Scaling: Designing cities for kids can change millions of lives

New toolkits aim to open up streets to children across the world

“If you could experience a city from the height of 95cm – the height of a 3-year-old – what would you change?”

This is the question posed to city leaders, planners, architects, and innovators across the globe by Urban95, a €30million initiative by the Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF) that aims to improve urban spaces for young children.

Most areas of social policy, from public health to education, directly affect children to varying degrees. As rapid urban population growth has thrust urban planning to the forefront of global challenges, urban childhood has increasingly become a key component. How then, are cities making children a priority in their planning?

Streets for Kids

Child-friendly urban planning is an emerging field, one which recognises the fundamental importance of the built environment as a whole in helping to shape a child’s development and prospects.

A report by Arup, for example, highlights five challenges faced by urban children: traffic and pollution; high-rise living and urban sprawl; crime, social fears, and risk aversion; isolation and intolerance; and inadequate and unequal access to the city.

BvLF is involved in supporting various projects aimed at scaling policies geared toward kids and their caretakers.

One of them is Streets for Kids, part of the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI).

The GDCI is run by the New York-based National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), which focuses on equipping local officials and communities with the knowledge, tools, and tactics required to improve urban mobility and change the role of streets in cities to accommodate the needs of its most vulnerable users.

Ankita Chachra, Senior Program Manager for GDCI, said that the Street for Kids team is developing a “guidebook” highlighting different ways world cities have reimagined and redesigned their streets make them work better for children and their caregivers.

Called Designing Streets for Kids, it is slated for publication later this year and “is envisioned as a permission slip for city technicians to think innovatively about their streets,” said Chachra. It aims to inspire leaders, inform practitioners and empower communities while capturing international best practices for urban childhood.

“A bulk of our work is in low-and-middle income countries that are often working with constrained resources”, said Chachra. She claims the guidebook “will serve as a powerful tool for advocating the ‘Why’” and “provide practical knowledge around ‘How’ and ‘What’”.

After the guidance, the next phase is to work directly with cities around the world on design and implementation projects. Following a call for applications for cities to join the program, twelve selected cities will receive workshops and training.

This will be based on curricula from the forthcoming guidebook, with content tailored for each specific city. Four of those cities will additionally receive technical support, which Annie Peyton, Senior Program Associate for GDCI, said “will be process-based, working with cities to identify and overcome roadblocks to implementing Streets for Kids-focused demonstration projects.”

Pontevedra, in the northwest of Spain, is included in the guidebook. Interventions the city has employed include restricting vehicular traffic on many of its downtown roads and creating shared or pedestrian-only streets. It also employed a 30 km/h city-wide speed limit, and launched the “Camino Escolar” program that encourages children to walk to school without adults.

“The combination of physical changes to street design and active mobility policy makes Pontevedra’s urban streets safer, more accessible, and more inclusive to children and caregivers,” Peyton said.

ITCN Guidelines

Another development is the Infant, Toddler, Caregiver-Friendly Neighbourhood (ITCN) Framework and Guidelines.

The guidance is the result of a partnership between BvLF and Smart Cities Mission, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India, to assist Smart Cities in India to construct an ideal neighbourhood for children and caregivers.

Published this March, the report consists of a set of five documents with the objective to create and sustain safe, accessible, inclusive, playful, and green spaces.

It includes a policy framework and design guidelines; a policy workbook for institutional structure for inter-agency coordination and technical reviews; 65 indicators including Service Level Benchmarks (SLBs) for monitoring project implementation; and a best practices compendium that draws on global and Indian design examples.

The guidance equally lists six major challenges that neighbourhoods pose to ITC well-being. It highlights those which are uniformly car-centric, non-pedestrian friendly, have poor access to public facilities, see regular threats to personal safety (with women being especially vulnerable), lack investment in and maintenance of public facilities, and prioritise of spatial aesthetics over functionality.

The ITCN guidance is intended to help train city officials in the planning and administration of baby-friendly neighbourhoods in India.

Rushda Majeed, BvLF’s India Representative, said that the objective is “to enable Indian cities, especially the 100 smart cities, to use this guidance in planning, management, and implementation of various projects ongoing under the mission.”

“The guidelines emphasise data, indicators, and evidence-based decision-making as critical tools for city managers — municipalities often may not have the know-how to collect and analyse city-level, and in particular, neighbourhood-level data for this demographic. The guidelines are a push in this direction,” said Majeed.

In addition to the Streets for Kids and ITCN guidances, BvLF has worked together with the Gehl Institute on the Urban95 lens toolkit. Based on Gehl’s Public Life tools, Urban95 lens aims to measure the urban experiences of young children and caregivers in cities.

As each project indicates, tackling urban childhood is necessarily a part of responding to the challenges of urbanisation. The focus needs to be directed towards building a shared vision for urban neighbourhoods and cities as a whole, and developing child-friendly design into account can help initiate this shift.

Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, understood this when he said: “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.” — Amar Diwakar

(Picture credit: Patrick Chin/Deathtothestockphoto)


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