The mayor of Bagota Columbia, Enrique Penalosa, 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.” The Cities Alive (2017) report from ARUP suggests that the way children move and interact with the built environment can tell us a lot about the health of the neighbourhood.
The amount of time children spend playing outdoors, their ability to get around independently, and their level of contact with nature are strong indicators of how a city is performing, and not just for children but for all city dwellers. Perhaps uniquely, a child-friendly approach has the potential to unite a range of progressive agendas – including health and wellbeing, sustainability, resilience and safety – and to act as a catalyst for urban innovation. (Cities Alive, 2017, pg 7)
There are some key principles to explore when examining whether or not a city is good for it’s youngest citizens. However, the way children interact with their neighbourhoods vary from place to place, and approaches to design, infrastructure, placemaking, and local laws need to be adapted for specific contexts. So, what should we be thinking about when thinking of the wellbeing of children in the neighbourhood?
When considering the wellbeing of children, we start to place more emphasis on things like traffic, congestion, footpaths, open space, pollution, and public transport. Tim Gil says:
This shrinking of the domain of childhood is a side-effect of wider social changes. As car ownership and use increases streets have become busier and can be unfriendly, uninviting places for pedestrians of all ages. Both the quality and quantity of local green space has been in decline for decades, a trend that has only recently begun to reverse. With parents in the UK working longer hours, their children are spending more time in childcare of one form or another. When they are at home, their parents keep them under a tighter rein because of fears (justified or not) about the dangers that await beyond the front door. (Tim Gil, 2008, in National Children’s Bureau, “Space-oriented Children’s Policy”)
Cities Alive (2017, pg 13) identifies five challenges that need to be addressed when considering the wellbeing of children in the city: 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.
If we do not address these challenges they have deep rooted impact on all our wellbeing. Traffic congestion and car dependancy increases the risk of people, not just children, being hit by a car, while also contributing to noise and air pollution. Car dependancy and congestion results in people of all ages being away from home longer, and in turn feel like family-time and recreation time is reduced. As a result, people spend less time with family and with others in their neighbourhood to the point where many do not even know their neighbours. This impacts personal wellbeing, and reduces social connection and belonging. Families can even wind up feeling disconnected and isolated from one another, let alone their neighbours and what is happening in their neighbourhood.
Fear of crime and an aversion to risk reduces a child’s independence, and can go onto impacting feelings of anxiety, isolation and disconnection in adults also. A lack of child-friendly, open and green spaces reduces a child’s ability to be socialised and play outdoors, and when older children are neglected and feel like there is no place for them to belong, they feel isolated and in some cases resort to delinquent behaviour. This increases societies intolerance of that age group and, in turn, increases the isolation, disconnection, and marginalisation of young people.
In Australia, the low-density suburbs have been seen as the more desirable neighbourhoods for raising children for a number of decades. There is more space to build larger houses, have a yard, and all at a cheaper cost of living per square meter of living. However, just like cramped high rise living with limited access to open space is not be beneficial for children, so too car dependant low density suburbs are not meeting the needs of children, and ultimately adults, either.
Often developers in the suburbs build as many houses as possible on the development site, with very limited infrastructure. This produces a catch-22, where these kinds of suburbs produce car dependancy and therefore because suburban families are car dependent new developers continue to build more car dependant neighbourhoods. A lack of footpaths, a lack of open space, and communities that are suspicious of one another due to people not knowing or interacting with their neighbours, are challenges of modern suburban living over the last 30+ years in Australia. The answer, I feel, is to produce urban and suburban neighbourhoods that are diverse, have mixed density, with high, low and medium density residential and commercial lots, that are connected with well-planned open public spaces and interconnecting paths for foot and bike traffic.
Perhaps ironically, I particularly feel that commercial and business infrastructure within suburbs is required to make the suburbs more child-friendly. By creating infrastructure for work, and play, in the neighbourhood, with interconnecting paths and bike trials, we are able to reduce the need for adults to work outside of the neighbourhood. This reduces the length of time taken to commute, and even reduces the need to commute by car. A lack of cars reduces congestion, and makes the neighbourhood safer, and also allows for more social interaction in the neighbourhood as people live where they work. These same paths can help to provide links used by children who are going to school, sporting facilities and open space.
These kinds of cities are being created in newly developed, well planned, communities on the urban fringe of Melbourne, where I live. However, there are also examples of cities around the world who are redeveloping their cities to become more child friendly. But all of these changes start at the hyper-local level.
Placemakers are key as communities examine and listen to the neighbourhood, to determine how child-friendly they are. Where do children feel safe, or unsafe? What stops children playing outside? What in your neighbourhood is attractive and good for children? Consider where kids already play, or want to play, and then work to make that place safer and more accessible. Consider the footpaths and routes that children might use to get around and work to make them safer. Consider how to reduce or slow traffic, and where child-friendly crossings are placed. Consider how to encourage neighbours to get to know one another and the children in your neighbourhood. Consider how to encourage and support local business and job opportunities.
Well designed cities are mixed, diverse, connected, safe, and good for all who live there. To echo Enrique Penalosa once more, “If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”