The Realities of 21st Century Street Play: Moral Dilemmas

This is part of a series of posts on the realities of 21st Century street play.

A couple of years ago, we relaid the paving in our back garden. For my two small children (2yo and 4yo at the time), the thought of digging up the old paving and being able to trash the garden as much as they liked for a week or so was particularly compelling. Once they got bored of trashing the garden, they took full advantage of the fact that the back gate was always open in order to pile up the old paving, and took to the street to play. This often occurred during weekday daytimes with few other children around.

On numerous occasions over that summer, with my children near my house but often out of sight for moments (and sometimes minutes!) at a time, I was asked by concerned and friendly-meaning neighbours if I knew that my children were round the corner. Yes, I replied, I did. Surely if I didn’t I would be worrying, right? I remember one occasion when my then 2yo had headed around the corner to a car parking area. I couldn’t see him, but I was pretty sure he was there and, as it was fenced off, that he couldn’t go any further. Again, a neighbour asked me if I knew where he was. Yes, I replied. Surely if I didn’t I would be worrying. Is he ok? Oh yes, he’s fine.

A more paranoid or risk averse parent might take this constant questioning as a sign that it wasn’t appropriate to leave their children on their own. They may decide to bring their children inside as a signal that they had taken the hint and that they would properly look after their children in private, afraid that the friendly neighbour may be considering calling social services. After all, why else, when a child is perfectly fine and happy, would someone feel the need to question the parent about their decision making?

On that occasion, the questioning from the neighbour, albeit confirming to me that my son was indeed fine, led me to go round the corner and ‘check’ on him. And do you know what? He was fine. Happily digging the dirt from the corner of the car park. It’s fair to say, if I’d have seen him doing that in the first place, I might have tried to stop him, due to a variety of societal influences telling me that it’s not really ok for children to be sitting in corners of car parks digging dirt. A benefit of giving children independence just out of your sight. As it was, I let him carry on. Digging up our garden had clearly inspired him to carry on with the rest of the estate.

A year or so later, a walk home from nursery and school with my now 3yo and 5yo, led to another neighbourly encounter. Only a few hundred meters from home, my 5yo had cycled on ahead heading for the house. As he went out of sight, my 3yo then proceeded to fall off his bike and then head into a major meltdown. Finding it impossible to carry both him and his bike, we had to wait it out, all the while hoping that my 5yo had indeed gone home. About five minutes later, once things had calmed down and we headed onto our street, I saw my 5yo crying and being looked after by one of the afore-mentioned friendly neighbours. This time, he wasn’t so ok. He’d fallen off his bike too, had a bit of a bump and she had helped him out. I was grateful to her for this, of course.

After we said our thank yous, we parted ways and I wondered if it was reasonable to rely on a passing adult or neighbour to help your child out? Of course, years ago this was the norm. But now, does someone taking on that role feel they are taking on an unwanted obligation? Are they thinking that it shouldn’t be their job to be helping someone else’s child out, because the parent can’t be bothered or isn’t very good at controlling their children? Are they thinking that you’re a poor or lazy parent?

These anecdotes are some of the realities of street play for me in the 21st century, and the hidden moral dilemmas that go along with it. These unseen social influences are always underlying and can surface in a parent’s mind when they’re least expecting it, or when a well meaning friend or neighbour prompts them to consider their actions. How mindsets are changed is critical, in my view, in encouraging more freedom for children on streets and in public spaces.


The Realities of 21st Century Street Play: work versus play

This is part of a series of posts on the realities of 21st Century street play.

The recent warmer weather in the UK has had the usual effect of getting people outside. Both children and adults have been enjoying the burst of sunshine and taking to the parks and green spaces to enjoy it. There has been a similar effect on my own street. As is usual at this time of year, suddenly the children come out of hibernation after school and are seen out playing on the street. Great, I say. Or do I? The reality may not be quite as idyllic as the scene suggests. 

In street play terms, my children are lucky I think. Our street is by no means perfectly designed, but to start with it’s a cul-de-sac at the end of a row of cul-de-sacs, so there’s definitely no through traffic and rarely any unknown vehicles. People expect to see children on the street. We have a garden with a back gate that opens out onto some shared grass (largely but not limited to sharing with our next door neighbours). It also means my children can, if they want to, loop around from the front to the back of the house pretty easily. Everyone on the street benefits from the cul-de-sac positioning, but not everyone else benefits from easy access to it. There are quite a few flats and some of the other houses are less well situated. But in any case, it’s a street that since I have been there has always had some (not all) children playing on it.

To the story. Last week, on a sunny day  after collecting my two boys (5yo and 4yo) from after-school club/nursery, we got home and, as usual, before they’d even got through the front door they asked ‘can we play outside?.’ What do I say? Let’s remember that it’s already gone 5pm, one child is already getting tired and is constantly exhausted from being at school most of the day. I have been working all day and now have a relatively short period of time to get dinner ready before a full on meltdown occurs. In the interests of efficiency, wouldn’t it be easier just to sit them in front of the TV?

It’s important to remember that when we hear anecdotes of how children used to play out all of the time, the realities of parenting were often quite different. It was much less common for both parents to work, and whether or not the child was collected from school or not, there was usually someone at home when they got back. This is now often not the case. Many children are now in after-school clubs until relatively late and there is a pretty short window between them finishing that and bed time. Where does street play fit into this? I don’t even work full-time (really). Does doing a PhD count?

Back to the story. As I was feeling relaxed, I let the boys play outside. No, I don’t say yes every time. Sorry to disappoint. A school friend came down from the flats opposite to play too. Great, I thought, that should keep them occupied. I started to cook dinner. They got the water guns out and seemed to be having fun. They got soaked. One child was crying, then laughing, then crying. The other wanted to get changed. Dinner was put on hold. And the clock was ticking towards bed time. I had more than two children in the house, one with no clothes on. Dinner still wasn’t cooking itself. Next door’s dog had now come into our garden too. I go back out to move him. Dinner still wasn’t cooking itself. Some other children turn up. The water guns are put away. The boys now want to get their bikes out. Cue me helping them to get their bikes out from the hallway. And what about the dinner? It goes quiet for a bit. Are they ok? A quick check to see they’re still there. Yes they are. Back in to check on the dinner. Then some more crying as someone’s fallen off their bike. A bit of a hug. Back to the dinner. Dinner’s now ready. No-one wants to eat it. Or come in. Debate about the importance of dinner and going to bed, pretty much lost on a 4 and 5 year old, and likely resulting in me shouting…

I know it’s not all about cooking dinner, but hopefully you can see how this goes? On that particular day, we had a fairly short window for the boys to play before they needed to be in bed or they’d be double grumpy the following day (when we all have to go to school and work again). It’s easy to understand why working parents would simply say no to a request for their children to go out, particularly if they didn’t have such an enabling environment as mine. As it was, dinner was later than planned, bedtime later than planned, my stress levels likely increased. The children were fine of course.

It’s easy to talk about how we want things to change, but it’s often less easy to actually make that change ourselves, even if we know that at heart it’s a good thing, and there are various reasons for this. Children’s mobility and children playing out on their own street or the streets in their neighbourhood is something that is influenced by a complex array of factors. Trying to understand these is difficult – the clue is in the name: it’s complex.

I’m not trying to make excuses. But sometimes it’s difficult to get the realities of what something entails unless you’re in the thick of it. I’m in it. If I hadn’t been working all day, then maybe I’d have got dinner ready earlier. Maybe I’d have also picked the children up earlier so there’d have been more time to play. I’d have probably been a bit less stressed about the whole thing. I’m not sure if it’s good enough to say that times have changed, but they have. And we need to be mindful of that when we’re trying to make further changes, hopefully for the better. More to come…

Why are children running rings around us? Is it ok to dislike the ‘Daily Mile’?

I’m a strong advocate of physical activity, particularly for children. So is it ok for me to dislike the ‘Daily Mile’ initiative?

For those that aren’t aware of it, the Daily Mile is an initiative started off by Elaine Wiley, a headteacher from Stirling in Scotland, who began it in her school in order to improve the fitness of her schoolchildren. It’s intended to be a social activity, where children run or jog for 15 minutes per day during school time, which is said to improve children’s fitness levels as well as their concentration levels and mood. It’s also now sponsored by INEOS, a global manufacturer of petrochemicals and oil products, but that’s another story.

In terms of the Daily Mile’s benefits, they’re not exactly groundbreaking. It’s well known that physical activity improves both physical and mental health. So what’s wrong with it? As a runner, coach and researcher, I want to inspire people to want to be active all of the time, to be on their feet exploring their local neighbourhoods and environments, and in doing so to keep their brains and bodies functioning well. Does this equate to running in circles around an often concrete playground for 15 minutes per day? I’m not sure it does.

Perhaps I would say this as an endurance runner, but I just don’t think a mile is enough. If children are led to believe that 15 minutes of running around in circles is enough for exercise for them, then they are being misled. ‘I’ve done my daily mile today’ they say. But what about the rest? What happened to the other 11 hours and 45 minutes of their waking day?

The Daily Mile is one limited solution to address the fact that children in schools are sitting down far too much. Other campaigns such as Outdoor Classroom Day  and the OPAL project are also aiming to get children outdoors and active for more of the time, but what we really need is full-scale change. Instead of taking a break from sitting down for an hour to run around for 15 minutes, shouldn’t we instead be looking at ways in which we can avert the need to sit down for that long in the first place?

Like playgrounds, it seems to me that the Daily Mile is just there to make up for inadequacies with our basic provisions for children, largely inside school but also filtering down to outside the school grounds too. If our schools and neighbourhoods were better set-up for children playing and enjoying being active for its own sake in the first place, such initiatives wouldn’t be necessary.

So yes, it’s a step in the right direction. But I’m saddened that it’s come to this, and that running around in circles for one mile is the best way we can think of to get children active every day.

A Personal Best!

Sometimes we need to go back to basics, and consider why we started out on our journey in the first place. It’s all too easy to forget the reasons why you do something, what drove you to get where you are and how far you’ve come. Considering this in the context of recreational running, it’s easy to get obsessed about whether you’re running 10 seconds per km slower than normal, forgetting that the reason you started running was not in order to get fully acquainted with the inadequacies of a GPS watch.

The London Marathon this year was a good example of needing to focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’ The conditions for runners were unseasonably warm this year. I wouldn’t say they were hot – they were just hotter than most UK runners had experienced in recent months. I know, for example, that my last proper long run prior to the marathon had been in the snow! No-one had much time to acclimatise. The advice from the organisers was, amongst other things, to adjust your pace and your goals.

The race, therefore, was an ideal opportunity to try to listen to your body and run based on feel rather than on what your watch was telling you. With the sun out and the crowds likely to be large, it was a chance to focus on enjoying the experience. It was reasonable to assume that most runners weren’t going to achieve the time they had been targeting in their training. Running in that the sort of heat can add on up to 10% to finish times. It was a day to simply focus on enjoying the run, keeping relaxed at the start, and being ready to focus on pushing a bit harder at the end if your legs allowed.

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people were unable to heed the advice of the organisers and still set off too fast. I had decided early on to take it easy for the race. But even in the first few miles, it was evident that I was one of the few in that mindset. Others were already focussed and stressing about keeping a pace, worrying about the fact that they were already feeling pretty warm, and perhaps already wondering whether they could sustain their X minute per km pace at just mile two. It’s not to say I have perfect pacing. The reason I decided to take it easy this year is due to previous experiences where I have just not had an enjoyable time. I’ve not practised what I preach, and have set out too fast with a specific time goal in mind, to then slowly die (or at least that’s what it felt like) in the last 10 miles. I had decided that this year would be different.

My approach of taking it easy at the start paid off. I felt comfortable. I was relaxed. I could have done with someone to chat to, but unfortunately most of the aforementioned goal focussed runners would not oblige. In any case, when I hit halfway I was feeling good and if anything, a bit bored of running at such an easy pace. Listening to an interview with Lily Partridge this week (who was first female Brit in the marathon and 8th woman overall), she recalled how she got to the 32km mark and it felt like she was just out on a long run. This is how it should feel in my experience. This is how it felt for me this year. I was, of course, getting tired, but I felt strong and in control as I went through the 16 and 20 mile points, unlike last year when I had to stop and think about quitting.

I imagine last year I spent a lot of time looking at my watch. This year, I didn’t bother. I checked it early on but only to make sure I wasn’t going too fast, as it can be easy for the adrenaline rush of the day to let you get carried away. I knew how hard it should feel though, and I knew I was ok. UK elite runner Tina Muir is a strong advocate of ‘watch free’ running and I completely agree. Watches don’t usually make us run quicker – particularly in a marathon. They can easily stress us out about not keeping to pace when we should really be listening to our body. At the marathon, I tried to remember that I was there to enjoy the day, to prove to myself and others that I could run that far. My main goal was not to collapse from heat exhaustion and to feel strong and have a smile at the end.

And that’s what I did. Other runners I’ve spoken to who took a similar approach are also equally positive about their experiences. They enjoyed the run, it has inspired them to keep running and to do more. It doesn’t really matter what their finish time was. It probably wasn’t a personal best time. It was unlikely to be this year if their other races had been run in cooler conditions. But maybe it was a personal best experience. And isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

(If you really HAVE to know, what my finish times were for this year and last, you can check them out here)

Virtual freedom: is technology good for children’s independence?

I am a strong advocate of giving children more independence. But what does is really mean in our age of technology and how important is it to children in the 21st century?

Studies have shown that children don’t really like being alone. They would often prefer to be out with friends than on their own, and they would even often choose to have their parent with them. For parents, many (not all) choose to walk or drive their children to school because, apart from the often practical implications, it gives them ‘quality’ time to talk to their child, that in our time pressured lives we have often have limited opportunity to do.

Parents also often find it easier to supervise their children than not. They don’t have to worry about the numerous risk that they believe they might encounter. Whether or not these risk are founded in truth is not the point, they are real to the parent and therefore a factor in what influences their decision. Risks such as ‘stranger danger,’ road traffic, a child getting lost on their own, all make it easier for a parent to not give the freedom to be out and about on their own, and to stick with them. But what if technology had the answer?

A recent episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror has brought some of the concepts of childhood independence firmly to light. The episode begins with a mother losing her toddler in the playground. After a short panic, the mother finds her child, and then considers what she could do to ensure she doesn’t lose her again. Convenentiyl, there is a product offering a free trial, where the child can have a GPS implant inserted into their skull and the parent is then able to track both their location and view their activities on their device.

We’re not there yet, but even the basic premise of tracking our children raises many questions. Most parents have been in a situation when they have ‘mislaid’ a young child. It might often only be for a second, although it often feels like much longer and it’s never a pleasant experience. I still remember the time when I lost my one year old son in the railway museum in York. I was with other family members at the time, yet somehow none of us saw him wonder off or where he went. What followed was quite a bit of panicking, looking under and in trains and, on notifying security, the entire security staff of the museum on the lookout for him and covering all possible exits. We found him about 10 minutes later in a toy car about 20 meters from where we’d been sitting, huddled in between two other children, none the wiser. I think after that incident I probably did start googling ‘child GPS tracking devices.’

gpsThere are a huge array of tracking devices now available for children, largely aimed at under 10s. Most of these will link up to your phone and provide up to date information of where your child is, perhaps allow you to send messages (based on the assumption that they’ll be able to read before they’re allowed out alone) and set off an alarm if they travel outside a preset boundary. Of course, the marketing for these products is all about the positives, such as this strapline from Gator Watch: ‘designed to offer peace of mind to parents and guardians who have a child or children who are too young for a smartphone but old enough to want their independence.‘ Of course, there are obvious ethical issues here about whether it is correct to be monitoring your child’s every move. I personally wonder what the child thinks and whether they see it as an infringement of their privacy though. I wonder whether children would rather be granted independence, even if it does mean being tracked.

There has been some research on slightly older children’s use of mobile phones, which tends to find that children are actually happy to have these and they feel like it means their parents will provide them with an increased level of independence. When I say slightly older, approximately half of children aged 10 or 11 are likely to have a mobile phone of their own. However, what about these younger children who are really still developing their independence and are also less likely to be given a choice. There appears to be little knowledge of what the benefits are to them and how are these perceived, or how it might affect their behaviour.

It is also important to consider if these devices are providing a false sense of security for both the adult and the child. Historically, children would gain independence from their parents very gradually, as the parent trusted them to be able to travel further and complete tasks on their own. Do these devices risk parents simply letting their children go without considering the risks that are out there? The device isn’t going teach them to look left and right before they cross a busy road. And what if the device stops working or the child takes it off? What sort of sense of security is it giving the child and if they didn’t have the device, would they still be able to manage? As a parent, there is certainly a question about how much more risk you are letting your child take, simply because you can track their whereabouts.

At present, there are very few children wearing these devices but this is clearly a growing market and it’s relatively easy to conceive a future where every child is wearing one. Imagine a future where children aren’t being ferried to school in cars with their parents, but are walking to school on their own, with GPS devices on their wrists. As a parent in that era, it would be difficult to say no to the marketing that this is protecting your child and giving you peace of mind. There are also the potential benefits to the child’s physical and emotional well-being of being out and about in their neighbourhood walking and interacting with their peers. If you were in that position, what would you do?

Give the gift of freedom to play this xmas, not toys

The way we load our children up with toys… is the crime of the age; it is a sin against our children; it corrupts their simplicity; it stimulates their destructiveness; it sates and blunts their curiosity and hastens the time of their general discontent with life. (Burroughs, 1906) 


This post comes at a pertinent time of the year. That time of the year when most of us feel compelled so start buying lots of stuff for other people who don’t really need any more stuff, who often say they don’t know what stuff they want because they already have so much stuff, and will inevitably put the said stuff in the back of a cupboard before discovering it a year or so later and putting it in the bin (or if you’re lucky, taking it to a charity shop). See also George Monbiot’s excellent article titled ‘The Gift of Death’.

My son has been learning about the history of toys at school. I’d rather they had called the topic the history of play – the history of toys just highlighting (unintentionally I hope) that we’re now in a world of consumerism, and the history of toys making the assumption that we always were. We are lucky to live on the doorstep of the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, where they also paid a visit. A museum much more about toys than childhood. I have spent many a day there with my children, trying out the rocking horses, watching the model railway go round, looking at how transformers have changed in the past 20 years or so. I was slightly surprised at our last visit when we discovered the Paw Patrol lorry behind the glass, much to my son’s delight and my bemusement. Has the Paw Patroller really earnt the right to stand there next to wooden rocking horses, 100 year old dolls and meccano?

The museum and school are correct, of course, in their inference that toys are now important to children, probably more so than ever. As consumerism has taken hold and disposable income and aflluence has increased, we are buying more toys than we have ever done. It’s now commonplace that children will have a wide range of toys at their disposal within their home. And with less children now per household than in the past, they may not even need to share them with other siblings.

As part of their learning, the school have also asked children to make their own toys, using ‘junk.’ There was a pretty big build up to this. A week of collecting up our rubbish to take into school was pretty exciting. R made a rocket blaster, which he is immensely proud of. We still have it in the house, along with an ever growing pile of ‘junk’ in the corner of the bedroom, and some sellotape and scissors. I can’t stop him. My youngest son has now got the bug. Every bit of ‘junk’ he has he wants to keep to help make his rocket or car or crane. The various rockets and machines are growing in size and stickiness, covered in messy sellotape. It’s fair to say, the junk modelling has been as, if not more, entertaining than any Paw Patrol toy.

So what have toys got to do with children’s mobilities? Children in the past always used to make their own toys. And if they didn’t make them themselves, they probably didn’t have any, or certainly very few. Making your own toys fosters creativity and imagination. You can take them outside, you may be more likely to share them with your friends. With a wider range of toys purchased for them at their disposal, children are more likely to want to stay inside and play rather than going out into the neighbourhood to play with their friends. Parents, too, may find it easier and safer to keep them indoors when they can easily be entertained with their toys.

Our obsession with ownership and on our children having toys is likely to be one of the many factors that stops children wanting to play out and parents feeling inclined to allow them to. If you have your ready made Paw Patrol vehicle, perhaps it makes sense to stay inside and look after it, not get it dirty, and to look after your ‘stuff.’ Particularly if someone has spent quite a bit of money on it. But a bag of ‘junk’ or loose parts encourages social interaction and can make children want to get outside and get involved with others.

I’d like to think less toys is better for both the environment and children’s well-being. They really don’t need more ‘stuff’ – what they need is time to think, time to create and to be given opportunities to foster their independence and freedom. Maybe even get a bit bored from time to time. Here’s to a toy free xmas!

Why I’ve started to hate the run commute

run commut

I’m starting to dislike my run commuting habit. I loved it at first. The ideal form of multi-tasking in my view – allowing me to get some physical exercise, whilst getting to and from work, avoiding overly busy rush hour trains and getting my heart rate up higher than I do on my bike. It seemed like a win win. With a young family, where every minute counts, the idea that I no longer had to spend an ‘extra’ hour running each day and could turn it into my commute instead was one I couldn’t resist. I might also be able to give my mum a call whilst running too – something I couldn’t really get away with on the bike and which was impossible on the underground – all because, of course, I didn’t have time otherwise.

The issue I have with the run commute is its purpose. The reason I started running wasn’t simply to get from A to B. The run commute has turned my running into a chore – something that I have to do to get to a certain location for a certain time. It takes out the flexibility on route planning – I pretty much run the same route every time, because again, with every minute meticulously planned the run is also planned to get me there at the right time and a kilometre too far won’t do. It takes the flexibility out of pacing. I usually have to run at a preset pace to get to work/nursery/home* (*delete as appropriate) on time. No slowing down if I’m feeling a bit run down or tired. Speeding up is generally ok, but often less appealing when weighed down with a backpack. There’s no choice of time to leave. I’m out the door at the planned minute to make it on time. And the overly timetabled nature of the run commute means it’s often near impossible to find someone else to run with. You’re running on your own. There’s no meandering, just running for the sake of it – on a mission.

The run commute can take multi-tasking to its limit. It’s saved me time, but has it also started to take the pleasure out of running? What has happened to those runs to go and explore a new route or test out my pace and see how I’m feeling? What has happened to delaying going out till a bit later because I don’t feel like it right now? What has happened to running with others? I started running because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed exploring new places, enjoyed just putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes running faster, but usually with others to spur me on. Now I religiously run the same old route every week on my own.

It strikes me that this is relevant even to non-runners. London has some of the highest levels of walking of any city and cycling levels are on the increase, but how much of that is just for its own sake? Most of the walking and cycling we see in London is again, people on a mission to get to/from work, on the same old route, hardly even looking up as they head from their house to the office. They’re not moving because they particularly want to, they’re moving because they have to.

This all gets me down a bit. As an advocate for an active society I want people to enjoy physical activity for its own sake and I don’t want our only form of activity to be just getting from A to B because we have to. I want people to enjoy running, walking and cycling, to find pleasure in meandering around and exploring new routes, and to make it an important part of their lives, not something that stops once they get a new job or new routine. Children know that meandering is good. Trying to get a child to walk from A to B without stopping to look at something or pick up something is near impossible. It is inherent within us to explore our environments. Yet, we’re doing it less and less and we’re encouraging our children to do it less and less. Our busy lives mean we are always intent on getting from A to B without looking at the in-betweeen.

So, I’m not ditching the run commute completely, because I do quite like a bit of multi-tasking and the reality is I’m time poor right now. But I am going to be doing a bit more meandering too to ensure that when I stop commuting, I’ll still be running.

The London Plan and the unglamorous world of planning policy

London Plan

I’ve spent the best part of the last two years writing policies for the London Plan. Important policies, in my view, on health, social infrastructure, children and play. The things that matter to a lot of people. The results of those two years of work were published yesterday. I’m pretty happy with the finished draft.

Health is more strongly embedded in the plan than it was, with one of the strategic policies in chapter 1 titled ‘creating a healthy city’ and addressing the top level health inequalities across London. The Healthy Streets policy (T2) follows on from Transport for London’s work on this and starts to embed the principles of a city for people rather than cars into the plan, with a strong focus on walking and cycling. This unfortunately has replaced the walking policy, but there’s still a cycling policy at least – phew! No mention of running as yet, but I’m working on it. Social Infrastructure policies are strong and more detailed in places (chapter 5). The Play and Informal Recreation policy (S4) now has clear links to accessible routes for children and young people, play provision that is an integral part of the surrounding neighbourhood, and the ability for a child to move around their neighbourhood safely and independently. This feels like a significant step forward form the previous plan, although for those who have been working in the field of children and play for a while, they may feel more like it’s a step back to over ten years ago and Ken Livingstone’s London Plan. In any case, we are now moving in the right direction again.

At over 500 pages, this isn’t a document that the masses will read and, of course, that was never the intention. It’s not exactly a page turner (has any policy document ever been?), although the cover looks quite nice. Its readership is generally confined to those who think they have something to say about it, or those who are forced to. Hopefully, planners in London, architects and developers will read these policies though. Will they understand their full meaning though and know how to implement them? It’s certainly not a given, and any additional guidance to support the policies and that may help people in their implementation will inevitably follow on behind the policies themselves.

Ultimately, this is not a snazzy brochure or PR document for the Mayor’s latest strategy – this is a formal planning document. A document that now has to go through near two years of public scrutiny before it can formally adopted as planning policy. If you want to respond to the consultation, you have to do so on the basis of the ‘tests of soundness’ – successfully putting many people off from having their say. There is no glamour in this. The excitement that has arisen in a some of us over the last few days as the draft was published, will have most definitely subsided by the time the final version of the plan is due for publication, after we have spent near enough another two years scrutinising the thing word by word.

I just hope that after all that scrutiny, the key phrases that are important to me remain and don’t get negotiated out either intentionally not. And if it can be improved through the consultation process then that would be great. We can then figure out how to implement the thing and actually make a difference (or start all over again if a new Mayor is elected…).

The relentless process driven world of a planner. If I haven’t put you off by now, you can read the whole plan here

Could autonomous vehicles be good for our children?

As a strong walking and cycling advocate, as well as someone who wants to see our children outdoors and with exponentially more amounts of independent mobility, could I really have a good thing to say about autonomous vehicles?

I’ve just been reading an article from the New York Times, which gives some unique perspectives on the future for autonomous vehicles (AVs). And it’s started to depress me a bit (probably a lot). Of course, the usual points on shift in control are mentioned, how traffic might be smoother, and it covers all the fancy fan dangled things that you might be able to do in one of these AVs. But in spite of all this, and as Wiener notes within the article, ‘as technologists imagine a driverless world, they seem to be doing so with a distinct lack of imagination.’ They forgot something. They forgot that our City streets aren’t really working as they are. They forgot that people need to use these streets too, not just cars.

The article raises many issues that point to a world that is ‘virtual’ in nearly every sense, when we are more detached from reality than we are now and where we are completely reliant and technology for our every day lives. When we use vehicles more to get around, because of their increased convenience and where we really don’t care about interacting with other real people. These are all the things that I dislike about the message that AVs sends out.

I dislike that they risk people walking and using public transport a lot less, because of their ability to move around the city more efficiently and quicker and without any effort on the passenger’s part.

I dislike the fact that they begin to further detach us from the natural world, with suggestions that windows will be large tablet screens, to distract us from what is going on outside in the real world.

I dislike the fact that they still all need to park somewhere.

But I’ve also begun to wonder if there are some positives to the whole AV thing, for people and children in particular. What I do like is the fact that we can trust their actions and that they follow the rules, and this gives us potential as real humans to take advantage of this and start to take back our streets. Unlike most drivers, autonomous vehicles will be programmed to stay within the speed limit. Assuming that the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign continues to grow across our cities, this is most likely to 20mph, a relatively safe stopping distance. They will also be programmed to stop if a real human is in their path. I tested this out recently, when Keolis trialled one of their autonomous vehicles in the London Olympic park. Sitting inside the AV, it was annoying having people walk into its path every few seconds and it having to bang on the breaks. I remember thinking it would have been quicker to walk and, of course, if I hadn’t taken a trip in it for the novelty value, I would have done.


Now imagine a street where you can pretty much walk in front of any vehicle and it is guaranteed to stop for you. With the current power struggle on our streets between cars and people, we appear to be in a position where a robot is more likely to stop than a human. We currently can’t trust that a human driver will have seen us or will stop. So we are forced to either wait until there is no traffic coming or use a dedicated crossing out of our way. However, a robot should be guaranteed to see you. It will stop, no? Could this change the status quo of our streets? Would you be more likely to let your children out to play on the street, if you knew that cars would see them and stop for them, and that there was no risk of them driving at 40mph down a 20mph street? An additional benefit is that it is likely to be very annoying sitting in a driverless vehicle stopping every few seconds, so maybe those people will choose to walk instead?

This is all still a long way off. But if those of us who want to use our feet (people power and all that), then perhaps we can start to shift the mindsets of all road users and help them to realise that people are part of the street scene too. Of course, this is just one potential positive in what appear to be a long list of negatives right now. The thought that a parent could have the ability to tell their child to get into an AV and then programme it to drive them to their after-school club because it’s ‘safer’, all whilst the parent is at work, is pretty scary. I really hope we will have learnt by then that real people and real experiences are important too – not just efficiency.

My ultra marathon top tips

rttkI’m going to be running Race to the King in just under two weeks time. 53.5 miles over the South Downs (and 1.5 miles more than I originally signed up for), from Arundel to Winchester.

Without going into too much detail about my training for the race (or lack of it), here are my top 12 tips for running an ultra, before I’ve actually run one. Let’s see how these compare with the reality of Race to the King next week.

  1. It’s all about the pacing. At halfway, you should be feeling good. If you feel yourself starting to tire before this point you’ve started off too fast. Whoops.
  2. Be ready for the killer third half-marathon. That’s the bit just after halfway. Mentally this is going to be the hardest one to take I think. But I’m ready for it. Really…
  3. Relax. Start off super slow, keep your heart rate low and enjoy it.
  4. Eat regularly. Particularly in the early stages when your heart rate is lowest and so it’s easiest to digest. Even the best fat burning machine is going to need some carbs to get them through it. If there are regular aid stations then use them rather than carrying all your own fuel for 50+ miles. That’s my plan anyway.
  5. Drink regularly. I can get away without drinking much over marathon distance, but I don’t want to let myself get too dehydrated for this one. Carry a drink with you, potentially with electrolytes in it, fill up at aid stations, and drink to thirst.
  6. Train slow. Slower than you might normally. Teach your body to burn fat as fuel.
  7. Train fast and short. Keep some short, sharp speed in your legs so you don’t lose too much strength from training slow.
  8. Train on hills. Lydiard hills for form and strength. Regular hills at slow paces for endurance.
  9. Get a good night’s sleep the night before the night before. Because on the actual night before, you probably won’t (but try to).
  10. Fix any niggles early on and don’t run through them. Stop to stretch or sort out your shoes. That minute spent early on will be time well spent in the later stages
  11. Remember why you’re doing it.
  12. Keep moving forward.

I’ll let you know how I get on in two weeks time!