Blog Post

London’s children should be able to play outdoors all year round

Our Head of Data and Insight Nicolas Bosetti highlights the need for better lighting in London’s parks and playgrounds to ensure children always have access to physical activity.

As with every summer, my local park has become a favourite play area for children in the neighbourhood. Braving the city’s unreliable weather, they’re clearly enjoying spending their free time outside, playing ball games or hide and seek until quite late when the night starts to draw in.

Yet this kind of scene rarely happens outside of the summer months. The park is open 24/7, but is practically never used after dark, and for good reason: it’s only lit with a couple of feeble and very tall lamp posts, which seem more suited to an out-of-town car park than a neighbourhood playground in one of the world’s greatest cities.

My local park is very similar to others in the city in this regard: it is rare to find a playground that is lit, let alone one that is lit well enough to be inviting at night. For a northern European city with long winter nights, the lack of lighting in play areas is a strange omission, as it means children cannot use them after school during long chunks of the year. If we decided to shut playgrounds at 5pm in summer, there would be uproar, yet in winter this is effectively what happens when play areas are not lit.

One can speculate on the reasons for keeping playgrounds in the dark. It may be that this is to discourage so-called anti-social behaviour or prevent potential unsafe encounters by encouraging people to stay home. It is true that good lighting encourages us to spend time in public places, but this is generally seen as a good thing as we tend to feel safer in parks that are well used, rather than empty ones. It may also be that keeping playgrounds in the dark wasn’t a fully conscious decision. Our report on lighting London, Seeing Clearly, found that cities have historically focused on lighting our roads and streets to make driving at night safer (and faster), whereas the places people usually spend their time in have been neglected by comparison.

There’s no question that increasing access to the city’s parks and playgrounds will improve the health and wellbeing of children growing up in the city. 21 per cent of London households don’t have a private garden, and in inner London this increases to 40 per cent – compared to 12 per cent nationally. Instead, Londoners are much more likely to have a park or playground within walking distance but using them is a much less attractive option if they can’t or don’t feel comfortable using them outside of daylight hours. Given the majority of London’s children are too sedentary – according to Sport England, around 55 per cent don’t hit the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity – we should be doing everything possible to entice them out. There is also a clear equity issue: 24 per cent of London’s children are growing up in an overcrowded household with little to no space to play – and they are even more reliant on local parks.

Unsurprisingly, Nordic cities are leading the way in making playgrounds usable all year round. In Sweden, a lighting pilot has increased the use of a local park and has improved quality of life for children and their families. Similar projects could happen in London, but these would need to be done well: simply adding lighting won’t guarantee that spaces are well used, and we can’t light a playground the same way we would light a street or a car park.

The power of lighting also lies in the freedom it offers. Thanks to new lighting and sensor technologies, we can afford to become much more imaginative about how we light public spaces: one can play with the intensity, colour temperature or position of lighting to create spaces that feel safe, inviting and fun. Theme parks and festivals use lighting to create environments that children and young people want to be in after dark – there’s no reason we shouldn’t use some of those techniques to improve the playgrounds children use every day.

So let’s create playgrounds, parks and public spaces that children want to spend time even after dark – to make the capital a better place to grow up.

Nicolas Bosetti is Head of Data and Insight at Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.