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Safe to Play at Night

Emma Beaumont writes about the design of Pounds Park in Sheffield - a space where lighting is a key part of the design and young people are encouraged to play even after dark.

October 11, 2023
October 12, 2023
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Pounds Park is a new public park and playground that opened this Easter, as part of the Heart of the City development in Sheffield. The park was originally designed by Planit, with the playground designed by Timberplay Ltd. It was taken through construction by Henry Boot and Timberplay.

When hearing that Pounds Park would be not be closed at night, and in fact would be lit up, lots of people expressed their concern about “anti-social” behaviour.

Design drawing of play area with two pyramidal climbing frames in use at night

But on the number of times I have visited in the evening I have seen nothing but “pro-social” behaviour. I’ve seen groups of students and young adults playing! They were climbing the towers, shrieking as they slid down the tunnel slide and ran under the forest fountains. They were chatting to other groups, as they waited their turn for a go on the see-saw. They were laughing, flirting and splashing each other with water or pushing one other around in the wobble dish. They were hanging out and chatting, perched on the climbing structure. It was all being well documented on Snapchat and Instagram stories too…

The lighting scheme really helps to make this space so welcoming after dark, with warm toned up-lighting integrated within the seating, bollards and strip lighting in the pyramid towers. Bespoke lighting columns were a public art commission, and their considered design makes them much friendlier than any standard street or floodlight.

play area with two pyramidal climbing frames in use at night

Lighting is fundamental in creating a welcoming atmosphere in public spaces for women and girls and there has been research into specific types and tones of lighting and their impact on perceived safety. For example, bright floodlights that down-light an area produce a huge contrast, actually amplifying the sense of darkness in the area surrounding. Conversely, up-lighting creates less contrast and a wider, softer coverage of light.

Arup’s Perception of Safety in Cities research took measurements about the level and quality of lighting and compared them with over 900 qualitative feedback comments from women. The key findings from the research include:

• Consistent and layered lighting (multiple different light sources, and surfaces with different reflective values) creates a sense of safety.

• Reducing ‘floodlit effects’ – a sharp drop-off in light beyond paths and routes, which creates a perception of exposure – is encouraged.

• Reducing bright lights and glare, which can blind and disorient, and maintaining consistent light levels along routes between different spaces.

• Good colour rendering is helpful. Women preferred a high-quality LED light that enabled them to distinguish shapes and colour, helping to create a sense of safety.

• ARUP’s research shows the human visual spectrum reacts better to warm light, and the data from young women showed how sensitive they are to cool white light with regard to feeling safe in cities. Spaces with warmer colour temperatures are perceived as safer places.

Before I worked for Timberplay, in 2021, I attended a consultation about the lighting strategy of Pounds park, representing Our Bodies Our Streets (a Sheffield based feminist campaign, focused on equal access to public space for women and marginalised genders, of which I was a member). I remember feeling so inspired by the care and consideration that had gone into the scheme by the designers at ARUP.

Teenagers “loitering” in public spaces are often considered to be behaving “anti-socially". To quote Jane Jacobs in her 1964 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities;

“As children get older, this incidental outdoor activity - say, while waiting to be called to eat - becomes less bumptious, physically and entails more loitering with others, sizing people up, flirting, talking, pushing, shoving and horseplay. Adolescents are always being criticized for this kind of loitering, but they can hardly grow up without it.”

Teenagers are at a vital developmental stage in their transition into adulthood, and these social interactions must be facilitated. But where?

When teenagers are not at school, or extra-curricular activities like sports clubs, where can they hang out? They often don’t have the money for paid-for attractions or to sit in a café. They also feel unwelcome in play spaces (where they might be seen to be taking the play opportunities from younger children) parks or the public realm (where they might be seen to be “loitering”).

Any provision for teenagers in parks and public open spaces are often in the form of skateparks or MUGA’s, which are usually positioned hidden away from other facilities and dominated by boys and young men. It has been well established, by the wonderful work of MSFG, that girls often do not feel safe to play and socialise there.

At such a crucial time in their development of self-identity, teenage girls rely heavily on sharing personal experiences and thoughts with friends. Inactivity is also a huge problem facing teenage girls, often as a result of feeling unconfident or scared to use public recreational facilities. It’s vital that the design of public spaces, particularly parks and recreational places, allows them to feel safe to be active, to play, to hang out and chat… even when it’s dark.

Pounds Park is a brilliant example of a playful public space that feels safe and welcoming to everyone, at any time. This is the result of a considered lighting strategy, natural surveillance and original play features that encourage collaboration and can be used at any time, by anyone.

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