Inclusive Public Spaces

Katja Stille

Katja Stille, Director, Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, and Chair of the Urban Design Group, considers the wider opportunities of designing for children

In July 2020, the Urban Design Group ran a series of webinars to explore how to deliver a better future for children. It soon became clear that when we design for the needs of children, we can also benefit a far wider audience, especially in the public realm.



One of the most memorable and sad points to arise has been the realisation of how much children’s freedom to roam has been curbed. Neither intentionally nor by design, children’s independent mobility has been eroded over several generations. This will have happened slowly, with good intentions and as a reaction to changes in streets that do not support a child-friendly environment. We have heard numerous times about the need to create safer streets through a reduction in traffic speeds and limiting vehicles in residential environments. Nobody will argue with this, and yet with few exceptions, we do not deliver safer streets, possibly because children’s interests are not high enough on the political agenda. Do we remember those years when we relied on our parents to take us places? And didn’t they often arrive to take us home again too early and just when we were playing? Didn’t we all argue for greater independence? Remembering our own childhoods is a valuable comparison.

Another noticeable point is the need to encourage opportunities for intergenerational engagement. Too often we erect barriers (and not always physical) that segregate different age groups. High fences surround our schools, playgrounds are clearly demarcated, and at worst design features to discourage teenagers from occupying certain spaces. Yet children are often described as ‘social glue’.

‘Studies of mixed income communities show that most mixing across social groups takes place between children. It is these contacts - in nurseries, playgroups, schools and in public spaces - that provide opportunities for adults to meet and form relationships. Children provide a common ground and shared interest between people in different [housing] tenures. People with children have a high stake in the success of a neighbourhood and the quality of its services.’

Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2006), Mixed Communities: Success & Sustainability



Kings Crescent is an estate renewal project led by the London Borough of Hackney. It has a long history of failed regeneration attempts, partial demolitions and delays to improvement works. Within the last few years, the first two phases have been implemented, and the streets and residential blocks clearly embrace play for all ages.

A play street, designed by muf Architecture, forms the central spine for the new residential community and creates a direct, and mostly car-free, link to Clissold Park, a large public open space. The play street is a freely accessible space attracting residents as well as passers-by of all ages to pause, sit, meet and play.

From my experience as a visitor, it works well as a playable space encouraging both children and adults to use it.

‘Social and more active play is located in the centre of scheme, reinforcing the value of the play street. Play in the central square consolidates the role of the play street, layering play as a series of carefully composed and intentionally theatrical structures. Play in the courtyards is more informal and incidental, embedded into the landscape treatment, creating small slides and bridges amidst generous planting.’

Design and Access Statement for Kings Crescent Phases

In Phase 2 of Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, Homes England seeks to go beyond the usual approach of delivering play in new residential neighbourhoods by putting into practice the latest thinking. The Health, Youth and Play Strategy (HYPS), prepared by Chris Blandford Associates with support from Catherine Max Consulting (health advice) and Rethinking Childhood (play advice), considers how play can be embedded to encourage all future residents, whatever their ages, to lead active and healthy lifestyles.

The strategy brings together a wealth of research and translates this into a practical, implementable and enforceable strategy. Here are seven key objectives for inclusive space:

  • To ensure outdoor play, recreation and contact with nature are part of everyday life through the seasons.
  • To provide comprehensive opportunities for unsupervised play and independent mobility within circulation routes and low traffic environments.
  • To provide Play on the way routes incorporating sequential and incidental play elements from residential areas to key destinations such as schools, shops, parks, leisure facilities and other places of social interaction.
  • To provide, alongside formal play facilities, a Playable Landscape which is fundamental to the proposed thoroughfares and open spaces.
  • To ensure that play and recreation meet the needs of a diverse range of age groups and abilities.
  • To ensure that play and recreation provision promotes opportunities for intergenerational cohesion and relationship building.
  • To ensure that play provision caters for the needs of Northstowe’s residents as well as people from the surrounding neighbourhoods, and includes opportunities for wider community integration.

This strategy has been put into practice and is currently being implemented in the first residential neighbourhood delivered in Phase 2. Urban Splash, Proctor&Matthews and Grant Associates have applied the strategy in the first parcel of Northstowe Phase 2, and are delivering play as an integral part of the new neighbourhood. The elements include:

  • An emphasis on productive plants through the Linear Urban Park to create a Playful and Productive trail
  • Incidental Play on the way features along the main route to the school
  • A community lawn within the park to allow for gatherings, fitness and relaxation
  • An immersive woodland walk through an existing tree belt, linking to a wider ecological trail
  • Local areas of play to encourage safe play, each one with a different theme or focus
  • A series of pocket parks across the scheme that provide immersive green pockets for play and relaxation, and
  • A variety of cycling, walking and jogging routes that link to the wider circulation networks.



These two examples demonstrate how play can be integrated to encourage independent mobility, as well as a variety of opportunities for intergenerational engagement by providing an open invitation for play to everyone and a choice of activities. With an unspecific public realm and street furniture, people are invited to consider if this is play equipment or a place to sit. The best public spaces are owned by everyone, are inclusive and not designed specifically for one age group.

Play Street, Kings Crescent, Hackney, a natural link to the park


The Northstowe Home and Away diagram illustrates the opportunities for play and healthy living within the local area


A Neighbourhood Amble, highlighting the potential opportunities available on the doorstep


Healthy Living and Youth Play Strategy


Opportunities for play and healthy living within the local area in Northstowe and its surroundings, from HYPS Strategy: Woodland Garden and Lime Tree Bosque