Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 [1
] states that “every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts”. Play is essential in promoting interaction and cultivating social values that influence the shaping of society. Having a well-designed play environment for the age range is important in engaging children and youngsters in active sports and recreational activities [2
]. Play spaces can be outdoor or indoor. They are further characterized according to ease of access, level of supervision, provision of play equipment, age specific activities, landscaping, and inclusivity. The following definition of place space is adapted from UK and US experiences:
A comprehensive definition of play space refers to permanent structures for sports and recreational activities by children. These structures can be staffed or unstaffed, indoor or outdoor, and in public or private grounds. The structures can have formal play equipment or non-equipped areas such as landscaped areas and playing fields that allow for a variety of recreational and physical activities. Some examples include public play areas or playgrounds in parks, basketball courts, football pitches, kickabout areas, multi-use game areas, as well as schools, nurseries, and other educational settings that provide space for physical exercise.
It is believed that children with and without special needs will learn to have comfortable social interactions with one another through playful interaction. To ensure that children’s right to play is not an extra luxury subsequent to considerations of other rights, play space design must be an essential component in the urban planning process [4
]. A clear understanding of the current provision of play space (including quantity, quality, and spatial distribution) and potential sites in consideration of various selection criteria (such as transport connectivity, ecological balance, equality and inclusion, usability, and sustainability) is key to proactive planning of future play space. Studies have shown that children prefer play environments with landscaped nature over non-vegetated and artificial settings [5
]. Whereas adults and adolescents make more frequent visits to outdoor public places with trees and vegetation, these more natural environmental settings are also found to support children’s imaginative play and the development of positive relationships [8
]. It has thus been proposed that early childhood centers and primary schools should have close access to natural outdoor recreational spaces to enhance learning and social intervention [10
]. There are no universally accepted levels of physical activity among young children [11
]. The US National Recreation and Park Association recommends 120 min of physical activity per day although the levels do vary between boys and girls in different physical activity context and degrees of independent mobility [12
Before the provision of public play spaces in a built environment, children played on the streets, in parks, or semi-public areas (i.e., little niches in the urban public domain). In many countries, both developed and developing, children are never an important target group in urban planning. There are many explanations for the oversight caused mainly by contradictory attitudes towards children’s play that range from a waste of time to a mechanism to benefit learning and development [13
]. A further marginalization of outdoor play space in urban planning occurred with increasing influence of private developers in the building process and growing pressure to build in high densities in cities where vacant land in the public domain is scarce and expensive [14
]. There are also rising parental concerns for children playing outdoor in an urban area because of fears of social dangers, traffic risks, and safety of play equipment [15
Standards for the construction and provision of play spaces (including parks, playgrounds, open space, or recreation facilities) in an urban setting vary from place to place. Aside from the issue of quality, the primary concern of a play space is its accessibility measured in terms of the proximity between home and play space or the percent of population served, including those with limited mobility. For example, the US National Recreation and Park Association [16
] indicates that 7 in 10 Americans can walk to a play space that has at least one accessible route for people with disability. The UK National Playing Field Association [17
] states that a play space for very young, early school age, or older children should be accessible within 1-, 5-, or 15-min walking distance respectively (corresponding to 100, 300, 600 m respectively). Furthermore, 0.8 hectares of children’s play space is needed for every 1000 people, regardless of disability. There are also other factors of consideration besides accessibility, including landscape diversity, facilities affordability, and activities provided in relation to site usability and popularity [18
In a densely populated megacity like Hong Kong (HK) where lands in small inner-city centers are in considerable demand, every bit of space counts. This shortage of urban land has given rise to urban corridors and pocket parks as areas for rest and relaxation. Many of these play spaces or recreation areas are not planned but ‘leftover’ areas interspersed amongst planned and larger constructions. However, the HK 2030+ planning aspiration advocates to improve children’s play needs and the emotional wellbeing of the population [20
]. It establishes new standards for home separation distances to open space (within 400 m) and country parks (within 3 km). It also recommends a clear open space standard of a minimum of 20 ha per 100,000 persons, which computes to 2 m2
per person (apportioned as 1 m2
per person for district and local open space respectively). However, user groups of secondary school students or teenagers are not considered by these planning recommendations.
Play space in HK is provided by three major organizations, namely Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), Housing Authority (HA), and Housing Society (HS). Play and recreation facilities for children in public space is primarily provided and managed by the LCSD. The LCSD managed play space accounts for about 70% of the public play space provision. The other 30% is provided in non-LSCD venues, such as in public rental and subsidized ownership housing estates managed by HA and HS. A first step towards estimating potential users of play space is to examine the spatial distribution of children based on census and related statistics. The study examined quantity and quality of play space from the spatial perspective to inform planning directions. It focused exclusively on identifying both indoor and outdoor public play areas (operated by the LCSD, HA, and HS) that provide open access to children and where parental or adult supervision is necessary in their use. It would not consider play areas operated by private companies or private housing estates and schools. Despite the deficiency in play space accounting, this compiled data set will form the basis for further spatial analysis of sufficiency of play space at the district level by considering children population and their geographic distribution.
The WHO recommended minimum open space standard is 9 m2
per person within a 15-min walk from home [29
]. The current practice of 2 m2
per person of open space (which includes play space) in HK is far behind 5.8–7.6 m2
for major Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Singapore [30
]. Figure 1
and Table 1
, Table 2
and Table 3
show that playgrounds of HK were reasonably distributed in populated areas in 2016. It was also suggested through subjective perception (Figure 2
) that users were generally satisfied with the service provision. However, environmental audit at a few selected sites, as illustrated in Figure 3
, suggested possible lack of consideration for disabled access. Notwithstanding the commitment of the HK government in enhancing play space, the right of children with disabilities to play is not being fulfilled as a result of the insufficiency of inclusive playgrounds. Except for the inclusive playground in Tuen Mun [31
], local playground facilities have been criticized to be all of the same pattern, not diversified enough, and uninteresting.
More creative approaches and designating play space in future land use development as opposed to passive planning is needed to improve the situation. For example, alternative play spaces are needed to improve play conditions while awaiting planning policies to adapt or develop. Studies have shown that children are highly creative in finding ways and alternative places to have fun, such as vacant lots [32
]. There is also heightened awareness that healthy child development should involve reasonable and meaningful risk-taking by children [33
]. In HK, safety of a play space is a primary if not utmost concern and it is also unlikely that alternative or vacant lots are available given its compact settlement pattern. A possible solution besides creating indoor place spaces is to build elevated playgrounds and public green spaces in intermediate levels or roof-tops of high-rise buildings.
The use of GIS methodology has enabled considerations of factors not normally included in the evaluation of play space. Existing provision of play space can be analyzed against potential demand at the district and region levels to identify mismatches in different dimensions of need and risk. The criteria for defining need and risk in this study recognize that a variety of factors can influence children’s environmental affordances and these factors can change over time as children grow and develop. In this study, a playground is considered safer if it is situated away from major roads (i.e., highways and primary roads) and its air quality better if it is located away from roads based on high annual average daily traffic (AADT) counts. Although children’s knowledge of the world and their ability to act accordingly have been shown to be conditioned by distance [34
], the qualitative distinction between relations of near and far has remained unclear. Here, 50 m was selected as the separation threshold between a playground and other urban features (such as roads or land use types) given the very compact city configuration of HK whereas 300 m (equivalent to 15–30 min of walking) was used as the accessibility threshold between playground and home locations. These distance thresholds are informed by research/practice and they can be adjusted easily in a GIS setting pursuant to changing circumstances.
Planning is largely a practice guided by rational scientific approach but with little consideration to cognitive, experiential, and emotional aspects [35
]. The loss of public spaces in contemporary urban planning, in particular the public realm for children, has been documented [36
]. With the more traditional landscapes replaced by spaces for commercialization and development, people’s emotional attachment to places is likely marginalized and weakened. A major challenge in considering issues of urban development and community-building is to cultivate a sense of place and belonging to empower civic responsibility for urban sustainability. Consequently, it is critical to develop stronger attachments to places, especially in children, through provision of open space for them to explore independently, to socialize, and to associate identity.
The study is not without its limitation. Our survey participants from convenient sampling represent parents and children with lesser form of disabilities who may have conformed to or become more tolerant of their entitlement over the years. In contrary, an earlier study by Knowles [38
] concluded that many children in HK are being excluded from play because facilities in the city are insufficient and not meeting the needs of children at different ages, especially those with disabilities. Our GIS analysis was hampered by not having access to detailed data about size and type of playground [39
]. A clear definition of play space similar to that practiced in the United Kingdom1
is needed to improve spatial analyses and better assessment of sufficiency or deficiency levels of the service provision.
In our attempt to examine the convenience of play space for children of HK, we note that the living environment is largely a product of planning policies that rarely cater to the real needs of children. It is not sufficient to just meeting benchmark standards of open space, say 2 m2 per person. While the size requirements of the services should be given first consideration, the location, and distribution of various services must be considered in whole as opposed to by piecemeal adjustment. When play space provision and actual needs of children cannot be systematically related, inclusive provision is hardly addressable. In this regard, children of HK shall continue to be deprived of their rights to quality play space when natural play space is taken over for buildings, streets, car parks, and motorways and when play space allocation must give way to availability of space, financial consideration, and administrative convenience.