Let’s get children playing in the Mother City


If children are the future, we seem to be very short-sighted when it comes to urban design. Very little, if any at all, of the current discourse on the type of cities we should be building in a democratic South Africa truly considers whether these cities will be child friendly.

In this coming century, as humanity becomes a predominantly urban species, lifestyle and mental diseases will become ever greater threats to our societies. According to Professor Ronald Kanter of paediatric cardiology at Duke University, children born today are 500 times as likely to die of lifestyle related cardiac diseases than congenital heart diseases1.

It is now a well established fact that most of these diseases have their origin in childhood – just like the habits necessary to prevent them. A population study in Finland, for example, found that children between nine and eighteen who are more physically active, are more likely to grow up to be active adults2. However, for all the benefits cities do and could offer, the current model on which their development is based seems to nudge people into sedentary and isolated lives.

We need our children to be safe and healthy enough to play in the city.

Regardless of social-economic status, children who live closer to congested roads are less likely to feel safe in their neighbourhood or play outside3. On the other hand, it has been suggested that children who live in sterile suburbs are so reliant on their parents for even simple tasks such as visiting friends or going to the shops that they lose the autonomy they need to practice becoming well-balanced adults4.

While many studies find that parents would ideally want their children to play outside, issues of safety – including criminals and the danger of traffic – are generally of such concern that children are rather kept indoors5. As was drily noted: “If a car hits a child, that is an accident, but if a child damages a car, that is vandalism.”3

In order to make Cape Town more child friendly, we need to take the bold step which is being argued by many others, and make the city less car friendly.

Of course, we should also be addressing criminality, a failing school system in especially poor communities, inadequate child health care and nourishment, and the systematic poverty which threatens not only the wellbeing of individual children but of the city and country as a whole.

However, just because the associated problems are grave and severe, does not mean that we should not also ensure that children can play freely and in that way be active members of their communities.

Children’s playtime is not, well, child’s play. It is a vital component of their individual development, both physically and mentally. Equally important is the social learning that takes place when playing. Constructive playtime can contribute to better learning and a greater sense of safety and belonging6.

Besides, there are things that can be done tomorrow, without too much trouble, by grassroots community members to make their own neighbourhoods more playable for children of all ages.

Playing Out is a UK initiative to close streets temporarily for motor traffic in order for children to play outside. The City of New York has a Play Streets initiative which has regular (weekly or more!), scheduled road closures all across the city for children to play.

Play streets - ripe for a comeback?

What is interesting to note, is the way in which these initiatives lead to greater community cohesion as adults and children alike come out onto the streets and start meeting their neighbours. A village might be necessary to raise a child, but it seems a child is also necessary for a village (or neighbourhood) to truly become a community.

In the longer term, we must design new neighbourhoods and districts with children in mind. The development framework for District Six is a good example of a truly urban design, but one which also incorporates “outdoor rooms” which will be relatively motor free and thus available for children to play in.

In our poorer communities, more must be done to “retro-fit” playgrounds and safe streets for children to play, with greater public surveillance by way of the placement of buildings and houses. We must find ways to break the sterility of our suburbs and encourage active community street life.

But we must also start rethinking the CBD, as the heart of the city. How many great urban playgrounds are there in the City Bowl? Maybe it is time to create a giant and fantastic playground on the Grand Parade or next to St Stephens Church along the lines of the Imagination Playground in New York7.

The possibilities are endless and exciting.

Of course, it is easy to ignore children, but we do so at our own peril. More than anybody else, children need to be included into fabric of the city. We might just find that they are the golden thread keeping us all together.



  1. Yale Medical Group. “Prevention of Heart Disease Starts in Childhood”, www.yalemedicalgroup.com
  2. Pappas, S. “The top five benefits of play”, Science Live http://www.livescience.com/15541-top-5-benefits-play.html
  3. Collins et al as quoted by Anderson, S. “What we know about how urban design affects children and young people” http://www.cph.co.nz/Files/Children-and-Urban-Design.pdf
  4. Duany et al as quoted by Anderson.
  5. Goodyear, S. “What we lose when kids can’t play in their own streets” The Atlantic Cities http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/02/what-we-lose-when-kids-cant-play-their-own-streets/4789/
  6. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Does better recess equal a better school day?” http://www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/issue_briefs/2013/rwjf406050
  7. Graeber, L. “Science and secrets in New York City playgrounds” New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/arts/design/extraordinary-playgrounds-in-new-york-city-boroughs.html?_r

Picture credits:

  1. http://playingout.net/inspiration-ideas-and-links/gallery/
  2. https://www.bristol.gov.uk/press/children-and-young-people/bristol-leads-way-supporting-street-play
  3.  http://www.londonplay.org.uk/document.php?document_id=1832 

There is one comment

  1. Gareth Pearson

    Great article. Besides being important on its own, aiming to make Cape Town more child friendly is a great way to make it a more livable city for everyone. The same has been said about good bicycle infrastructure. A bike lane that is safe for an 8 year old is a good bike lane. We should be aiming to make Cape Town’s central city a desirable place to live, especially for families with children. As a suburban city, its hard to imagine anyone wanting to raise a family around the CBD. We end up aspiring to owning houses in the leafy suburbs, forcing us to drive in private cars, in turn making everywhere but our own backyards unsafe places for children. How might we invite families to live in the central city? Its a worthy goal.

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