Child-friendly cities benefit us all


Sam Williams is a landscape architect at Arup, currently leading a research project into how and why we should be designing child-friendly cities. Due out in July, it will aim to empower everyone influencing and engaging with the built environment, to integrate playfulness and freedom to explore as part of everyday life.  The research will be part of the Cities Alive series, which aims to engage people with the subject of creating liveable, sustainable urban environments. Sam is working with Tim Gill, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on play and childhood, who is helping to steer the structure and content.

Here, Sam writes for Play England about why we need to create child-friendly cities.

“After becoming a dad, I realised the enormous potential for child-centred activities such as play streets to bring people and places together. I set one up on my own road with the help of London Play, and it has been happening monthly for over a year now. It has been great getting to know all the people living nearby, and seeing the kids make friends. We invite the elderly neighbours, and always make sure there is tea and cake out.

“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.” – Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá

More than half the world’s children live in cities, and it is much more than just a backdrop to their lives. A city can have a huge influence on them and their experience of growing up, both good and bad. In return they influence the city, both through their presence and their absence.

Children’s health and wellbeing, the amount of time they spend playing outdoors, their levels of contact with nature, their ability to get around independently – these are all strong measures of how a city is performing, not just for children but for everyone. This is because the things that children want are fundamentally the same things that everyone else wants: safe streets, green space, clean air, somewhere to call home, and the freedom to be themselves. Creating a child-friendly city is about showing respect for human dignity.

To achieve it though we have to think very hard about the choices we make as designers, planners, policy makers, parents, and even as children.

There are many challenges to creating child-friendly cities, but the biggest, in the UK at least, has to be fear. And the fear that causes the most limits to be put on a child’s freedom is that of a child being hit by a car. The result is that children stay indoors in front of the TV, and their parents drive them everywhere. A child’s day can become dependent on when and where the driver has the time and inclination to go to. They are even driven short, walkable distances to school; the result is a vicious cycle of more cars, more accidents, more pollution at the school gate, and less time to spend outdoors walking, playing and talking with friends.

People can get used to there being no children out, and there can seem to be less reason to supply adequate play and youth facilities. Young people can find themselves with nowhere to go and nothing to do. They are often made to feel like criminals just for wanting to see their friends outside the home, as people mix up anxiety about criminal behaviour with actual criminal behaviour. Children and young people have a huge amount they could contribute through being engaged in the design process, and we should aim to work with them rather than just for them.

It is also very difficult for a child to form a clear picture of where they live when they are driven everywhere, which will have negative impacts on their sense of community, their wayfinding abilities and their road awareness, so they actually do become less safe at navigating the streets when they have to.

For parents it is a huge expense of time and money to always be driving from one scheduled activity to the next. The stress and guilt of trying to juggle parenting with work and other pressures could all be greatly reduced if children were more free to direct their own lives.

Cities might connect us to the wider world through art, diversity and culture, but something as simple as how many cars pass down a street each day will decide whether a child has friends they can visit locally or not.

The vast majority of people do not do enough exercise to keep healthy, and this is proving a significant burden on the tax payer and the health service, let alone impacting on their own quality of life into old age. Those who are too young to drive get around the city on foot, bicycle and public transport, so the street layouts and infrastructure need to be in place for that. If a young child feels confident navigating these then everyone, including the elderly and less physically mobile, will do too.

Major roads tend to cut through the more economically deprived areas, while the people who live there are less likely to own a car. This means that poorer children suffer the effects far more acutely and are far more likely to be killed by a car than their more affluent peers, while enjoying none of the benefits.

In light of all this it is clear that ideas which reduce our dependency on the car could give parents the confidence to allow their children more freedom, and would increase health and equity for everyone. A city where the young can move around freely is one where people of all ages meet, make friends and form the bonds needed to support both their own wellbeing and that of the community.

Having greater dependency on the immediate local environment means that a city which works for children and families is also one with lots of small businesses and attractions, and far less dependency on big out-of-town shopping centres. This results in a resilient local economy, jobs, and thriving high streets.

A happy, healthy population is also an economically productive one. Play is how children first start to develop active lifestyles. Getting these healthy patterns of behaviour engrained early on becomes of even greater importance as life expectancy increases.

Contact with nature is also very important for health and wellbeing, but the debate around children often focuses on the idea that a rural childhood is “better” than the urban alternative. This is neither based in reality nor of any use for providing meaningful natural experiences for the one billion children now living in cities. In fact, an RSPB study found there are higher levels of contact with nature among urban children than their rural counterparts.

Green space caters for a wide range of physical activities, and cities with lots of it have healthier citizens too. For instance, gardening and food-growing are great opportunities for young and old to do together and learn from each other. Street trees, parks and urban forests help provide nature, but they also build up a city’s resilience to heat and flooding. By thinking beyond the standard plastic playgrounds in this way we can start to imagine exciting spaces which not only provide play, community and ecology, but also make a city safer and stronger in the face of great uncertainty about the climate.

Around the world and across the UK there are many great examples of these ideas being put into practice and delivering what they promised.

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany is regarded as one of the most child-friendly places in the world. Its safe, pedestrian-friendly streets, multifunctional green space, and eco-principals all add up to an award-winning healthy place that works for everyone.

Rotterdam implemented a major child-friendly initiative to turn around the problems the city was having with people moving away to have families, which has been highly successful.

Across the UK there are hundreds of people doing great work. Charities such as Playing Out and London Play are doing fantastic things such as helping people start up their own play streets. Councils removing No Ball signs need congratulating. Play workers up and down the country are providing excellent opportunities and need our support.

“Powerful imagination has always been at the heart of changing streets and making them places for play and community.” – Hugh Barton, City of Well-being

Big change mostly comes about through lots of small coordinated actions. We have to take a holistic approach and join up efforts across a wide range of disciplines and industries to create the city we want to see. It is endlessly complex, but we need to be bold and positive about the vision we have.

Possibly the biggest challenge is persuading people that these ideas are worth spending money on, and finances are the stumbling block for a lot of projects. Without a clear understanding of how a city works it is very hard to make any progress. Working at Arup, we are fortunate to have integrated teams of landscape architects, urban designers, planners, economists, transport and more, all working closely together on projects around the world.

Like children, cities are always changing. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for their problems, and they both need understanding, compassion, and people who care about them.”






(1) Comment

  1. A comprehensive and accessible overview Sam – and thanks for the namecheck. Cities are complex entities, without doubt, but you are right to single out vehicles – both moving and stationary – as a huge influence on children’s experiences. The good news here is that child-friendliness goes with the grain of current urban planning ideas about the need to make cities less car-centric. My view – which I know you share – is that a child-friendly perspective can offer politicians a powerful way to reframe debates about how cities should change, and can build support for progressive initiatives. Looking forward to seeing the fruits of our labours!

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