Over the past couple of weeks I’ve contacted district councils and city councils around the country. I’m asking them about their playground strategies, and telling them about Kiwi Play Safe. The response has been fantastic so far, with council planners being very willing to engage in conversations and offer their, and their councils’, opinions. I’m learning a lot, and I hope I can help individual councils to better understand why this issue is important to so many of their constituents (and how to address it).

I’ve written before the argument in favour of fenced playgrounds from the public space perspective, where I argued that fenced playgrounds provide communities with high quality public spaces that encourage community cohesion. Today I want to share an extract from the excellent book I’m reading currently: What Makes Us Tick?, by Hugh Mackay. It is relevant to planners everywhere, and I hope some of the people with whom I’m conversing read the following section and are reminded how they are essential in shaping our communities, and how much the rest of us rely on them – quite simply, without good, sensible, public-minded planners, our towns and cities would be far less pleasant!

How places help shape our morality

When we complain, as so many people in Western societies do, that we are losing both our sense of community and our moral clarity, we don’t always realise that the second complaint is an inevitable consequence of the first. Our moral sense is a social sense, derived from the experience of living in a community and learning to take the needs and the wellbeing of others into account, especially those who aren’t inside our personal circle of family and friends. This is why local neighbourhoods – the actual places where we share the experience of living in communities – play such a crucial role in our moral formation. The local neighbourhood is the test-bed of our values.

If we were interested in restoring or raising the moral tone of a community, the best strategy would not be to pass more laws to make people act as if they are responsible members of a community, nor simply to teach ‘values’ or ‘ethics’ via explicit instruction. The best strategy would be to find ways of putting people back together, and a critical part of that process would be to create – and preserve – the places and spaces that encourage our interactions with each other as members of the same neighbourhood.

Cyberspace won’t do it for us. The ‘global village’ was a clever name, coined in the 1960s by Canadian media guru, Marshall McLuhan. But its incorporation into the vocabulary of the IT revolution represents something of a hoax perpetuated by the high priests of the digital age. Villages, whether urban, suburban or rural, need – that are the very essence of village life.

‘Cyberspace’ is another clever name, but we should resist the idea that it bears any relation to the other kind of space. All kinds of useful, convenient and efficient transfers of data can take place in cyberspace, and friendships that have been established in the real world can be nurtured and maintained in the virtual world. 

But to think of all the messages conveyed by place that contribute to an encounter between two people: an office, a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, a cinema, a candlelit dining room a cosy corner of a cafe, a swank restaurant, a car, a ferry, a busy street, a dimly lit bar, a park, the seaside. Place is integral to the sense of human presence, and therefore to our sense of morality. ‘Flaming’ and other extreme forms of cyber-abuse thrive on the internet precisely because their exponents are not in the same place and may even be banking on the fact that they will never encounter each other offline.

If I had to pick the kind of people most likely to restore our sense of community, and therefore to help foster our sense of identity and moral responsibility, they would be urban planners, architects and those involved in community development projects: people such as librarians, coaches of local sporting teams, arts organisers who create opportunities for members of a local community to come together and do something creative – sing, dance, paint, write poetry, take photographs, discuss books or current affairs. I’d add to that list anyone interested in preserving the heritage – the places and spaces – the buildings, the parks and gardens, the streetscapes, lanes and alleys that have helped shape our sense of who we are.

— What Makes Us Tick?, pp 49-50

There you have it: ‘the places and spaces that encourage our interactions with each other as members of the same neighbourhood‘ – ‘real places to foster the incidental connections – the smiles, the nods, the gossip, the mutual concern and support’. Fenced playgrounds can provide these spaces for the wider community, and planners can provide us with fenced playgrounds.

Join the campaign for safer play spaces for little Kiwis by liking Kiwi Play Safe on Facebook.