Pay to play?

Imagine a brand new tree-top adventure play area in an urban park, with state of the art climbing features, rope bridges, dizzying aerial challenges and super-long ziplines high above the ground. Imagine beneath it a conventional children’s playground – swings, slides, a little climbing frame. Up in the trees, children whose parents can afford the ticket price whizz through the air and clamber across precarious bridges; down below, those who can’t are stuck with the public swings and slides on the ground. This two-tier pay-to-play area has the ‘haves’ looking down on the ‘have-nots’ – literally.

This is Battersea Park in south London, and the aerial adventure experience is run by
Go Ape, a private company that has leased a corner of the park to run this new play
‘destination’. An existing adventure playground was demolished to make way for it, and the new free playground, half the size of its predecessor, was paid for the by council.Go Ape argues that the revenue they bring in will help enhance and revitalise the park, while the council states that “We have a duty to maximise our income wherever we can.”

Councils have certain statutory duties – providing social care, child protection services and libraries, for instance. Maximising income is not one of them. Some have pointed
out the irony of London councils effectively selling off their public green space, while
£60m of public money is being spent – just a little further along the Thames from riverside Battersea Park in fact – on the Garden Bridge. A space that will be neither public nor green, it is argued.

This is not just a London issue. The privatisation of public space is happening everywhere, not just in the capital – and especially in urban areas. A recent Heritage Lottery Fund report estimated that 45% of local authorities were considering disposing of some green spaces and one-fifth were specifically considering disposing of parks.(1) This would be an irreversible and tragic loss.

While few will object to local authorities seeking to attract greater numbers of visitors to parks and providing more attractive green places for relaxation and leisure activities, the increasing commercialisation of what was intended to be space that was free for everyone to enjoy must be a source of concern. The ends do not justify the means, even less so when the financial drivers – namely, cuts in funding from central government – that are forcing these decisions are needless and arbitrary.

Play is about children developing physical and social skills, enjoying a sense of freedom and using their imaginations – and it also provides formative learning experiences. A play area in a public park should be somewhere where children from all backgrounds get to mix. So what do the kids here learn? That if you don’t have money, you get second best. That, contrary to what you’re told, the best things in life aren’t free. That you are excluded and looked down on, in every sense, on because your parents aren’t rich. Great life lessons there.

In an age where ‘free’ and ‘public’ are increasingly equated with devalued and worthless and only things that cost money are considered worth having, this tale of two play schemes looks to reinforce that toxic message.

(1) State of UK public parks 2014: research report to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

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