“It’s been pretty mind-blowing to be honest.” Sam Williams, a consultant at the planning firm Arup, was shocked by the response to a report he co-authored in late 2017 on how to make cities more child-friendly. His niche piece of research ended up being the most downloaded report on the company’s website.
Urban planning, which aims to make places friendlier for children, is exploding in popularity: in city halls and in the mainstream press. “It’s been one of those moments where I think we almost might be pushing at an open door,” said Dinah Bornat, director of ZCD Architects and an advocate of child-friendly planning.
But while ever more cities are experimenting with child-friendly policies and designs, advocates within and outside government continue to face opposition from sceptical politicians and senior officials. We spoke to those pushing the movement to find out what the obstacles are, and how they can be overcome.
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Canaries in the coalmine
Senior people in city government don’t always see why there is a need to modify public space for children. Mayors and public servants are judged, and returned to office, on “bigger” issues such as their economic record or whether the trains run on time. “It is hard to advocate for children and young people, because they don’t have a natural voice,” said Bornat.
Despite this, Bornat managed to convince the mayor of the East London borough of Hackney to commit to making the borough child-friendly by 2026. Local government will help manage public space for the benefit of children, while encouraging developers to build open spaces for them to congregate and play.
In a research project conducted in 2016, Bornat demonstrated that the approach improves lives. “We were able to show we could move away from anecdote and towards actual data and outcomes,” she said.
Bornat and her team analysed housing estates across England, mapping their layout and scoring them for their accessibility to children. They then observed how children used the space.
“If you can get someone to listen and they’re interested, then you can run with it”
They were able to show that more open spaces, with safe thoroughfares, led to children playing more. But also, in the estates where children had space to play, social use of that space — congregating outside, for instance — by all ages was 50% higher than in those that didn’t.
Because of results like this, planners often frame children as an “indicator species”: their use of space indicates its general openness and attractiveness.
“We’ve found that people respond really well to that message,” said Williams. “We’re talking about the benefits to everyone by focusing on the needs of a child. For a lot of people in the built environment world, it’s the first time they’ve heard that.”
Giving voice to kids
Finding a way to express children’s desires is also important for building political support. Often, governments are receptive, but they need opportunities to act. “Local authorities and politicians have a wider interest in how their developments might be contributing to the lives of their constituents,” said Bornat.
In the Canadian city of Hamilton, Laura Ryan, a local community developer, used cameras to help make the case for a redesign of a park. Her “photovoice” strategy involved distributing cameras among children from one of the city’s disadvantaged areas, and asking them to take pictures of the parts of their area they most used. They were then asked what they wanted to change, and their answers were presented to the mayor.
Having the children point out issues was welcomed by local government as it allowed them to focus on issues that would get buy-in from residents. “Anyone can walk into a neighbourhood to see a need, but it takes a person in that place to prioritise it,” said Ryan. “We worked together to see the need, then on where to start.”
Using children’s contributions to heavily influence planning is becoming more widespread. In Antwerp, Belgium, before architects draw the first plan for new play areas children are consulted about what they want from it. Ultimately, when presented with the choice of how to make a place better for the people who use it, it seems politicians will take it.
Make the case
Cutting off access to roads to increase children’s room to play, or helping children to hang around particular areas, can be vote losers far easier than they are vote winners. But by presenting a body of evidence, and helping to articulate the views of children, advocates can help to convince politicians that it’s worth the risk. According to Bornat, at the end of the day, “if you can get someone to listen and they’re interested, then you can run with it.” — Anoush Darabi
(Picture credit: Flickr/Dan Atrill)