During the COVID-19 crisis, less crowded urban landscapes and fewer vehicles have offered different and unexpected perspectives on the built environment. As the world slowly emerges from the pandemic, these glimpses may help to shape a new vision for urban planning that outlives the easy soundbite of ‘building back better’. This book by Tim Gill could not have arrived at a better time.
In Urban Playground, Gill has produced a thorough but succinct and accessible guide to child friendly planning and design, not just for planners and architects, but for the complex networks of all those involved in creating more liveable spaces and places. More importantly perhaps, he makes a highly persuasive case for the needs of children and young people to be not just a bigger priority, but central to the strategic thinking - economically, environmentally and healthfully - that should inform all spatial planning.
The volume is attractive and welldesigned. Eschewing lengthy academic arguments in favour of pithy overviews, principles and checklists, the book has plenty of space for handsome illustrations and graphics on almost every page. This makes it both easy to navigate and enjoyable to dip into and browse. The intention is clearly that it should be useful and while succeeding in that, the book is also designed to persuade, with concise arguments and insights stringent enough to give policymakers pause for thought.
The book’s six chapters are populated with a treasury of ideas, initiatives, projects and schemes, that are then distilled into the tools for making them happen. Taken together they present the essential components of a built environment that responds to its youngest citizens, and a roadmap for getting there.
If there is a general criticism, it might be that the role of national policy is largely absent. Wood, Bornat and Bicquelet-Lock (2019), in their report for the RTPI, noted that British children are notably missing from planning policy and processes, surely a reason for the UK’s poor performance in this arena. In particular, I would like to have seen a little more consideration of two UK initiatives. The Welsh Play Sufficiency Duty is dismissed as providing ‘little evidence… (of) … influencing schemes or spending programmes’, when the research is somewhat more positive at least on the legislation’s impact on attitudes and processes. The English Play Strategy is not mentioned at all. Although abandoned in 2010 during the global financial crisis, the next ten years could present an opportunity to revisit the plans to make England the ‘best place in the world to grow up’.
However, in a book with such a broad scope and an international perspective, these are perhaps parochial cavils; the omissions are consistent with Gill’s disciplined and unsentimental focus on what works for cities. British cities are in a good position to take the lead on what the economic and social recovery should look like. This book should be high on their reading list.