This opinion piece was written by Adrian Voce OBE. He is President of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities and author of Policy for Play – responding to children’s forgotten right (Policy Press, 2015). If you’re interested in becoming an opinion contributor, take a look at our opinion page.
Of the four billion people now living in urban areas, nearly a third are children. With this ratio continuing to grow, how towns and cities respond to the needs and aspirations of their young citizens should be a major policy issue.
Yet, with neither electoral nor economic power in their own right, children and young people are routinely overlooked in the big decisions that shape their world.
Addressing the challenges of increasing urbanisation was one of the major themes of the UN’s Habitat II conference of 1996, which identified the particular needs of children as a big issue and highlighted the responsibility of local as well as national governments in safeguarding their rights.
This in turn led to the UNICEF Child Friendly City Initiative (CFC), which supports municipalities to fully adopt and implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child within all relevant policy areas. But commentators, such as the independent researcher Tim Gill, have called the progress of this agenda “glacial”, having “very little influence on the built form of cities”.
Focusing on the built environment as a factor in children’s quality of life, wellbeing and development has been a necessary tangent of the children’s rights movement. Outside the big statutory services — education, health and social care — children and young people’s needs, perspectives and aspirations are routinely overlooked.
“Given the right opportunities, children and young people can very much participate in the planning processes”
Spatial development, planning and infrastructure decisions tend to be dominated by the needs of commerce, transport and traffic. In cultivating the acceptance of a responsibility to children within the professional sectors and policy contexts that shape the physical public realm, the CFC movement is slowly changing this; embedding the crucial notion of children as citizens, with needs for incremental degrees of independence.
This means more pedestrian zones, more radical traffic calming — and parking — safer routes to school and play areas, more cycle lanes, parks and green spaces and more playable, child-friendly public space. The movement has also demonstrated that given the right opportunities, children and young people can very much participate in the planning processes that produce designs that work for such developments.
The progress of this agenda may have been “glacial” since 1996, but there are signs that it is beginning to take hold. Cities as different and far-flung as Ghent, Tirana, Leeds and Bogotá, among many others, have each embraced the CFC concept as a central part of their strategic development.
“The liveability and sustainability of human settlements are fundamentally socio-economic issues, and the physical design of the public realm is only part of the challenge”
Architect and researcher Dinah Bornat, currently the Mayor of London’s design advocate, believes the message is finally getting across that, and as the former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, observed, “if we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people”.
Bornat says CFC advocates are now “pushing at an open door”, but some caution is needed. It is in fact a misconception that the CFC movement, certainly as defined by UNICEF, is primarily about the built environment. The liveability and sustainability of human settlements are fundamentally socio-economic issues, and the physical design of the public realm is only part of the challenge, inseparable from issues of homelessness, increasing poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.
Indeed, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 (the most widely adopted international treaty in history, with only the US still to sign), is clear about the cornerstone principles that should underpin all children’s initiatives: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the inherent right to life, survival and development; and respect for the child’s views.
Adopting a child-friendly city approach that neglects such principles would breach the convention. This is no mere academic distinction. It comes sharply into play in many policy areas — housing, for one.
Rotterdam, for example, has adopted its own interpretation of the CFC approach to the economic regeneration of downtown areas that had become rundown and unattractive as the city’s industrial hub declined along with its status as a major port.
“A “child-friendly city” that benefits some children and families at the expense of others — and only creates greater inequality — is not child-friendly at all”
But a critical analysis of the Rotterdam program from 2013 found that these plans discriminate against poorer families, with “child-friendly” designs only serving to price them out of their traditional neighbourhoods to make way for more affluent ones. The research concludes that because “child-friendly” in this case means “middle class-friendly,” it is to be expected that the poor become further marginalised.
More research is no doubt needed before we can dismiss Rotterdam’s policy as simply the gloss on a gentrification program that discriminates against poorer families; the city authorities argue that their relatively high social housing stock means that all socio-economic groups benefit.
But the problems of gentrification and escalating, increasingly exclusive house prices are familiar ones across the crowded cities of the developed world. Nothing that fuels this process can claim to be for children’s rights.
Policymakers, public institutions and the professional sectors working for them should understand that a “child-friendly city” that benefits some children and families at the expense of others — and only creates greater inequality — is not child-friendly at all. — Adrian Voce
(Picture credit: Pexels)