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Putting children first

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With the implementation of Home Zone pilot-schemes due before the end of the year, what price tranquility?

At the launch of the government's national 'Home Zone' programme in August 1999, a road closure meant that residents of the prospective Home Zone in Ealing enjoyed tea and biscuits out in the street while everyone else made the most of the temporary car-free oasis.Afterwards, leading resident Charmian Boyd said that the most profound moment of the event was when an older resident came up to her and said: 'Lovely day - but where did you get all the children?'

This story captures my theme well: children have been crowded out of their neighbourhoods and one key reason is the dominance of the car.

Now the Home Zone - an approach based on the Dutch woonerf, where the whole street is given a makeover and traffic is tamed to open up the space for a whole range of social activities - is proving a powerful new vision for achieving streets for people rather than just for cars.

Observation studies confirm the importance of street design in opening up the built environment for children. Play expert Rob Wheway has observed children's activity in a range of housing estates and found that in areas with good space between houses, and traffic-calming, up to three times as many children were seen outside than in poorly-designed estates.

The street is still an important social space for children and young people.We recently surveyed 800 children, aged four to 16, to ask them where they played and where they liked to play. Streets came out on top (more than a quarter said they played out most often in the street, compared with 22 per cent in parks and nine per cent in playgrounds); 16 per cent actually said the street was their favourite place to play, second in popularity only to parks. So it seems that no matter what parents and roadsafety campaigners like to think, children still play out in the street.

That said, everyone agrees that nearly all streets are unsafe and not suitable play-spaces for children.

There is evidence to show that conventional traffic-calming is not enough to transform the way streets are used.Allott and Lomax have been evaluating the impact of 20mph zones, and their findings state that 'to significantly change the function of the street, more stringent measures, such as road closure or changing the nature of the road to reduce speeds to 10mph or less, are needed. Home Zones may be more appropriate to change the function of a street.'

In any case, the road humps and steel gates that feature in standard traffic calming are hardly elements of high quality streetscapes. Fortunately, Home Zones have much higher aspirations in terms of design quality, but just as important as good design is community ownership.

Car-owners will not be surprised to hear that streets are very contested spaces, and not everyone welcomes the idea of children playing next to their car.

Luckily, projects have been able to draw on community involvement techniques and resources developed in other arenas, and the issues can be resolved. Good practice in both design and planning is described in a book on Home Zones, written by urban-design academic Mike Biddulph, the result of a project managed by the Children's Play Council.

Of course Home Zones are not just about children, but they do have special significance for children. For them, the street is not just a natural play-space but also the starting point of their daily outdoor journeys, activities and adventures.

Tony Blair's recent announcement of a £30 million Challenge Fund for Home Zones shows that the idea of people-friendly streets has even reached Downing Street. At the Children's Play Council, we see them as one example of how the built environment is putting children first.

Tim Gill is director of the Children's Play Council. Visit www. homezone news. org. uk

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