This is a guest post by Alex Bonham. Alex is doing a doctorate on play and the city at the University of Auckland and has a book on the subject coming out on the 13th of July. She is also Deputy Chair of the Waitematā Local Board.
Tim Gill is an independent scholar and advocate for children’s mobility. He is a Design Council Ambassador, former director of the Children’s Play Council (now Play England) and an advisor to local and central government in the UK. He writes an online blog called Rethinking Childhood, and recently released Urban Playground, a beautifully illustrated book that makes the case for child-friendly cities. This post will share some of his key insights.
So, what is a child-friendly city and why do they matter? And how do you retrofit urban neighbourhoods to make them child-friendly?
A couple of generations ago it used to be common to see children in the city streets. But with the motorization of transport, they have been marginalized and pushed into separate spaces, usually playgrounds. There are lots of good playgrounds (and less good ones) around Auckland but in themselves a child-friendly city they do not make. Such a city can be identified by two factors:
- That there are lots of things to do and places to go, and
- That children are able to access them.
In such places children can find each other. When children can independently access a variety of spaces, including natural spaces, and quiet spaces where they can play with their friends, then they are in a child-friendly neighbourhood. It works a bit like this:
To ensure children can have some independent mobility, the urban spaces they occupy need to be pedestrian-focused with low traffic levels at low speeds with safe crossings. The type of housing doesn’t matter so much as how it flows onto a calm, safe outdoor space. The iceblock test is a good indicator: could an eight-year-old go from their home to the dairy to buy an iceblock and get home before it melts? If so, then they are living in a child-friendly neighbourhood. For their parents this might also mean that the lovely café or bar with acoustic music is in walking distance too.
Good for kids
Firstly, children benefit. Independent mobility connects them to the neighbourhoods they live in and to other people. They have a better sense of place, orientation, motivation, and confidence. Access to natural spaces improves mental health, happiness and reduces aggression. They get the opportunity to learn to manage risk, whether it be climbing on walls, climbing frames, trees, or crossing the road safely. They develop an affiliation for their place: they appreciate the history and geography of their neighbourhood and feel at home. Access to other kids increases kids’ social skills and social capital. This is all critical for their development into healthy adults.
Good for society
Secondly, such an upbringing will stand kids in good stead through their lives, with knock-on benefits for everyone else. Not only are they more likely to be well-adjusted but they are likely to do better at school and work. A study in America found that, putting to one side all the other contributing factors, growing up in a walkable neighbourhood improves kids’ prospects for getting better paying jobs. This is partly because of the practical ramifications of accessing opportunities without a car but also because people living in more walkable neighborhoods felt a greater sense of belonging to their communities. A walkable city encourages everyone to participate in it.
Walkable neighbourhoods are good for the local economy in other ways. (Disclosure: I care less about supporting the global economies of car manufacturing and petrol sales). Parents are freed up from being a chauffeur, the roads become less congested and because the local environment is congenial people spend their time and money there. Family friendly neighbourhoods are clean, safe and fun, which is good for business. There is a strong link between the presence of families and economic growth. Child-friendly neighbourhoods also benefit from being home to a mixed demography of residents with a range of ages (including kids), cultures, and backgrounds.
Good for the environment
Thirdly, child-friendly neighbourhoods have trees, green spaces, and few cars so they tend to have more positive environmental impacts and lower emissions. Normalising walking, cycling, or taking public transport can set up positive lifelong low carbon habits. Giving kids early access to nature and the environment makes them care more about it.
Wellbeings for all
In short, a child-friendly city delivers the four wellbeings – social, cultural, environmental, and economic – that underpin both New Zealand’s Local Government Act and the RMA. It is clear that the four wellbeings, if taken seriously, flow together. The city of Freiburg in Germany is an example of such holistic outcomes. Its GDP per capita is 11% above the European average and their citizens enjoy a good quality of life and level of civic participation from a very young age.
Creating child-friendly neighbourhoods often requires a level of intervention from councils or governments. Gill gives some good examples of approaches taken from Europe and the Americas (it would be useful if his focus turned to Asia and Africa in a follow-up book or revised edition!) Some cities that are child-friendly were not motivated to become so by a desire to put kids first but because its people and officials were trying to protect qualities that they valued in their city.
In Freiburg, things that the voting, tax-paying public wanted are the same things that make Freiburg and its suburb Vauban some of the most child-friendly centres in the world. The public cared about repairing the built heritage landscape after the destruction of World War II, preventing suburban shopping malls and nuclear power stations, keeping the trams, protecting the environment, and encouraging participation in public life. A world-leading child friendly city is the outcome.
Retrofitting to become child-friendly
We can find examples of cities all over the world that have retro-actively worked at integrating child-friendly thinking into their planning. Antwerp has a strategy for developing child-oriented public realm masterplans for neighbourhoods. Places for kids are mapped against their accessibility. They engage with kids to find out what they need to fill the gaps. Rotterdam created more parklets, playspaces, and pedestrian-focused neighbourhoods. Rent controls meant that urban improvements did not lead to the displacement of the families they were hoping to help.
Vancouver and Ghent were similarly motivated, with a focus on sustainability and community as well. In Ghent there is a dedicated team of officers at council, led by a councillor, that oversees a child-friendly city strategy across departments. One scheme is the “red carpet” – a 2km child-friendly walking/ cycling route that links schools, kindergartens, playgrounds, parks, and several public spaces.
Oslo, Boulder and Barcelona, and the Brazilian cities of Recife and Fortaleza focused on children’s rights, health and well-being. In Oslo kids can download a “traffic agents” app and can report on their experiences negotiating the way to school, unsafe crossings, speeding traffic or obstructions, which the council can then address. In Brazil there is a focus on making road crossings safer for kids by using paintings, planters and other visual cues to encourage drivers to slow down.
Auckland’s mixed outcomes for children
Auckland is a C40 city and has high targets for emissions reductions. It is also a city with mixed childhood outcomes. Not all these issues can be laid at the door of urban planning decisions but some should be. The main failure is its autocentric focus, which not only creates emissions, but also denies children independent mobility and opportunities to connect with each other.
The council’s I Am Auckland project researched child and youth aspirations for the city in 2013. Two goals that we are consistently failing to meet is enabling kids to connect to each other and enabling them to have a voice. Discounts for public transport are helpful but rely on the existence of regular, reliable PT in safe walking distance from homes. There are models that judge economic benefits on shaving off time to vehicular journeys while ignoring the ones made by other modes. Are we currently targeting child mobility? No. Are we even considering it? No. This is a shame.
The Innovating Streets process has offered an opportunity to make streets safer and more vibrant. Perhaps though as a council, and as a country, we have not told the story well enough about why it is important. This is problematic. The quality of participation correlates with less resistance to change. People will make the effort to change their behaviour dramatically if they believe there is a good reason, but only then. Leadership from elected members is enormously helpful. Behind closed doors there is advocacy from all local boards in Auckland for better PT and active transport choices. We need to front up to communities, to talk about the trade-offs and opportunities and back the officers trying to make good things happen.
The Mayor should be doing this. So should Central Government. There is some excellent strategy coming from the Minister on walkable neighbourhoods. Innovating Streets is what change looks like. Perhaps one of the problems is that we are uncertain how to measure success in terms of the four wellbeings and so we are vulnerable to the loudest voices in the room: the frightened, and those with vested interests. Considering children’s wellbeing is not to put children above everybody else but to help make decisions that will deliver good outcomes for everyone on the things that matter: social, cultural, environmental (including climate change) and (local) economic.
So, how about this new measure for Auckland Council:
Can 70% of 8-year-olds walk to school and/or the shops by themselves?
Sound crazy? That was normal just a generation ago.
You can read more of Tim Gill’s research in this downloadable report: Building Cities Fit for Children Case studies of child-friendly urban planning and design in Europe and Canada.