A city in Belgium is trying to become the world’s friendliest for children, turning itself into a place where young families want to stay rather than move out when they have kids. Ghent, in Flemish-speaking Flanders, is a port city with around a quarter of a million inhabitants.
Apolitical spoke to the woman looking after this ambitious project, Elke Decruynaere, the city’s top official for children and young people, overseeing some 3,000 civil servants. Decruynaere was inspired to take up public service by her brother’s experience of disability, and she talked to Apolitical about how the streets look through a child’s eyes, how children want different things from the city than adults; and what a city can and can’t learn from what’s working elsewhere.
What conflicts do you see in redesigning the city for young children?
You see a contradiction between the users of the city – those who come to shop, to work – and those who are using the city to live in. So mobility is a struggle, between choosing parking places and choosing playgrounds. The users want to go into the city centre with their cars, and we say no, you can’t, you have to park your car outside the city and take another kind of transport. We’ve chosen the side of the children, but this policy is quite controversial.
So does redesigning the city for children entail an idea of what the city is for?
Yes, it’s that the city is not just a place to shop, or a place for tourists, or a place to go to work, but a place where a lot of people, also little children, live. Mostly people think of a city as not a child friendly place, and one of the things we’re confronted with is that when people have children, they decide to leave. That’s something we really want to counter.
Another part of that is something that wasn’t a topic ten years ago, but is now getting a lot of attention: air quality. That’s one of the reasons why people were saying that with children you should move to the countryside, but now people want the cities to be healthy too.
Do children want different things from the city than adults?
We asked children what they want and first, was less traffic, less cars. That’s a thing that some adults want, but for children, the number one question is safer traffic where they walk or cycle. Number two is more green spaces and number three is more opportunities to play.
Ghent talks about becoming the most child-friendly city in the world; what does that mean?
It’s a way for us to say we’re really ambitious. I don’t think one city has it all, I think the smartest thing is to look around the world and learn from all cities.
Can you give an example of what you’ve adopted from another city?
We’ve just started something called parklets, which we first saw in Washington. You take a parking space and place some benches and a table in it, so instead of a parking space, you create a public space.
And you put it on a container so you can also move it when you need the space for something else – for example during the Ghent festival, ten days in summer time, when we need all our streets and public spaces.
How easy is it to transfer good ideas from one city to another?
When it comes to public space it’s easy, but it’s more difficult to compare cities on the deeper issues. On child poverty and homelessness, there are a lot of differences between countries, because migration policy differs a lot, the education, welfare systems differ a lot. Racism differs from country to country. It’s a huge problem in Flanders right now and luckily there are other cities in Europe where that’s not the case.
What have you learned about actually involving young children in making plans for the city?
You need a very concrete project. Policymaking is usually too abstract or too long-term for children, so you have to ask them to participate on their level. You have to ask their opinion, but you also need the people who are designing the buildings, the public space, to be aware of what children need and what is important to them. Those planners have to think it’s important to have child friendliness as part of their plans, so people working in sport, economics, the big projects, really believe in making the city more child-friendly.
We made it part of our city’s mission statement in 2013, so it’s not only a project of mine, but of all my colleagues. The mayor is very enthusiastic about making Ghent the most child-friendly city in Flanders, Belgium and maybe even the world. We’re really ambitious about this.
If you could make any change to the city for young children, what would it be?
I would make all the school playgrounds into green adventurous spaces and keep them open after school and in the vacation time. I’d like to see people in the city take responsibility for those spaces and use them as their gardens. As more children move into the city, we’re investing millions and millions into new schools and childcare – but during the weekends and vacations, they just need space. I would really use all the space that there is – even not just public space, but space that belongs to someone and isn’t being used – and make it used all the time.