History of play streets

Children have always played in the street. At least they did, up until around 100 years ago, when private cars started to run them over. The events leading to the first play streets being established in London in 1937, included tragedy, royal celebrations and a lot of passionate campaigning.

First UK traffic fatality occurs in London
Mrs Bridget Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon was run over by a Roger-Benz car at Crystal Palace. See BBC article


Model T Ford goes into production.


New York pioneers play streets
In the early part of the 20th Century, huge emphasis was put on the need for children to have space to run and play. In 1916, Joseph Lee, President of the New York City Playground Association said, “Play is not merely a good thing for the child; it is an essential process of his growth… it is for the sake of play that infancy exists.” In 1914, there were over 30 parks in Manhattan, yet few served low-income neighborhoods.


The first mass street parties in the UK
Held across London and the country to celebrate the Peace Treaty at the end of the First World War.
According to the Street Party UK website, they were "formal sit-down affairs mainly for the many poor and orphaned children after the war and the ‘Spanish’ flu. This is why street parties have until recently focused on children sitting down for a tea.”


Rising deaths
More than 12,000 boys and girls under fifteen years of age were killed in the streets in England and Wales alone during this 11 year period; and over 300,000 were mutilated or injured. (Hansard).


Children begin to be arrested for playing in the street.
Nancy Astor tells the House of Commons: "There is no more pitiable sight in life than a child which has been arrested for playing in the street... Though these children may be fined, we stand convicted."


One million cars
The number of private cars owned in Britain hits the 1m milestone


Children criminalised for playing
Over 2,000 children under the age of 17 were found guilty of playing in the streets in a single year. Lord Eltisley tells the House of Lords: “What an offence! It does really constitute a reproach on us and on our system of government…”


Coronation of King George IV
Partying, eating and playing in the street was the order of the day


London stages the first play streets in the UK.
Play streets are trialled in London, Paddington. The Street Playgrounds Bill is introduced to parliament.


First official play street legislation is enacted
The 1938 Street Playgrounds Act enabled local authorities to close certain ‘suitable streets at certain suitable times’, in order to be used as playgrounds for children. The fascinating debate in the Lords can be read here .

Lord Denham, in his maiden speech in the House of Lords said: ”In all the big towns and cities of the country… there are hundreds, nay, thousands of children of poor parents who, because there are no playing fields near their homes, are forced to go out and play in the streets.”


4m cars in Britain
The number of cars has quadrupled in the past two decades.


17 councils in London are now using play street orders
London’s Chelsea Metropolitan Borough Council, Hampstead Metropolitan Borough Council, Kensington Royal Borough Council, Shoreditch Metropolitan Borough Council, Westminster City Council are among them.


Coronation of Queen Elizabeth
Millions took to the streets to celebrate the coronation of the 25-year-old queen


Updated play street legislation is enacted
The Street Playground Act 1938 is repealed by the Road Traffic Act, 1960. Section 49 outlines the ‘Power of local authorities to prohibit traffic on roads to be used as playgrounds.’


Peak play streets!
Street Playground Orders apply to around 750 streets in England and Wales.


19m cars in the UK
Private car ownership has increased five-fold in the space of two decades.


Queen’s Silver Jubilee
Another royal milestone saw a record 10m people take part in street parties, according to the BBC. In London alone there were over 4,000 organised parties for individual streets and neighbourhoods.


The Road Traffic Regulation Act

Sections 29 to 31 of the RTRA 1984 deal with play streets and are still in use today.
More information

By the mid-80s play streets have almost completely died out and the car truly becomes king as London’s orbital motorway, the M25 is completed in 1986.


There are now 2m cars in London alone


The beginning of the return to play on the streets
London Play’s three year Street Play programme, funded by the Big Lottery, puts play back on the streets of the capital for the first time in decades. More than 100 street party events are held and the flame is lit.


Royal fever hits the streets
The Royal Wedding and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee saw Londoners close their streets en masse over two consecutive years for celebrations. 400 streets in 2011 became 2,000 for 2012’s Diamond Jubilee. People started to ask, ‘why can’t we do this more often?’


Hackney pilots play streets
London Play, Play England, Bristol’s Playing Out and Hackney Play Association work with Hackney Council and local residents to revive play streets for the first time. The pilot became permanent and now the borough is home to around 60 play streets as well as three school streets.
By now there are 2.5m cars in London. However only 39 per cent of inner London households have access to a car.


Government recognises the health benefits of play streets
The Department of Health funds a consortium including London Play to support the development of play streets across London and England. DoH puts £1.1m behind the project in the hope that it will be a cost-effective way of helping tackle childhood obesity.


More boroughs see the light
London Play works with residents, councillors and officers in Waltham Forest to launch London's second pilot play street scheme. Later that year Ealing, Haringey, Lambeth and Lewisham also adopt play street policies.
London Play stages the ‘21st Century Play Streets’ event at City Hall in partnership with Play England.


Seven more London boroughs join the play street revolution
Residents in Camden, Croydon, Enfield, Greenwich, Hounslow, Islington and Southwark can now apply to open their streets for play.


Play streets for cohesion
London Play is commissioned by Hounslow Council to promote and support the development of play streets to improve community cohesion.


London Play Streets project
The Big Lottery funded project saw London Play working in 12 boroughs supporting residents to launch more than 80 new play streets.


The London Borough of Brent joins in the play street fun and games


Playful Communities
This four-year project covers 16 boroughs and aims to increase awareness and take-up of play streets in those boroughs with particular focus on disadvantaged areas.
Redbridge launches a play street pilot during the summer and adopts a new permanent play street policy following the successful trial.


Car Free Day London - 385 streets are open for play
London Play’s ‘Swap your Car for a Spacehopper’ campaign inspires record numbers of residents across the capital to try out a play street.

Kingston, Sutton and Westminster implement new play street policies.

The Department for Transport issues new guidance for local authorities on play streets, recommending they use 'street party' legislation for multiple closures to remove the costly and time consuming requirement to advertise traffic orders for play streets.


Covid hits
The Covid-19 pandemic halts nearly all play street activity - as gatherings become illegal. Meanwhile, in response to the pandemic thousands of virtual street-based support groups form across the capital and look forward to the day they can physically come together on their streets again. We predict a play street explosion in 2021!


Play Street Carousel
London Play launches a covid-safe project which invites residents on streets across the capital to contribute ideas, artwork, photos and film documenting games they have played and loved. The resulting book and film will be launched at celebration events on those same streets in summer 2021. See more .