The City of Utrecht Wants Every Home to Have a Playground Nearby

It has an ambitious plan to ensure play areas are no more than 650 feet apart.

Dutch playground
A playground next to a new housing development in the Netherlands.

Getty Images/Esch Collection

The city of Utrecht in the Netherlands recently announced an initiative to build playgrounds within 650 feet (200 meters) of every home. This would ensure that every child in Utrecht can play and get physically active on a daily basis. 

A Dutch news site reports larger play areas will be provided for neighborhoods, with smaller spaces created for younger children and sports facilities for youth. "In addition, the playgrounds should be designed [to be] as green as possible." 

Alderman Kees Diepeveen is quoted as saying, "With the new memorandum for play space, we are responding to the ever-changing need for play areas. We are going for a [space] that is in line with growth in the number of children in the city—greener, more playful, and climate-proof."

Treehugger reached out to Martin van Rooijen for comment. He is a pedagogical researcher and trainer in the field of risky play and playwork—a profession that sadly does not exist in the U.S. Having recently worked in Utrecht, he has plenty of helpful thoughts.

He says it's a good thing play is being prioritized. It is in keeping with the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31, which states, "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." 

The Utrecht plan pays attention to inclusive play, too, and establishing possibilities for disabled children. There are aspects of the plan, however, that van Rooijen fears are lacking. He tells Treehugger:

"In the plan it is stated that nature-based 'green' play will be stimulated; however, it is a pity that if children make their own forts in the bushes, these are not allowed, according to the safety guidelines, and it is stated that they will be removed. 'Only forts made of vertical upright branches may stay there temporarily.' How boring for children!"

Similarly, the plan caters more to parents' preferences than to children's inclinations toward risky nature-based play. In a paragraph called "Greening and Play Culture" (translated from the Dutch), the report "states so many reservations that it is almost impossible" for kids to play freely. Van Rooijen continued, quoting a line that says,

"'Parents do not always want their children to come home dirty, or are afraid of the risks associated with nature play.' Instead of challenging these perspectives, the municipality has chosen to adapt and design playgrounds that cater to those worries, which may lead again to boring playgrounds." 

The 650-foot limit sounds great, but van Rooijen is unsure if it can be realistically implemented. The guidelines say it cannot be enforced (presumably because there are buildings in the way), and it is permissible to deviate from this standard if there's a good enough justification—a loophole that urban planners may take advantage of.

Utrecht has 10 districts, and funds are in place to assess each of these districts to figure out how many children there are and where play spaces can be installed. Beyond that, the city has yet to figure out how it will pay for construction. Van Rooijen remains concerned that the plan won't be as impressive as it sounds.

"I think for now, this Play Vision is ... a policy paper that attracts attention with a nice sound bite about the 200-meter standard, but it remains to be seen if the young inhabitants of the city will notice anything change in their play environment in the coming years. I am a bit afraid that, by the time it happens, they will not be children anymore. It might be their children who get to roam in a fantastic natural play environment around every corner."

Hopefully, van Rooijen's concerns can be addressed early on in the planning stage and Utrecht will succeed at building its ambitious playground promise. At the very least, it's ahead of most other cities by having such a plan at all. Too often children are overlooked citizens whose needs are pushed aside to ensure adults get what and where they want to be as quickly as possible. That's not fair, and that is why Utrecht's plan is so unique and attractive.

Dutch news site AD says the proposed bill will be "available for inspection" at the municipality of Utrecht from June 29 onward. Residents will be able to comment on the plan until September 17, 2021.