An amazing Whangarei mother has started a petition to push for fencing the Town Basin Playground, which has a river on one side and a car park and road on the other. Here’s a link to the petition – please sign it! The petition has already attracted over 800 signatures, and the story was covered today on Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint with John Campbell. You can watch a video clip of the interview here.

The video is well worth watching, both because Ashlee Harris, the mother who has started the petition, presents a really eloquent explanation of why fencing is required, and because the response from the Whangarei District Council mayor, Sheryl Mai, pretty much typifies everything that is problematic with councils’ attitudes to this issue. In her comments she says that: the Council considered fencing the playground a couple of years ago, but decided that it’s the job of parents’ and caregivers to supervise their children; and that the Council might be prepared to reconsider the issue if enough people make enough noise. She also references the fact that it’s challenging for people with more than one child to deal with their children at that playground – but she doesn’t actually seem to recognise that this therefore justifies taking seriously the call to fence the playground. The Council’s overall response to this issue has so far been very dismissive: they’ve told parents who don’t like the current lack of fencing to simply go elsewhere. Given that a) the Council is reliant on constituents to elect it every term; and b) ratepayers actually fund that playground, this seems like a curiously disrespectful way to treat the people who pay your salary.

Decisions should be made by councils based on clear policies, particularly regarding issues related to safety. It should not be a case of the squeaky wheels getting the oil: councils should base their decisions on the clear need to protect children from hazards. It will be a great success if Ashlee’s efforts do result in this playground being fenced, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if councils actually made decisions based on evidence and information – and better still, wouldn’t it be utterly wonderful if unfenced ‘destination playgrounds’ weren’t built next to rivers and roads in the first place!

The big issue I have with the current attitude, which requires parents like Ashlee to start and promote petitions, is that it creates a totally inequitable situation, where communities who may lack the social capital, time, or access to campaign for this kind of change are far less likely to get playgrounds fenced. I discussed this at length in my recent play strategy submission to Auckland Council, and I really hope somebody starts listening soon. The inequitable nature of the current ‘make enough noise and we’ll listen to you’ approach is clearly seen in Auckland, where fenced playgrounds are clustered in wealthier suburbs, and are largely absent in less affluent areas.

I also find it endlessly frustrating that councils clearly recognise the hazards presented to children by traffic, water, and dogs – as evidenced by reduced speed limits near schools, swimming pool fencing regulations, and dog control regulations – as well as the challenges of convincing young children to not wander off – as evidenced by the regulations that require kindergartens and other early childhood centres to be securely fenced. It wouldn’t seem like a huge leap of logic to acknowledge that, if dogs, water, and traffic are hazards in one context, they are probably also hazardous in other contexts (such as at playgrounds), and that if trained professionals can’t be relied upon to use Jedi mind tricks to stop young children from wandering and therefore need fencing to keep everybody safe, it’s probably unfair to expect parents (and especially parents with more than one child) to be able to do so.

I’m currently trying to get in touch with Checkpoint and see if they’d like to discuss this issue further. Fingers crossed!

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