Children should be at the heart of future cities

Sensemaking / Children should be at the heart of future cities

A child-friendly city is better for everyone, finds Duncan Jefferies.

By Duncan Jefferies / 14 Apr 2014

“Get these cars out of the way, we want to play!” a child chants through a loudhailer, as he and his young comrades march down a street in the Pijp area of Amsterdam. This remarkable scene comes from a 1972 documentary, which follows a group of inner-city Dutch children as they attempt to turn a busy through-road outside their homes into a play street. Adults in the area are both supportive and dismissive of the children’s plans. “All these cars are unbearable”, says one small boy, in an effort to explain their actions. “There is no space left. Thousands die in accidents and air pollution increases. Everything is devoted to parking. Why don’t we all ride bicycles?”

It’s a lament that many children could still voice today. Their need for space, for the freedom to play and socialise within their local environment, is often overlooked or ignored by city planners. Parental fears about their safety – both legitimate and exaggerated – can also lead to them spending the majority of their time indoors, unable to explore independently and develop the skills that will help them become healthy, well-adjusted members of society. Instead, many children are spending up to eight hours a day staring at a screen, according to some studies.

To prevent this from happening, and ensure that safe, healthy and well-educated children are a key part of urban governance, UNICEF launched its Child Friendly Cities Initiative in 1996. However, as its report ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ highlights, almost 20 years on, city planning still doesn’t take enough account of children’s needs. A number of other projects, such as the EU’s Cities for Children, also aim to highlight best practice and guide local government towards child-friendly urban planning. The focus on cities makes sense: every year the world’s urban population increases by about 60 million, and by 2050 around 70% of people will live in cities and towns. Cities, in other words, are the frontline in the war against childhood poverty, disease and restricted opportunity.

Crucially, a child-friendly city doesn’t just benefit the youngest inhabitants. As Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia, has said: “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.” Consider, say, the benefits of Peñalosa’s own efforts to transform Bogotá: while in office he helped create over 186 miles of bikeways, 1,200 new parks and playgrounds and the Bus Rapid Transit system that carries half a million passengers a day. It’s now a safer, cleaner, greener city for children and adults alike. As UNICEF director Anthony Lake has rightly said, it’s also important to remember that “when society fails to extend to urban children the services and protection that would enable them to develop as productive and creative individuals, it loses the social, cultural and economic contributions they could have made”.

In the West, the development of child-friendly cities tends to focus on the creation of parks and green spaces, safe and easily navigable streets, well-proportioned family homes and improved child services. But in the developing world, where one-in-three city dwellers live in overcrowded, polluted and unhygienic slum conditions, children’s lives can be vastly improved by access to health, sanitation and education services. Nevertheless, Kerry Constabile, an urban planning specialist at UNICEF, makes the point that cities also have much in common, regardless of where they are in the world. “In terms of child survival rates, it’s usually not about what city you live in, but where in the city you live.”

In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, 57% of children live in poverty – a greater proportion than in any other borough in England. The £7 million regeneration of the Borough’s Brownfield Estate is part of a wider plan to improve life for people in the area. It was recently commended in a survey by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and illustrates how both children and adults can benefit from child-friendly planning. The mostused routes on the estate have been turned into ‘green grids’, lined with grass and trees. The parking system has been revamped to make the streets easier for pedestrians of all ages to navigate. And several new play areas have been created, including a courtyard where children can play informally and mingle with other members of the community.

This last element – a traffic-free square or courtyard at the heart of a village-type neighbourhood – is a crucial part of any child-friendly environment, according to Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard, Founder and Director of the International Making Cities Livable Conferences, and a consultant to cities in the US and Europe on child-friendly communities and public space design. “There are three things that children need in their normal everyday world”, she says: “faceto- face social interaction with a community of all ages; direct interaction with nature; and the chance to develop independence at every age.”

Pedestrian-friendly streets, protected bike routes and good public transport links make it easier for children (and the elderly) to get around independently. Street trees, as well as neighbourhood parks and gardens within a ten-minute walk of where children live, are also vital for their development, and have the added benefit of improving urban air quality. Ideally, outdoor spaces should include a rich variety of natural features, such as streams, ponds and climbable trees. “Interaction with nature is important for physical exercise and health”, says Crowhurst Lennard, “but it also opens the senses, it sharpens them – hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch and so on. So it’s very important for developmental tasks, and also for cognitive development [for instance, through learning the names of trees, plants, animals, etc]”.

Opportunities to play safely outdoors with other children have never been more in need. The RIBA survey also found that in Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham and London more than one in five children are now obese. While in the US, around one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, greatly increasing their chances of developing diabetes and other medical conditions in later life. Without regular exercise and contact with nature, children are also more likely to suffer from metal health problems, as well as have trouble sleeping or concentrating at school.

In the past “we’ve done a better job of building [cities] for cars than people”, says David Driskell, Executive Director of Community Planning and Sustainability for Boulder, Colorado, and former chair of UNESCO’s ‘Growing Up In Cities’ project. But like the children of Pijp, many child-friendly schemes are reclaiming the streets for play. Playing Out Bristol, for example, is a community interest company that aims to promote after-school street play sessions – wheelie bins and road closure signs keep the traffic out for a few hours, with local residents acting as stewards. A community-led movement in the US known as Intersection Repair brings children and adults together to paint intersections, with the aim of making drivers more cautious; the bright, playful artwork on the surface of a road makes them question their ownership of the space, and whether children might be at play nearby. And in the Netherlands, special ‘woonerf’ (recreation) streets even give pedestrians and cyclists legal priority over motorists.

Such schemes run hand-in-hand with efforts to return inner-city neighbourhoods to more mixed functions, with low densities of family-friendly houses and flats situated alongside schools, child care centres, workplaces and leisure space. As well as making life easier for families by reducing the time it takes to transport children to good schools or care facilities, the hope is that this will prevent the ‘dead zones’ found in many urban centres outside of normal working hours. Driskell believes that there is “still a lot of work to do to recreate some of that family supportive infrastructure”, but says “some cities have really been at the forefront of trying to do that”, including his own hometown of Boulder, which has set up a project called Growing Up Boulder to ensure young people’s views on local transportation issues, child-friendly housing and even a youth-friendly farmer’s market are included in planning decisions.

Rotterdam is also worthy of a place on any child-friendly city list. Its own scheme saw housing corporations, project developers, district councils, parents and children collaborate to create more child-friendly housing (with a room for each child in the family), extended school activity programmes, and pavements with a minimum 10ft width on one side to encourage play. Containers full of roller skates, skipping ropes and go-karts were also placed in some neighbourhoods for children to borrow.

As with other child-friendly cities initiatives in Melbourne, Vancouver, Liverpool and Amman, children’s views were central to the development of the scheme. This ties in with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children should have the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, through any media they choose.

Children typically provide their opinions and ideas for improvements to their environment through drawings, walking interviews, photographs and by taking part in children’s councils. Like Boulder, Vancouver also operates an online site,, digitally engaging young residents in municipal decisions which affect their communities. By participating in this way, children don’t just benefit from an improved urban environment; they also grow as people and form strong bonds with their home city. As Driskell says: “It builds the kind of social capital and community that is part of a child-friendly city, and the feeling that they can make a change in the world they live in, be a steward of the environment, and work together with other people.”

In order to foster these kinds of opportunities in the developing world, UNICEF helped create Ureport, a social monitoring tool based on SMS messages, for young Ugandans. Uganda has the world’s youngest population, with more than half of its population under the age of 18. The tool aims to strengthen community-led development and citizen engagement by helping young people speak out on what’s happening in their communities, amplifying their voices through local and national media, and alerting local politicians about the issues their constituents face. Useful information is fed back to ‘Ureporters’, empowering them to improve their areas themselves.

In Kibera, Nairobi, where around two-thirds of the population live in crowded informal settlements, UNICEF is working with Map Kibera, by Open Street Map, on a youth-led digital mapping pilot program. A group of volunteers helped young people – particularly young women and girls – to create a digital map of their area, identifying vulnerabilities related to their health and protection. This kind of data is vitally important for bridging gaps in childhood equality, and ensuring no child is left behind.

“Really, the more desegregated data we are able to obtain on how children are living, in terms of the wide breadth of things such as respiratory health, water and sanitation access, but also play spaces and mental health, the better we’ll be able facilitate these things”, says Constabile.

The value of such projects is backed up by research from the UK Economic and Social Research Council, which has found that children are adept at driving sustainability projects, often contributing valuable insights and opinions that adults may overlook. Its 2009 study ‘Exploring the role of schools in developing sustainable communities’ claimed that children are keen to take on wider roles and responsibilities, helping to shape and improve their communities. “With their dynamism, energy and new ideas, children demonstrate considerable potential as agents of change”, says Dr Percy- Smith, a member of the research team at the time of the study’s release. “But as a society we neither encourage nor harness that energy and creativity. We have too little respect for the abilities of children and too many people feel that children either can’t or shouldn’t take a lead on change.”

Hopefully, in future, their opinions will be sought on an increasing range of subjects – not least the cities where many of them will one day raise their own children.

UNICEF says a child-friendly city guarantees the right of every young citizen to:

- influence decisions about their city

- express their opinions on the city they want

- participate in family, community and social life

- receive basic services such as health care, education, and shelter

- drink safe water and have access to proper sanitation

- be protected from exploitation, violence and abuse

- walk safely in the streets on their own

- meet friends and play

- have green spaces for plants and animals

- live in an unpolluted environment

- participate in cultural and social events

- be equal citizens of their city with access to every service, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, income, gender or ability


Duncan Jefferies is a freelance writer, and an editor for Green Futures.

Photo credits: Roger LeMoyne/UNICEF, 1000 Words/, Giacomo Pirozzi/UNICEF, meunierd/

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