Child Centric Cities for a Better Future

When cities are planned for children, distances to amenities are shortened, making distances more walkable, more bikable and improving overall accessibility.

Ira Sanyal
6 min readNov 14, 2016
Street Hopscotch, Sydney, Australia | Photograph: Yanidel

Given the current state of the world, children seem to be our only hope. And while we hope for better times, we are responsible not only for the lives children are living right now, but also the ones they shall be living in the future. And we owe them more. We owe children the opportunity to be heard, to be engaged, to dream. And we owe them places where they can do so irrespective of where they come from.

The United Nations’ Child Friendly Cities Framework for Action translates the process needed to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by national governments into local government processes, providing a universal reference for adaptation of child centric policies into local conditions. However, putting policies successfully into action requires community effort. Which is incomplete without children’s enthusiastic involvement.

Bogota mayor, and urban activist Enrique Peñalosa whose plans to turn parking spots into places for play has been unanimously welcomed, says that children are an indicator species, and building a successful city for children, results in having a successful city for all people. Child centric cities are safe cities based on proximity and free mobility. Where affordances in the environment are maximized, and all children have the opportunity to actualize the affordances presented to them. Children’s involvement isn’t vital only for post execution/assessment stages but all preceding stages as well.

Children participating in Placemaking, Halifax, Canada | Photograph: Anna Ramsay

A part of WHO European Healthy Cities Network, Belfast Healthy Cities, devised Child Friendly Places Action Plan for a child friendly city, based on research in collaboration with the children of Belfast. Children of various age groups were part of planning workshops, surveys regarding the issues in their localities and child friendly pop-up events at the city center. This initiative helped create a model of strategic engagement with children, and understand their expectations from the city, which were simply that their city be greener, calmer and safer, wishes which if realized could benefit all.

There is increasing evidence showing that putting children at the center of the planning process, has positive outcomes. Indian organization Humara Bachpan (Our Childhood) which advocates child led development in low income communities, works with children to create aspirational maps, which are detailed maps of their existing localities in ideal conditions as per their understanding. Drawing these maps has helped children develop their analytical skills and city planners utilize their untapped spatial intelligence.

A map of a neighbourhood made by Fifth Grade Students in collaboration with artist-educator Rabeya Jalil.

Bachon se Tabdili (Change Through Children) a similar initiative by a group of Pakistani artist-educators in the city of Karachi, enables children to develop creative languages to visualize their experiences of the city. It aims to re-envision public space in the city by highlighting children’s experiences and allow adults to re-discover public spaces and their potential for socio-cultural exchanges through children, who in the absence of state assigned public spaces carve out spaces of their own in city neighborhoods by transforming ordinary places into places for play. Since underprivileged children are the most excluded stakeholders of any city, understanding their needs and expectations are very important. Children invariably come up with brilliant solutions that adults would simply overlook.

The dissociation from human scale as a symbol of urbanity has resulted in most of today’s built spaces not being detailed or designed with consideration for children’s eye level, scale or individual abilities. Public spaces are being designed with the assumption that all children shall be accompanied by adults and shall also be under constant adult supervision. Notions that work into designing such spaces, also design the attitudes of adults toward children and their freedoms. When safety is not a given, children’s opportunities are curbed. Bringing children to the center of the city-making process to address their needs requires their willing engagement and participation. And that is where having a playful approach towards civic engagement helps.

Freiburg Bächle, Freiburg, Germany | Photographer: Irene Ruscalleda

With rising parental concerns regarding pedestrian safety, Oslo’s Agency of the Urban Environment set to work on making walking to school safer with children and created the mobile app Traffic Agent, which takes a gamified approach to collect data from primary school children based on their collective knowledge regarding road maintenance needs. Rebuilt crosswalks, fixed sidewalks, trimmed foliage improving crosswalk visibility, are some examples of its visible outcomes. Seeing the effect of their participation in the city-making process gives a pivotal boost to children’s sense of responsibility as a citizen. The app is part of the city’s eventual plan to ban private cars from the city center by 2019, encouraging cycling, walking and public transportation.

Such initiatives allow children to explore the world at a healthy pace and go outdoors more often, but most importantly, make children aware of their agency in their environment. When cities are planned for children, distances to amenities are shortened, making distances more walkable, more bikable and improving overall accessibility. Planning primarily for children also ensures increased access to greenery, especially open green spaces. Having more spaces to play, means more opportunities for socio-emotional development.

However designing cities for children, does not mean creating special secluded spaces in the city for them. Planning approaches that treat segregation of ages/classes/abilities or any other human aspect as a selling point, assume that designating different zones for different people, reduces chances of possible conflict and therefore positively impact either of them in the long run. Reality suggests the contrary. Projects like the TOY project which promote inter-generational learning, and work towards creating new possibilities for senior citizens and young children to learn together and benefit from each others’ company, recognize the importance of inclusion and empathy. Bonds made based on humor and playfulness help strengthen community ties and benefit children just as much as they benefit the elderly who have to deal with their increasing share of isolation and loneliness.

Creating child centric cities means giving all children the opportunity to interact, play and learn with people of all ages and walks of life. Growing up in homogeneous communities makes it easier to live blinkered lives, while inclusive communities, that have public spaces which are easily accessible, invite diversity and grant children the freedom to play however they wish, play positive roles in children’s idea of their individual identity, and that of their community. As KaBOOM! CEO James Seigal says, play is a community responsibility. Communities need to be designed to make space for play, with places designed to be experienced rather than consumed.

In his book Variations on a Theme Park Michael Sorkin says, the effort to reclaim the city is the struggle of democracy itself. The modern public spaces like malls and theme parks try to substitute the democratic public realm by presenting a regulated vision of pleasure, which is controlled, and riddled with restrictions. Children familiarized only with such privatized spaces miss out on the possibilities and opportunities that community built public spaces offer. The opportunities of free play, of curious exploration, and of expressing a whole range of emotions alone or together.

Developmental psychologist Lois Holzman believes children are the best revolutionaries. And that they are so because they play, and play can revolutionarily transform the world and all of its people. After all we’ve played our way into becoming who we are today.

“Revolutionary play is how we discover and bring into being, new possibilities for remaking our world.”

We need revolutionary places to foster revolutionary play. Places which encourage children to break out of their comfort zones and be active participants. Places which ensure that the coming generations aren’t passive about their planet. Places that do not reflect the systemic oppressions of today, but the freedom of tomorrow. Places which tell every single child that they are empowered and do indeed matter. Places that are child friendly, and more importantly defined by children themselves.