In his piece No Ball Games, now painted on a wall in Mill Hill East, North London, the graffiti artist Banksy presents an ethereal image of children with their arms raised, waiting to catch a non-existent ball. The air is empty, while the children play in front of a concrete wall in front of a red ‘no ball games’ sign. What makes this scene particularly poignant is that play streets, while always contested, were once a common sight in London. The 1938 Street Playgrounds Act gave children, rather than cars, priority. The Act was repealed in 1960 yet similar provisions lie dormant in the 1984 Traffic Regulation Act, forgotten and unused.
Playing on the street is no longer part of most British urban childhoods. Streets are maintained as part of the traffic network, they are not protected as places. Football kickabouts and other games are capable of prosecution under the Highways Act. Street playing has been the subject of anti-social behaviour orders, continuing a legacy where children were first criminalised for playing in the streets in the 1930s.
Yet in Bristol, a movement is growing from a belief by two mothers that streets might be closed on a regular basis to encourage street play. Playing out is gathering many admirers (including on the street I live on, where we working to start playing out on a regular basis). This requires the consent of the local highways authority, since streets are seen as the property of the Council rather than as public spaces. In Bristol, these Temporary Play Street Orders, are regularly granted.
Without a supportive highways authority, however, legal rules mean that highways are first and foremost corridors for traffic, with highway authorities required to keep streets clear of ‘obstructions’ whether these are builders’ skips, broken down cars or people. Developing an understanding of streets as public property, perhaps drawing on Roman law concepts of res communes rather than res publicae, could see streets as an asset belonging to the local community rather than as part of a network benefitting the country or the region as a whole.
At a time of localism and neighbourhood-placemaking, the ‘right to the city’ creates a broad rhetorical umbrella for asking questions about use and ownership of public space. It is not a conventional, enforceable human right, yet it opens the debate. The property law aspects of this (because this was the theme of the journal special issue) are considered in 'Property paradigms and place-making: a right to the city; a right to the street?' Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, Vol. 3 No. 2, September 2012, pp. 254–272 or here.