Interview with John Hill-Daniel, from Playing Out to Active Streets

Playing Out began in Birmingham 2013. Here’s an interview with John Hill-Daniel who helped coordinate in those early years.

How did you find out about Playing out?

I first heard about Playing Out in Bristol online, on Facebook I think. I was already running the Space Explorers community project with funding from Near Neighbours, but struggling to find ways to engage people in exploring and improving their local area. Around that time I attended a memorial march for Hope Fennell on Kings Heath High Street and it was there, while talking to Marcus Belben about the idea of a project with local schools to engage pupils, parents and local residents in discussions around road use and safety, (which became ‘Car Culture‘) that we first discussed the idea of bringing Playing Out to Birmingham.

The biggest immediate barrier to Playing Out in Birmingham was cost. The City Council charged a fixed fee to close a road, which was appropriate for utility companies wanting to dig up the road, but prohibitively expensive for residents organising street play. However, they did regularly waive the fee for street parties connected to national events, which is why we began by promoting street play on National Play Day, 7th August 2013.

One of the first roads we looked at as a potential site for Playing Out was York Road, and indeed since that time I’ve been delighted to see York Road start holding regular street parties, but we quickly realised that to really take off, street play had to be led by residents. The High Street end of York Road is nearly all commercial properties. Playing Out would encourage residents to take a more active part in what happened on their streets.

I worked with Marcus and encouraged other local Kings Heath residents to organise events about enjoying the place where we live.  We were trying to ‘normalise’ playing on our streets, which increased traffic had made increasingly impossible through the years, but from the start it was clear it had benefits for everyone in a local community.

What makes a good event?

If you find yourself thinking ‘ I want to do that again’ after an event, then it’s been a good one. To that end, the less ‘eventful’ better. If you are trying to organise a bouncy castle, ball pit and treasure hunt, you are more likely to end up thinking ‘Maybe next year!’ Given that we we are trying to to normalise ‘play where you live’, we need ‘playing out’ to be a regular habit. A series of events, rather than a one-off. To do this you need a good core of people motivated to help, again, so you don’t end up with one or two people trying to do all the organisation, preparation and stewarding on the day.  In that way you are also drawing together some of the most active citizens locally, drawing a community together, starting conversations and opening up possibilities for a range of ‘community action’.  when these events work well, they help build your community. And it’s great that the City Council’s ‘Active Streets’ program is now actively promoting and supporting this kind of activity across the whole of Birmingham City.

What things would you like to see happen in the future?

I’d like to see road space used as a more flexible resource – carrying traffic just one of many functions.  It’s easy for us all, as drivers, to see the road as our realm. Say a child runs out into the road. That’s very dangerous for the child, and it’s right that as parents we teach children not to. But as drivers, we should allow for and indeed, expect a child to run out into the road, and be ready to react, because getting where we are going on time is not worth a life. A street is not just a place we need to pass through on our way somewhere, it’s a place where people live, walk, and play. And they have at least as much right to be there as we do.

Thanks John – interviewed by Marcus 24th May 2017

Read more details of Space Explorers activities funded by Near Neighbours from 2013 to 2015 in the Kings Heath Space Explorers Report.

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