the PBI: ‘Pink Bicycle Indicator’ for play-friendly streets

Driven to put fingers to keyboard in response to Tim Gill and Marc Armitage talking about ‘the Popsicle test’ on Tim’s blog, I finally got round to writing up something about the PBI:

The PBI: ‘Pink Bicycle Indicator’

is one of (what I consider to be) my key ideas, first presented in  a workshop at the Play Wales’ conference  ‘Spirit of Adventure Play’ in 2007, PDF available on request.

The PBI:  my contention is that when a small pink bicycle (there are very few large pink bicycles) of the kind favoured by parents for 6 year old girls, is spotted lying on its side on a pavement, it tells us many lovely things. It tells us things like:

•  the owner is a young female child,  between 5 and 8 years of age,

•  who is allowed out on a bicycle in that street without adult supervision.

•  the area is a low street crime area.

I haven’t developed a crisp academic description of the PBI, so let me just say that its proposed application is limited to housing areas. A better name might be something like ‘PBOPCTHI’, for

‘Pink Bicycle On Pavement Close To Housing Indicator’.

The key point can be summed up like this: if I were a dad with a young family, looking move to somewhere child-friendly (and therefore human- friendly), and I spotted a PB, that area would immediately jump to the top of my list.

Sure we can disagree about individual PB sightings – maybe it was a stolen bike abandoned by a villain, maybe a parent rushed in to answer the phone and forgot to bring it in, but  I think my point still stands. The PBI isn’t the only indicator, but it covers a heck of a lot.

And notice the overwhelming advantages the PBI has over other indicators:

•  it doesn’t involve observing children in the street, an activity widely viewed as suspicious by nearby adults, sometimes leading to threats of violence with or without the calling of police

• it is quick – it doesn’t involve hours and hours of observations

• it is easy to capture and document- a photo of the bike and part of the surrounding area, geo-tagged on your smartphone will do the job in a few seconds

• parents ‘get’ it – it goes straight to their perceptions of their children’s safety outside the home

• it challenges comfortable preconceptions: ‘experts’ are often perturbed by it – those playworkers in my workshop really didn’t like the implication that their AP was in an area were younger children were not freely playing out and was therefore not meeting the majority of play needs in the area.

To recap the background briefly: in environmental sciences, there exists the notion of ‘indicator species‘. [that there, in highlighted text, is a link to the wikipedia entry] One such is the skylark. If you want to measure the ‘health’ of a field, say, you could run batteries of tests on the soil, – expensive lab tests, bug and microbug counts and so on, or you could simply look at how many skylarks nest on the site. Skylarks only nest in areas with high biodiversity, free from chemical residues from pesticides and the like. And the skylark is not just an indicator species, it is a ‘super indicator species’ – one species acting as a proxy for many species. The reason being that skylark’s diet is specialised to a narrow range of relatively rare insects and plants which will not be found in fields that have been recently sprayed.

{The notion of proxies is also important here. Respected and common-place proxies should always be examined with suspicion – such as the use of GDP to measure ‘prosperity’ – a well-worn example these days.  Most proxies will be less than totally satisfactory, depending on your viewpoint or agenda. Two examples of concern to the play field are the Tellus survey used by Ofsted, and the ONS’ well-being indicators (currently out to consultation until Jan 23rd).  My personal view is that both are unfit for purpose. Tellus suffers from a glaring over-reliance on a proxy: if I recall correctly, the answers to questions put to children aged 10-13 in a classroom by teachers, are used to gather data on the views of children aged 7-13 on a range of topics including outdoor activities out of school (I don’t think play is mentioned specifically). Just because a paper-based methodology is deemed unsuitable for gathering data on 7-9 year olds is no reason to not even make the attempt to gather their views! I won’t labour the point about the problems of identifying children’s needs via ‘consultation’ here, the point is – beware of proxies.}

So the PBI, like Tim Gill’s later broader notion of ‘the child as indicator species’, is a ‘super indicator’ of – well, I coined the term’ ludodiversity’ semi-humourously, in order to make a point to adventure playworkers about the narrowness of their provision in relation to the majority of unmet play needs in their neighbourhood, but more generally, I would describe the PBI as an indicator of the ‘child-friendliness of area of housing’. A PB in the middle of a school playing field is not likely to be an I of child-friendliness: it would  more likely be evidence of petty theft.

What I like about these kinds of indicators is both their ‘attractive graspability’ and their implicit world-view, by which I mean the notion that if somewhere is child-friendly it is also likely to be older people-friendly, people with disabilities-friendly and so on. Hospitable for humans. A habitable habitat.

People will keep repeating ‘children are our future’ – I do wish they would stop. Maybe they could start saying something like ‘children are the measure of our present humanity’, instead.


Amended today, Tuesday, May 15, 2012, to explain that in the above I have glossed over the distinction between a canary indicator and a skylark indicator which is remiss of me. Luckily Adrian Voce has done that for me here:

2 thoughts on “the PBI: ‘Pink Bicycle Indicator’ for play-friendly streets

  1. Whilst I delight in sharing your view about the importance of indicators and indicator species, I wonder a little about your assured statements about the compatibility of child-friendliness and older-person/disability friendliness.

    This is not because there is any ‘in principle’ reason why the needs of these three groups should not have much in common, but rather because my own experiences (as an older and disabled person) suggest to me that the chaotic delights of a really child-friendly micro-environment might not be easily compatible with the needs of, or be navigable or survivable by, a stumble-prone blind person!

    Be that as it may, I would rather take my chances with such an environment than participate in a random exploratory game with trucks and buses!

    So you are probably right after all!


    • Thanks. Space and time don’t allow me to unpack what I was pointing to properly just yet, but I will just say that child-friendly doesn’t axiomatically imply chaotic. Child-friendly environments tend to be ‘buzzy’ rather than chaotic. You know, zone of complexity, edge of chaos and all that, read me book.

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