The Play Spaces Strategy as ‘the police’: Can policy be democratic?

In rewriting a chapter, I am jettisoning its examples. This is one of the examples spliced together with a more recent conceptual musing. 

In the chapter ‘Politics, identification, and subjectivization’, Rancière (1995: 63-64) draws a distinction between emancipation, as equality, and policy, as the process ‘of governing… [as] it entails creating community consent, which relies on the distribution of shares and the hierarchy of places and functions.’ Policy here is used the way that we find ‘the police’ used in many other works in or translated into English. Although this is a marginal text in the overall scheme of Rancière’s work, what is clear is that policy (or ‘the police’) does not emancipate. Policies impose an order.

The City of Port Phillip’s Play Space Strategy 2011 can be understood as an example of ‘the police’. As with council plans more generally, this strategy is an example of striving for a comprehensive approach. For example,

The Play Space Strategy contains a set of Infrastructure and Design Guidelines that describe Council’s position regarding all aspects of play space development, including such things as provision of shade, seating, water fountains, play infrastructure and fencing.’ (CoPP Ordinary Meeting 10/10/11, report 4, 1.6- emphasis added)

Of course, much is not visible in the Play Space strategy. A strategy is an imposed order and order is only ever imposed in contexts of contingency. However, alternatives are presented as accounted for. The choice of the title‘Play Space Strategy’, in contrast with the preceding playground strategy, provides a particularly clear illustration of this.

The Strategy reflects an evolution and increasing sophistication in Council’s approach to play spaces with a focus on provision of ‘play spaces’ rather than playgrounds and of spaces that act as social gathering spaces that offer respite from surrounding urbanisation.’ (CoPP Play Space Strategy 2011: 4)

By outlining Council’s approach as one that has improved by considering ‘spaces’ rather than ‘grounds’, the choice of title is justified as sensible. Although the very act of justification makes visible that other names may have been possible, the alternatives of playgrounds or ‘social gathering spaces’ are named, counted and included within the chosen title. The naming only leaves space for alternative accounts it already dismisses as inferior. The Strategy includes an audit of what is claimed to be all existing and potential play spaces, suggesting that every space that can be sensibly considered in this context is rendered visible. Along with the use of maps in the document, physical space is also represented in a way that suggests nothing [that matters] is left out. Of course, only certain spaces were audited and marked on the map.

The potential for what is provided in the space to bring out particular activity is demonstrated by the presumption that ‘creative’ play works better with custom equipment – equipment that looks a particular way. Creative play could be understood as play which challenges definitions of ‘play’ or boundaries between those actions which are play and those which are not. Yet it only makes sense to challenge such a division if it is presumed to already exist. Furthermore, (more valuable) creative play is distinguished from other activity/ play. Most significantly, there is a distinction between that equipment which encourages ‘creative play’ and that which does not. It is ‘creative’ equipment which brings about creative play, rather than the creative capacity of people to appropriate common structures for ‘creative’ ends. Instead of a capacity people have and enact for themselves, creativity is represented as something that is to be brought out of people.

The totalising approach is easy to ridicule in such strategies. However, the imposition of an order in which children need to be instructed how to play by the correct ‘space’ seems to be a stultifying, and so non-emancipatory, approach (Chambers 2014; Rancière 1991). Yet is it anti-democratic as a policy?

To represent politics and the police as opposed to each other is an over simplification. Chambers (2013) argues against understanding politics and the police as opposites and describes the police order as always being the context for politics. Citton (2009: 139) describes it as a register which can be ‘worked in’ (and broken out of by politics). Therefore policy should potentially be the context for democracy. If this is the case, is my analysis of The Play Spaces Strategy too critical?



Chambers, S., 2013. The lessons of Rancière, New York: Oxford University Press.

Rancière, J., 1991. The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Rancière, J., 1995. Politics, identification, and subjectivization. In J. Rajchman, ed. The identity in question. New York ; London: Routledge, pp. 63–70.


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