The evolution of cities: it starts with putting children first

Why designing a child-friendly city will have a positive effect on all citizens' lives.

Children playing in London
Children playing in London's Granary Square. Image credit: Phil Rogers

“If children are not designed into our cities, they are designed out. This means that they are deprived of contact with the material world, with nature, with civic life and with their own capacities.”
George Monbiot, writer

The recent focus on child-friendly cities among built environment professionals has received much attention among academics, designers, institutes and the media.

Having understood the need, we must now work to embed these considerations into our practice to design cities which are truly child-friendly. The benefits go beyond just children, who we define as anyone aged 0-17, and can positively have an impact on all citizens’ lives.

The beautiful simplicity of this theme is that it speaks to everyone. Some of us have children, some of us are children, some of us are grandparents, aunts or uncles. We have all been children. The concept of child-friendly cities touches on us all and the desire for children to have safe and happy childhoods is a universal concern.

What makes cities child-unfriendly?

Urban population growth has thrust urban planning to the forefront of global challenges, as demonstrated by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11. In responding to these challenges, the needs, experiences and voices of children and caregivers should be put centre stage, as this approach is a vital part of creating inclusive cities that work better for everyone.

With the changing urban context, the five core challenges of urban childhoods are: 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.

While these challenges are restricting children’s independence and ability to play, the stresses of urban life are also significant contributing factors to the rise in childhood obesity and children’s mental health problems.

A child-friendly city is a city for everyone, young and old. Children who are seen and heard indicate both the economic health of cities and its community wellbeing.

With around 70% of the world’s population predicted to live in urban areas by 2050 (Children in the Urban World, Unicef, 2012), we’re at a critical planning stage, and change to policy can be implemented.

The challenges have been highlighted and many practical solutions have been identified. It’s now up to us to lead the way in creating cities for all ages.

The benefits go beyond just children

The benefits of delivering “children’s infrastructure” go well beyond just providing a safe space for children. A child-friendly approach can improve a city’s economic performance and its ability to attract and retain a skilled workforce, as young professionals consider settling down and starting families.

Impacts on health and wellbeing can be seen, stronger, safer and more resilient communities are developed, and child-friendly interventions can be highly effective in driving catalytic change.

There’s a ripple effect as well; the positive impacts on health and wellbeing are not just at individual level, a healthier society means less strain on the health system. The benefits are wide, and in understanding these we can be both opportunistic and strategic in improving existing and new urban environments.

A change is needed 

Property developers, designers and civic leaders are encouraged to take a child-friendly approach to planning, designing and managing cities, moving beyond simply providing playgrounds and drawing inspiration from proven interventions from around the world.

These interventions include play streets, intergenerational spaces, co-creation, traffic measures and wild spaces to name a few. This is supported by the current draft London Plan, which calls on boroughs to develop child-friendly neighbourhood strategies.

We’re at a critical moment in the evolution of cities. How we treat our children today is how we will be remembered in the future. The questions that we ask, the choices that we make and the leadership that we show to create better neighbourhoods and cities for children now, will shape the lives of urban citizens for many generations to come.

A child-friendly city is an inclusive city.