unpublished thesis Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

De Visscher, S. (2009) 'Buiten spelen in wiens en welk belang? Het spel als cultuurelement', TIJDSCHRIFT VOOR JEUGDRECHT EN KINDERRECHTEN, (2), 116-122.

Franzini, L., Taylor, W., Elliott, M. N., Cuccaro, P., Tortolero, S. R., Janice Gilliland, M., Grunbaum, J. and Schuster, M. A. (2010) 'Neighborhood characteristics favorable to outdoor physical activity: disparities by socioeconomic and racial/ethnic composition', Health & place, 16(2), 267-274.

Karsten, L. (2005) 'It all used to be better? Different generations on continuity and change in urban children's daily use of space', Children's Geographies, 3(3), 275-290.

Moore, R. C. and Cosco, N. G. (2010) 'Using behaviour mapping to investigate healthy outdoor environments for children and families: conceptual framework, procedures and applications' in Ward Thompson, C., Aspinall, P. and Bell, S., eds., Innovative approaches to researching landscape and health: Open space: People space 2, New York: Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group.