How a trip to Copenhagen inspired Tel Aviv’s child-friendly reforms

City officers were inspired to pilot schemes spontaneously across their departments

Sometimes you have to see something is possible before you can do it yourself. For Tel Aviv’s city officers, it took a trip to Copenhagen to understand that each of them, no matter their office, could do something to make their city better for young children.

“I think it was a very big turning point for us,” said Bosmat Sfadia-Wolf, Tel Aviv’s manager for the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban 95 Initiative, an international movement working on improving cities for children under the age of three. “In Copenhagen, we took the time to really think about what we can do when we get back: what does it mean in our own field; what’s our responsibility; can we take action?” she said.

Since that trip, officers across Tel Aviv’s government have changed the way they work. Inspired by Copenhagen, regarded as one of the most child-friendly and liveable cities in the world, they have embarked on a series of pilots aimed at transforming city life for children and their caregivers, with strong results. The transformation acts as a model for cities looking to achieve popular reforms across their departments in a short space of time.

Widening the horizon

Two years ago, the city of Tel Aviv began working closely with Urban95 in an effort to change the way the city served young parents and caregivers — and the children in their charge. As more and more young families chose to settle in the city proper, rather than in the suburbs, the authorities became aware that the built environment, and the city’s services, weren’t adequately providing for young families.

“Even ten years ago we weren’t used to seeing young families downtown,” said Michael Vole, director of the Tel Aviv municipality’s community & development unit. “More and more, in this past decade, people are saying, ‘I want to stay to live here and raise my kids’, so the challenge of adapting the city for young families became more and more real.”

Sfadia-Wolf’s aim was to get each and every government officer to think about how they could bring about these adaptations, no matter their speciality. Rather than parcel off the task to a specific officer or team, the point was to get departments to experiment with small reforms, adopt what worked and drop what didn’t.

“We’ve said many times that the best innovation is just copying something that we never knew before”

A trip to Copenhagen in late 2017 brought about the shift. City officers from across departments, from the head of parks to the chief engineer, attended. By focusing the minds of the city’s chief officers on one topic, and showing them examples of how it could be done, it gave them inspiration to do it themselves.

“It became viral, in the sense that they just started working on it,” said Vole. “We were updated about some things that were happening in retrospect —they didn’t ask us to take them hand in hand, they just started building new parks from their own budget and creating different programs from their own resources.”

Reforming mindsets

Since then, the city has set up toy sheds within parks and gardens, which children can use to borrow toys to play with in the area, rather than have to carry them through the streets. It’s installed new sandboxes in parks with removable lids to stop animals using them as a litter tray when not in use.

Many of these tweaks have been lifted from other cities. “We’ve said many times that the best innovation is just copying something that we never knew before,” said Vole. For Vole, the most valuable learning from Copenhagen was how to work experimentally, like a startup trialling new low budget ideas and working across departmental boundaries.

More substantial reforms have taken place in healthcare and service provision.

The city recently announced it would provide comprehensive healthcare services for children under the age of three from its existing municipal community centres.

Normally parents would have to travel longer distances to reach medical centres for often routine procedures. After a piece of analysis revealed that at least one community centre was far more likely to be within a 15 minute walking radius any given home, the city decided to provide them.

Getting the scheme to work required the city’s social services department and community department to work together. So far, it’s been piloted in six community centres. “It’s one of the cross-collaborations that’s so important,” said Sfadia-Wolf. “It’s definitely succeeded in increasing the proximity of these services and bringing them closer to parents.”

Digital toddlers

The city has also widened its existing schemes to cater for children and caregivers. The city previously introduced a card-activated digital platform to provide tailored information to its residents as well as provide online access to services, called Digitel. Residents select what specific information they’d like to receive, and from then on receive updates directly.

Earlier this year, the city launched Digitaf, an adaptation for parents and young children. A pun on digital and Taf, meaning toddler in Hebrew, every child born in the city is automatically sent a Digitaf card, providing access to information on children’s services and events throughout the city.

“It gives you a one-stop-shop for everything you need to know in the city about early childhood,” said Sfadia-Wolf. Because public kindergartens only cater for children over the age of three, finding activities for younger children to do can be difficult, especially for poorer families. By highlighting free events, the aim of Digitaf is to help those parents who can’t afford private childcare.

Scaling up

Since that trip to Copenhagen, Tel Aviv has achieved notable successes: the aim now is to scale them. The city aims to bring healthcare services for under-threes to all thirty of its community centres, while expanding its service provision to make sure that it caters for low income families.

The long-term aim is for the city to lock child-friendly considerations into its planning process. It even plans to begin to provide childcare for children under three through building kindergartens of its own.

“That’s a very long term process,” said Vole. Though the national government doesn’t provide the service, the city’s commitment to a child-friendly approach requires that it address it. Their work up until now shows that a simple change in mindset can set big reforms in motion. — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Flickr/TLVshac)

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