Poor little George had been singled out from his group of friends, but they had all been playing rounders in the street. Consequently he was locked up for five days. George was only twelve. According to an MP in Colchester he was caught because the others “were old enough and their legs were long enough to run away; but the little one, with the shortest legs, was captured.”
The year was 1860 and it has been over 150 years since the Victorians dampened our attitudes towards children playing on the cobbled streets. The turn of the century saw lots of press activity to reverse policies discouraging innocent acts like George’s. Then Play Streets was passed as law before WWII. It gave local authorities the power to close off streets for the benefit of children.
According to the Council, by the 1950s there were around 700 Play Streets in the UK. By the 1980s however, when car ownership had reached a high, the idea had petered out. Cars vs. Children. Our enthusiasm for the motor vehicle won out.
Across the Atlantic, the Play Streets scheme in New York City continues to this day to be an important part of city life. In London, however, young children are more desperate than ever to have space to play. The loose saying, “it keeps ‘em off the street”, has never quite fizzled out of our vocabulary.
Today, thanks to London Play, we are witnessing increased interest followed by successful attempts to get children playing outside in London again. As part of Lambeth Council’s Greener Streets campaign, the Play Streets Scheme is aimed at providing residents the opportunity to take back a bit of control over their streets.
The idea is to introduce allotted times to close streets off to through traffic and has been revived in Lambeth thanks to requests from residents in West Norwood. In Hackney the scheme is already operational and Lambeth Council have reacted positively.
The first two streets to hold Play Street days are Guernsey Grove in Herne Hill and Hexham Road in West Norwood. There will be more to follow and many Brixton residents have shown enthusiasm, particularly in light of the resurgent success of street parties which have been bringing communities closer together.
Whilst there is some organisation to be considered, such as parental supervision of road access points and access for residents with cars, the benefits to our children and the community are surely worth it. The many Lambeth residents that don’t have a garden will surely think so.
For more information go to London Play.