Despite Policies, Many City Apartment Complexes Don’t Have Good Places for Children to Play

Playing in the apartment complex where she lives isn’t really that fun, says Matilda Stanley.

There, hundreds of apartments and houses surround a concrete courtyard that is railed off into sections, with concrete planters of neat green shrubs and terracotta pots of tiny trees.

It’s not made for kids to play in. So instead, Matilda, 11, goes to nearby St Anne’s Park to skateboard with her friends.

She’s not sure exactly what she’d like to see in the apartment block, she says, looking down at the concrete courtyard. “It would be nice to have a playground here. Maybe some swings.”

The block where Matilda and her parents live in Clontarf was built in the early 2000s, and government policy today is to encourage compact city living, and apartments that are for families with kids as well as singles or those without.

Yet when it gets down to detail, many planning applications for big blocks of apartments seem to take little account of the needs of children.

Down the Line

It’s council policy to promote “the optimum quality and supply of apartments for a range of needs and aspirations, including households with children”, says the current city development plan.

New residential development should be flexible to allow for changing circumstances, it says, “and sufficiently spacious with all the necessary facilities to provide a level of residential amenity attractive to families with children on a long-term basis”.

Children’s recreational needs have to be considered as part of communal amenity space within apartment schemes, say the Department of Housing’s design standards, which take precedence over the council’s rules and which developers have to comply with.

Children play everywhere, and any private open space should take that into account, they say.

Schemes with 25 or more two-bed or bigger apartments should have play spaces of about 85–100 sqm for children under six, with equipment and seats, within sight of the apartment building, the guidelines say.

Schemes with 100 or more two-bed or bigger apartments should also have play areas of 200–400 sqm for older children and young teenagers, they also say.

For developments that are specifically build-to-rent, though, the guidelines give more flexibility as to how much amenity space has to be provided – and space for different arrangements to be agreed by the planning authority and the developer.

Among the more than 10,000 build-to-rent apartment blocks granted permission in the last three years are 225 homes on Hole in the Wall Road in Donaghmede, which were approved in July 2019.

Among the amenities noted in the An Bord Pleanála’s inspector’s report is a recreational space of 133 sqm, and a children’s play space of 36 sqm, both in the basement.

“I have doubt about its use and value as a recreational space being a basement room without access to natural light, although access to daylight would not be a prerequisite to accommodate the snooker and table tennis facilities indicated,” said the inspector in his report.

“I consider it wholly unacceptable as a children’s play area and not to be in accordance with the provisions for children’s play” under the department guidelines, he wrote.

“In this regard, the scheme does not cater for the needs of children’s play, including for older children and teenagers in terms of external space,” says the report.

The inspector recommended that the appeal and planning application be granted but suggested a condition that before the developer start work, they submit to the council “full details and drawings of proposals for the appropriate provision of children’s play facilities for children of all ages” – in line with the design standards for new apartments.

“To provide for an adequate standard of development in the interest of residential amenity for future residents,” was the reason given.

In the end, An Bord Pleanála rejected the appeal – which meant that the application was granted under the original conditions set out by Dublin City Council, which didn’t include any mention of extra considerations around play areas.

Dublin City Council didn’t respond to queries sent Thursday as to whether or not any conditions around play were taken into account when granting permission for the application.

In November 2018, Midgard Construction Limited was also granted permission for a build-to-rent complex of 172 homes within Chapelizod, which included, alongside other amenity space, a children’s play area in the basement of 29 sqm.

Dublin City Council granted permission for that, but noted in its grant that the general amenity area should be bigger, and the play area should be “more functional” and “provide for natural daylight and direct outdoor access for the whole area”.

Midgard Construction Limited haven’t responded to queries about the developments.

A Space to Play

In February, Matilda Stanley was chalking out a hopscotch grid on the ground close to her family’s apartment in the Clontarf complex.

Her dad, Karl Stanley, popped his head outside to check on her, he says. “I saw my daughter, in tears, washing the paved area outside the block.”

The complex’s caretaker had told her to scrub it off, she says. “Cus it looked kind of messy,” says Matilda.

“In his opinion,” says Stanley.

Says Matilda: “I thought it was good.”

Meanwhile, last October, the property managers in the complex where Catherine Legras lives in Kilmainham sent out a newsletter, asking if residents could take her children away from the apartments during the day to play.

“The noise levels from the children playing has reached an extremely loud level,” says the newsletter. “We all have to understand that a majority of residents are working from home.”

Legras has a day job and can’t take her kids to nearby playgrounds during the day. “It was quite a strange request,” she says.

She says that she has told her children, aged seven and nine, that they have to be quieter when playing with the handful of kids in the block. “But we’ve never forbidden them from playing. It’s the only thing they have.”

“I think it’s very hard for kids to hear that neighbours are not happy with them, that they’re not allowed to play,” she said.

Design or Rules

Legras says she thinks her apartment block is a nice environment for kids. They play games on a grassy hill that slopes towards the Camac River and hide-and-seek around the four buildings.

“I think nowadays, we wouldn’t have this garden. You could easily build another block,” she says.

She wouldn’t add a playground as there are some nearby, she says. As long as her kids can use the garden, it’s enough for them, she says, even if it wasn’t necessarily intended for kids.

Legras says it’s more the rules she takes issue with. Apartment rules should take everybody into account and their situations, she says.

Before the pandemic, Legras hadn’t heard complaints about children playing on the grassy hill, she says.

For Stanley and his family in Clontarf, both the apartment rules and the design of the complex seem hostile to children.

There’s no explicit rule against drawing with chalk, says Stanley. But house rules say residents have to make sure the common areas are kept clean and tidy.

“It’s an absolute mystery to me why a child’s need and right to play has to come second to some desire for tidiness,” says Stanley.

“You’d have to be a pretty miserable human being to see a little kid drawing on the ground and think, ‘This needs to stop’,” he says.

The property managers didn’t respond to queries about the incident.

Since she was told to scrub up the chalk, Matilda hasn’t really played out in the apartment block. Not many kids do, says Kali Dunne, Matilda’s mother.

Nobody spends time in the social areas even though hundreds of people live in the complex, says Dunne. “There’s not really much to do. There’s no benches, there’s nowhere to play or sit. No playground.”

Dunne says the layout of the complex seems designed to stop socialising and meeting neighbours, says Dunne.

“It’s hard to run into people,” she says, because people go straight to the underground car park, and the entrances to the apartments aren’t close to one another.

The family used to live in London in a block where kids played freely and residents could barbecue – which is also against the rules here, says Stanley.

Children have a right to play, says Stanley. “I grew up in Dublin, and then it was totally normal to play out on the road. You can’t do that anymore, there’s too many cars, it’s too dangerous.”

The Department of Housing’s current apartment guidelines say that the noise that play areas – particularly play areas in central courtyards – can generate, can “diminish residential amenity”, and this should be considered by designers.

It Could Be Different

Children need to play outdoors, says John McLaughlin, a Dublin architect and former director of architecture with the Dublin Docklands Authority.

“In order to develop they need to be able to test themselves, test their muscles, test their ability to climb, to slide, to fall,” he says.

“Where are they going to do that? If it’s going to be feasible for people to live in cities, we have to provide these things for people,” he says.

The needs of kids aren’t always considered by developers, says McLaughlin. They have to consider how many kids will live there, and what different age groups need.

Supervision for young kids, and distance from adults for teenagers, he says. “It’s complex to cater for everybody.”

Some large developments might be able to provide lots of different types of play areas for kids, but for others, they need to be available in the neighbourhood, he says.

Eoin Carroll, policy and communications manager for Co-operative Housing Ireland, said that playgrounds should be outside of apartment developments rather than inside, in order to ensure longevity.

Young children’s playgrounds could start being used by teenagers if there aren’t younger children moving into the apartment complexes, he says, which could be solved if the playground is public.

Private spaces aren’t conducive to community, he says. Planning applications should instead offer to pay for a public area that would be managed by local authorities, he says, in order to avoid issues around indemnity insurance.

On Grand Canal Dock, Michael Ingle says his apartment block is perfect for accommodating kids to play.

His two children play frequently with a group of six other kids in the courtyard, he says.“They’ve grown up together.”

The playground in the private courtyard has a slide, a climbing frame, a roundabout, swings. It’s beside offices at the end of the courtyard, away from the apartments.

The kids play chasing, tag and scoot on rollerblades and scooters all around the courtyard, and there’s space to kick a ball around, he says.

McLaughlin says the apartments in Grand Canal Dock were required to have provisions for children’s play areas by the Dublin Docklands Authority, which addressed the different scales of developments.

“I’m grateful. It’s safe and secure,” says Ingle. “I don’t know what they’re doing out there most of the time.”

However, some neighbours have occasionally complained about the noise of the playing, says Ingle, especially since the start of the pandemic.

“I can understand why they would be bothered. Perhaps I would be bothered if I didn’t have kids,” he says. “But it’s communal living. You have to put up with things you might not like.”

Playgrounds benefit everyone in the apartment block, says McLaughlin. “The adults can get to know each other as well. It’s not just the children who make friends – everybody makes friends.”

If apartments are being designed with kids in mind, then conflicts about noise can be anticipated, he says.

Studies show that social distance is reduced due to children meeting in playgrounds and school, he says.

“It’s like the same thing that people stop and talk to each other about their dogs or something,” he says. “It’s one of the things that bring people together.”

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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