In 2015, Erion Veliaj decided to try something different with his city. Elected mayor of Albania’s capital Tirana with 53.6% of the vote, he began to arrange regular meetings between local children and his senior staff. Once a month, high school students were invited to “take over” the senior administration and let public officers know what they wanted from their city.
“Once the administration started giving children – a third of our population – a third of our time, a third of our effort, a third of the decision-making and thinking, it really changed the city,” said Veliaj.
“Cities spend so much money inviting architects and urban planners and getting things that are defunct. They create great infrastructure – but there is no life.”
By focusing on making the city fit for children, Veliaj’s administration was able to revive a sense of optimism and civic pride. Neighbourhoods surrounding new areas of parkland designed and set up especially for children saw much-reduced levels of vandalism, and families who had moved abroad began to return to spend their summers in Tirana.
Many cities around the world are now realising that planning and running their cities for children can help them deal with the big challenges they will face in the next few decades.
“Child-friendly interventions can be highly effective in driving catalytic change”
“Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods“, a new report authored by planners and architects from the firm Arup, makes the case for child-centred urban design. By planning urban development for children specifically, cities can come up with the long-term solutions needed to face the issues which will challenge cities in the next few decades: pollution, overcrowding, climate change and inequality, among others.
“Child-friendly interventions can be highly effective in driving catalytic change,” said Samuel Williams, a landscape architect at Arup and one of the report’s authors. “Experiments and bottom-up action can help to overcome resistance to change, and turn temporary interventions into permanent solutions.”
“Cities Alive” collects case studies from across the world to show how child-centred planning can improve urban environments for all citizens. By anticipating how decisions for transport or infrastructure affect the way children live in the city, the authors suggest that urban planning can be made more sustainable and more effective.
“Lots of places are doing really interesting work, all around the world, and that’s reflected in our case studies,” said Williams. “After a month-long experiment that converted an inner-city neighbourhood of Suwon, South Korea, into a car-free zone, residents voted to impose speed restrictions, parking controls and car-free weekends beyond the pilot scheme.”
By focusing on examples from a wide range of contexts, the authors aim to show the applicability of a child-centred approach to every country, no matter its level of development.
“There are many different contexts, each with their own issues and obstacles,” said Williams. “The ones we have identified as most common are traffic and pollution, high-rise living and sprawl, social fears around the perception of crime, strangers and accidents, inadequate and unequal access to the city’s green spaces and public realm, and intolerance towards children, particularly teenagers who are often viewed negatively.”
“If you build it without them, they will not come”
Planning for children often makes the city better for everyone. The authors focus on building a “children’s infrastructure” that goes beyond distinct and annexed spaces for children and trying to understand how a child lives in the whole city. Through taking this perspective, many of the case studies have found they have improved cities for all their residents.
“It’s largely about awareness,” said Williams. “We are putting forward ‘children’s infrastructure’ as what a city should be implementing and delivering. This is to move the conversation on from playgrounds, and to reconceptualise how it is a city works for children. As an approach, it should be integrated into the planning, design and management of projects from the outset.”
“The whole concept of ‘build it and they will come’ is not necessarily true,” said Veliaj about his experiences in Tirana. “Because if you build it without them, they will not come.”
“Cities can and should be fantastic places to grow up”
With this awareness in place, practical steps can be taken. “We recommend a range of actions including first steps and quick wins. Number one for cities is to appoint a child-friendly champion. This is someone who can move across all departments, looking for opportunities to make things work better for children.”
Politicians such as Veliaj, who are committed to the children in their cities, believe this strategy can improve the living conditions of all citizens. It can empower citizens to make their own changes, and think critically about the efforts they can make themselves.
“My children, Theo 6, Ivy 3, are currently growing up in London,” said Williams. “While it has its problems – mostly traffic and air pollution, the access it gives them to diversity, nature and culture is great. Through running a monthly play street we have gotten to know lots of our neighbours, and the kids now have several friends on the same road. Cities can and should be fantastic places to grow up.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Anastos Kol)