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03.12.2020 - Ausgabe: 6/2020

The role of the housing industry in child-friendly neighbourhood development

By Claudia Neumann (Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk e.V.)

© Villa_Honighut

Easily accessible residential playgrounds are an important element in the playable city network. Residential playgrounds are particularly important for younger children. Their room to roam only expands over the years and even stagnates if they are not able to play in residential playgrounds in early childhood. For some years now, however, the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk (German Children’s Fund) has been observing with great concern that many owners of multi-family dwellings are no longer fulfilling their obligation to provide play opportunities on their own property to the extent required by law. As a result, not only is a significant amount of available space being lost, but the pressure to use the remaining public playgrounds increases many times over. Consequently, we saw the need to conduct a nationwide study (www.dkhw.de/spielplatzstudie) to find out what room for manoeuvre local authorities actually have to demand compliance with the obligation to build playgrounds and what proposals can be made to improve the situation both quantitatively and qualitatively. The results of the study presented back in 2018 showed that there are considerable differences both in the legal foundations of the individual federal states and in municipal practice. This led to the submission of major regulatory proposals that contribute to boosting the significance of residential playgrounds within the framework of child-friendly urban design. The study was made possible thanks to the competent cooperation of Dr. Felix Brandhorst of Kronberger Kreis and the trusting partnership with the federal state of Bremen, with which the German Children’s Fund has been providing more play opportunities in the city for more than 20 years through the joint «Spielräume schaffen» promotional scheme. 


Study on the construction of playgrounds by non-public clients and developers in German cities  

The study deals with the regulations and administrative practice of the building authorities in large German cities regarding the obligation to build children’s playgrounds in the context of new residential construction. This involved comparing the applicable regulations for the construction and maintenance of private children’s playgrounds in 18 municipalities in eight German federal states, which covered two-thirds of all 26 large cities with over 250,000 inhabitants from half of Germany’s federal states. The study investigated the six subject areas of rule, exceptions, inspection, compensation, quality, as well as problems and need for regulatory action from the municipalities’ point of view. This was due to the fact that the regulations for the construction of playgrounds by non-public clients and developers are laid down at both state and local level. The basic obligation to provide playgrounds is already included in § 8 of the Musterbauordnung (Model Building Regulations) of the Building Ministers’ Conference (ARGEBAU), which in § 86 (1) No. 3 provides the legal basis for local building regulations and has been incorporated by the federal states into modified state law. The study focused in particular on the design of these local municipal laws. The state building regulations as well as the municipal statutes for private playgrounds show differences in comparison, which lead to the fact that the practice in the individual municipalities investigated differs greatly. The results of the study also point to certain overarching conditions that shape developments in all large cities. It became clear, for example, that the fulfillment of the obligation to provide playgrounds places increasingly high demands on the clients and developers in the urban setting in the face of rising land prices and increasing densification of built-up areas and is therefore coming under pressure. In this respect, however, urban municipalities are also faced with the question of how they can incorporate private playgrounds into child- and youth-friendly urban planning, and what significance they assign to non-public children’s playgrounds, i.e. residential playgrounds, in this context.

The fundamental importance of residential playgrounds is based on the social requirement that parents with small children should have a play and recreation area at very short distance from their home and that children should be able to play there on their own, within calling distance and sight of their parents. One of the key aims of this study is to stress the importance of residential playgrounds for child-friendly urban development in the sense of a “playable city”. 


Key study results  

Obligation: All 18 municipalities investigated require the construction of private playgrounds in housing in the case of multi-apartment buildings. In many metropolitan municipalities, however, the obligation to provide playgrounds is currently under great pressure. In addition, there are a large number of exceptions for multi-apartment buildings in the case of one-room apartments or special-purpose buildings (e.g. apartments for senior citizens). The “row house privilege”, as it is termed, is proving to be just as problematic as buildings that were erected before a certain cut-off date or where there is a public playground in the immediate vicinity. 

Inspection: In most municipalities, playgrounds are generally inspected as part of a mandatory monitoring of the state of construction. In the majority of cases, however, private playgrounds are usually not inspected at the final acceptance stage due to the permit exemption procedure and the simplified building permit procedure. 

Compensation: Almost all municipalities have no binding regulations for compensation payments. Only four municipalities allow, in individual cases, for clients and developers to make an individual compensatory payment to the municipality on a contractual basis if no playground can be built on the building site. Municipalities that applied financial compensation regulations in the past assess them positively in retrospect and as an important approach for the present. Only two municipalities generally provide for compensation payments if no playground can be built on the building site.

Quality: Most municipalities set minimum size requirements. A minimum play area of 25 to 100 square metres, on average of at least 43 square metres is required. These minimum requirements increase depending on the number of apartments. 

In all 18 municipalities, playgrounds must be located on the building site or in the immediate vicinity on a suitable plot of land whose permanent use for this purpose must be guaranteed under public law. In almost all municipalities, further location requirements apply, e.g. regarding the calling and sight distance to the apartments, accessibility, safety and prevention of hazards or a sunny and wind-protected location.

Regulations on playground equipment quality only exist in the 12 of the 18 large cities investigated that have municipal playground statutes. These cover, for example, suitability for small children, recommendations for the installation of different play areas, specific equipment, structuring by planting or also specifications for the creation of lawns, ground modelling and play areas.

The municipal statutes of half of the municipalities refer to DIN provisions, which, however, predominantly cover the quality and safety of playground equipment. Regulations on design quality or maintenance (e.g. replacing play sand) and repair are inadequate and only exist through the municipal playground statutes. 


Interim conclusion: The study showed that despite a large number of different regulations, only a few municipalities formulate quality requirements for the construction of private playgrounds that go beyond safety standards. Only municipalities that have separate playground statutes refer to DIN 18034. Hamburg and Regensburg are setting a good example and have even produced a special brochure for private clients with very clear design examples. 


Participation: The participation of children and families in the planning of private playgrounds is only explicitly recommended in one municipal statute.  

Problems and need for regulatory action: Based on the feedback from the questionnaires and interviews, the following picture emerged:

  • in some cases lack of acceptance by residents/neighbours; 
  • often insufficient communication between clients/developers and local authorities; 
  • pressure on the obligation to provide playgrounds due to lack of housing, rising land prices, lack of building land, cramped inner city areas with partly high space requirements;
  • increasing use of exemptions;
  • increasing practice of formal compliance with the obligation to provide playgrounds and the construction of “alibi playgrounds”;
  • too few quality regulations and inspections, too many exceptions, lack of financial compensation.


Comparison to public playgrounds: In comparison, public playgrounds are of particularly high quality due to: 

  • more extensive regulations and inspections;
  • the expertise of municipal parks departments in the planning, construction and maintenance of playgrounds; 
  • the participation of children and young people in the planning of public playgrounds;
  • the integration of the planning and design of public playgrounds into participation-oriented concepts for the development of a child- and youth-friendly city, e.g. children’s playground development planning;
  • different provisions for use of private and public playgrounds.


Overall assessment  

There is a significant correlation between urban development, local regulations, inspection activities of local authorities and the quality of private playgrounds. However, a differentiated picture emerged: in many places, the quality currently depends on the client’s/developer’s individual requirements. Municipal statutes are the key tool for influencing quality. Rarely are there quality requirements that go beyond safety standards.

Recommendations: From the point of view of the children’s rights organisation, it is important to implement the existing regulations and monitor compliance with them more consistently than in the past. Hence, a summary of the recommendations is given below: 

  • systematisation in the sense of nationwide effective minimum quality requirements for private playgrounds to ensure that small children can play near their homes under supervision;
  • describing and communicating quality requirements: specification of detailed equipment and design variants to choose from;
  • granting exemptions from the obligation to provide a playground only under strict conditions and upon application; 
  • charging an appropriate compensation fee for the construction of public playgrounds in justified individual cases; 
  • control of implementation, maintenance and repair as well as sanctions in case of infringements;
  • registration of private playgrounds in a municipal land register;
  • planning of private playgrounds by garden and landscape architects; 
  • promotion of cooperative solutions to incorporate the expertise of parks departments; 
  • complete orientation to DIN 18034 (e.g. promotion of playground qualities such as a variety of stimuli, designability, near-natural design);
  • participation of the future residents in the planning and creation of the playground – completion of the facility therefore only after the families have moved in.


Conclusion: The results of the study provide important indications that a negative development in terms of quantity and quality of private playgrounds caused by the pressure situation described above can be counteracted with a mix of detailed quality regulations, controls of implementation and maintenance, a restrictive practice of granting exceptions and creative solutions. 


Outlook: The study with its legal classification, the nationwide comparison and the recommendations from municipal administrative practice provided the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen with important findings, which were incorporated into the revision of the 1st local law in 2018, which had been considered long overdue. Many of the recommendations were incorporated into the draft that was presented and discussed in detail at a nationwide symposium in Bremen in autumn 2019. Following its completion in February 2020, this very promising draft is now undergoing the final political coordination process and, once adopted, will hopefully inspire nationwide imitation.


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