When in 2009, Alice Ferguson, a native Bristolian, realized the street she lived on was too dangerous for her daughter, Eva, who was seven years old at the time, to play on, she was frustrated. Together with her neighbor, Amy Rose, the two agreed that their kids were missing out on the joy of playing out on the street that they had enjoyed as kids because of the dangers posed by speeding drivers. It was out of this realization and frustration with the status quo that Ferguson began to advocate for taking back the city from cars and giving its streets back to children.

Ferguson’s concerns were not unfounded, since the fact of the matter is that Bristol has become a heavily car-dominated city. According to recent numbers, car ownership in the City of Bristol is at more than 190,530, up by 25,000 cars since 2001. Effectively, each household in Bristol reportedly has an average of 1.04 cars.

Playing Out

Alice Ferguson (R) and Ingrid Skeels (L) of Playing Out. Photo by El Salem.

In order to ensure that the streets were safe for their kids, Ferguson and a few of her neighbors got together and petitioned to temporarily close the streets off to cars and see what would happen. Little did she know, Ferguson was planting the seed of the organization she now helps run in Bedminster called Playing Out.

“We came up with the idea of just closing the road to cars for a short time as a kind of temporary intervention, but also as a way to spark conversation and [get] people thinking about the issue,” Ferguson says in an interview with progrss at their office in Bedminster. “[We wanted to show people] a street that was full of children playing and [get] people to visualize and want that as a long-term goal.”

The first model of ‘playing out’ that the organization was based on was a concept called ‘removal art.’ The model intended to change how kids interact with streets without adding anything to the street itself, but, rather, by removing. In this case, it was the removal of cars that could give children and their parents the confidence to play out. They got the support of City Council and, through a petition, were able to have Bristol’s first three hours of playing out.

Playing Out in a Car-Centered City

Playing Out

One side of the banner hoisted above the Bear Pit near Cabot Circus in Bristol. Photo by Yasmine Nazmy.

In all of South West England, Bristol is considered the region’s biggest city both in terms of size and population. The city’s significance to South West England, however, also lies in the fact that Bristol is a ‘Core City‘ – one of eight urban areas outside of London. As a Core City, Bristol remains the center of South West England’s economic development, education, and creative industries, among other industries.

But, as a Core City, the rapid growth and development also strain Bristol. For other cities in South West England, Bristol serves as a hub for a decent living standard and employment. However, that brings more cars into the city, especially since Bristol doesn’t have a sophisticated public transportation system.

And with more cars overtaking them, parents are more wary of allowing their kids to play out in the streets. If the overcrowding of city streets with cars wasn’t enough, the amount of pollution floating around due to the number of cars whizzing through the city will reinforce parents’ apprehension.

“Bristol’s a really contradictory city because its full of people that are really forward thinking and green and creative and activist,” co-director at Playing Out Ingrid Skeels tells us. “But at the same time it is full of cars, it’s not well designed and it seems sometimes politically frozen by anxiety around upsetting car drivers.” 

For Skeels, the empowerment of children to take back their city’s streets is not limited to her work with Playing Out. When she isn’t at Playing Out, Skeels works with an organization called Room13, which is an independent art studio in an elementary school in Hartcliffe – a suburb of Bristol – that aims to teach children to express themselves through art.

If you walk down through the Bear Pit near Cabot Circus, you’ll be greeted by a large four-sided banner with statistics on air pollution in Bristol. It also suggests that air pollution in Bristol, caused by the exhaust emitted by cars, is directly impacting children’s lung capacity.

Despite these challenges, the City of Bristol has been working hard to put measures in place to curb pollution or make it harder for individuals to pollute the city’s air. Last year, the City published an Air Quality Status Report, which listed how city officials believe Bristol can combat pollution.

Taking Back the Streets

One of Playing Out’s scheme layouts. Photo by Yasmine Nazmy.

After being featured in local and national media in 2011, word on what Playing Out was trying to do spread like wildfire. Ferguson and Skeels were able to procure three years worth of funding thanks to the media coverage. “Why don’t we do it,” Skeels said to herself, “and just do nothing and see what happens? No one had really done that before.”

By 2012, more than 17 streets were regularly being closed off to cars so kids and adults could play out. In order to organize these playing out sessions, city residents need to ‘apply’ for street closures. Once granted, the closure can happen once a week for up to three hours. But unlike other initiatives put forward by city leadership, the entire playing out process is resident-led and only has the City’s backing. And so what started out as a challenge to the status quo slowly turned into a resident-led campaign that revolves around community and a child’s right to their city streets.

Today, there are more than 160 streets in Bristol and 661 across the United Kingdom that actively close off their streets to cars to allow children and adults to ‘play out.’ For Playing Out, the importance of allowing their kids to return to the streets is not just rooted in a nostalgia for a time when they played freely in the streets as children. Rather, they are trying to instill a sense of ownership of the street to the kids since cities are not, in fact, built for cars, but for their residents.

As we wrap up our interview at Playing Out, Ferguson recounts a story of when she was walking down a street with her daughter and noticed children playing on the street pavement. To her surprise, they were out playing on the street, despite it not being a playing out day. Eva, who is now 16, looked to her and said, “You know Mum, I think you’ve really done something good.”