Mark Collins, Landscape - Designing Child-Friendly Neighbourhoods

For many of us, our childhoods are filled with memories of freedom and adventure within the landscape, playful days on the beach, building dens in the garden, climbing trees in the woods or simply kicking a ball in the park. These landscapes offered the opportunity to imagine, be creative and test our young minds and bodies through risk and challenge, orchestrated by nature and our external environment.


‘How can we provide children with access to nature, the opportunity to play freely outdoors, walk independently and feel a sense of belonging and ownership within their neighbourhoods?’

As a landscape architect and a father of two young boys, I believe it is fundamental to offer this freedom to children and families within the neighbourhoods we plan and design, given the significant benefits of play on children’s health and wellbeing. The importance of play is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world around them. It allows children to create and explore a world where they can master and conquer their fears.

HLM champion key design principles that contribute to providing ‘Child Friendly Neighbourhoods’.  Community and social space, learning in the landscape, pedestrian friendly and playable streets, natural play and child friendly travel routes are design interventions that can fulfil sociability, playability, connectivity and belonging.  Our work on residential masterplans such as for the Military Service personnel on Cyprus, Hanwood Park District Centre near Kettering, and of particular note the Shortlisted ‘Home 2030’ RIBA competition entry all work on these principles.

By providing simple design elements such as seating, covered and uncovered, an open play area, shared space, natural play features and social gathering space it provides a green and playful central hub for communities. For ‘Child Friendly Neighbourhoods’ to fulfil these principles, we believe that a balance between nature, playful spaces and quality design provides the infrastructure. Combining the natural environment with varied play affordances, children begin to understand, engage and respect their environment. Natural play not only provides ‘fun’ and ‘delight’, but can reinforce a child’s understanding of nature by using natural materials within a bio-diverse green space. With play balanced with nature, this can contribute not only to the quality of a place, but to people’s quality of life.

With many projects, we are seeing landscape being an afterthought and consistently value engineered to reduce client and project costs. This is despite the evidence-based data for green spaces and play improving health and wellbeing.  It reduces antisocial behaviour, and helps bring long-term economic benefits.

Play England, Fields in Trust along with National and Local Planning Policy provides clear guidance on good design and minimum play requirements for new residential developments. However, we consistently see schemes allowing the bare minimum due to cost constraints, misconceptions of what play can be and associated maintenance issues. When we prioritise and integrate a child-friendly approach to landscape and urban design, we contribute to creating public spaces that work better for everyone. If our towns and cities fail to address this need, they risk harmful economic and cultural long-term impact.

As new projects take shape, we look to provide dynamic, resilient, sustainable, and quality open spaces for children and families, providing freedom and adventure for every child.

HLM’s Landscape team have the passion and knowledge of the importance of play, combined with masterplanning experience to deliver a better integrated ‘child-friendly’ approach.

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