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A healthy city, beyond cycling - #01: Child-friendly cities

Cities around the world are rushing to create more cycling paths in the wake of the current pandemic. Cycling is a great starting point to creating healthier cities. However, it does not end there. In this article, we'll take a look at another aspect of a healthy city: child-friendliness.


We hear stories about how children all around the world are impacted by the current crisis and especially by lockdown measures. There are a few issues that keep popping up. Many children are locked in small and crowded apartments with little or no outdoor space to play. When they do get out, they have no place to go now all the playgrounds have closed. A good indication that a child-friendly city is about more than just playgrounds. Children are isolated from other children, especially if they don’t have siblings to play with. All of this is not helping the already increased anxiety and depression levels in children and adolescents.


The interesting thing is that all of these issues were already a common reality for many children, even before COVID-19. It has been the unfortunate result of many different trends and the myth that families don’t live in cities, influencing how we design and build our cities. With a lack of ample places to play, safe routes, good schools, or affordable housing, our cities are not designed with the healthy development of children in mind.


What makes a city child-friendly?

There are a number of key ingredients that shape a child-friendly city. Let's take a look at some of the most important ones. It starts with affordable and adequate housing. For example, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children under 18 of all large American cities. That is not surprising as it has one of the most unaffordable housing markets, even for small units, so imagine you need a 2 or 3-bedroom home. If a family does find a home they can afford in their city, it is important to have all the necessary caregiver support services like schools, daycare, healthcare, or parental programs available within walking or cycling distance. Or at least have easy access to good public transit options that allow you to get around, even with a stroller during rush hour.


Walkability and proximity are also key factors when we want to create accessible and safe public spaces. Playgrounds are a great start but it is also important for children to safely walk towards them from their home. However, we shouldn’t narrow child-friendliness down to playgrounds alone. As they serve a limited age group, there is also a need for other types of public spaces where teenagers can gather for instance. Or where children of all ages can enjoy themselves. The Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park is a great example of public space that was not designed for children specifically but that creates interaction and play for all ages. Fostering community interaction in these places or through other initiatives is crucial for caregivers to feel connected and get to know and trust their community. It can help combat social isolation and post-natal depression and makes the families feel supported.


When we neglect to mix these key ingredients into our cities, suburbs, and towns, these environments are starting to have an increasingly negative impact on children’s development and their health. A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates these pre-existing challenges.


So how might this help children’s health & wellbeing?

How we design our cities, suburbs, and towns has a significant impact on the health & wellbeing of children. Some of the more well-known effects are asthma caused by air pollution. Lowering pollution, especially around schools and in neighborhoods with lots of young children can help prevent asthma. However, the city’s health impact runs much deeper than air pollution. When we design cities where children of all ages can be active, play freely and their caregivers feel comfortable letting them, the benefits range from physical to social and emotional. The infographic below shows some examples that might be less known.


source: PosadMaxwan.nl


Not only a child benefits from a healthy childhood. It also improves the economy as a whole. A highly cited quote reveals that “high-quality early childhood programs can yield a 4-9 dollar return per 1 dollar invested.” Let it be educational programs or spatial improvements in a city allowing children to benefit from informal development outside of regular classes. A city where children of all ages can live a happy and healthy life will benefit the whole community. Adapting our cities for children of all ages will make neighborhoods and communities more resilient for future chock events, no matter if it is a pandemic, a heatwave, or a flood. And we know there will be more of these in the future.


How can we achieve a child-friendly city?

There are many examples around the world on how cities are becoming more suitable for children. The strategies range from city-wide restructuring to placemaking, from strategic interventions to changes in planning and policies.


Walkable schools in Rotterdam

Change can start with something as simple yet powerful like a map. In collaboration with A-ZINE, PosadMaxwan made an interactive map of the city of Rotterdam that visualizes how walkable the primary schools in the city actually are. The map takes into account a.o. a 10min walking distance, road safety, the quality of sidewalks, and the level of activity and social control in a neighborhood. It turns out that only half of Rotterdam’s primary schools can be considered walkable for children. Now the city knows exactly where to take action and how.

Source: A-Zine | PosadMaxwan


A city council for kids in Tirana

The city of Tirana chose to give a voice to children by creating a “city council for kids” where they could express their needs and dreams. Children have an overlooked power of enabling the behavioral change of parents like taking a bike or walking instead of driving or even healthy eating. However, for that behavioral shift to take place, the city’s infrastructure also needed to accommodate family needs. Huge city expansion in the 1990s resulted in the reduction of open space and private ownership of children facilities which meant parents had to pay in order to allow their children to play locally. By reclaiming space for pedestrians and public uses, planning public, free-of-charge playgrounds, making the city greener, using events, such as monthly car-free days, city life started to shift from unaffordable, privatized, and car-oriented to liveable, green and lively.


Children priority zones in Bogota

Other cities, like Bogota, chose more strategic interventions – children’s priority zones – informed by data analysis. Childcare centers, playgrounds, or healthcare clinics became the focus points. Next to these places, multiple events were held to raise awareness and bring communities together around the priority zones. A range of interventions was proposed linked to the specificity of a place – safer road crossings near schools or parks or repurposing unused spaces for community gardens. The know-how from pilot projects was applied to transform other neighborhoods in the city.

Source: Bernard Van Leer Foundation


Barcelona’s city-wide restructuring

Barcelona took a tactical urbanism approach. Having an ambitious vision of superblocks, invented by Salvador Rueda, they started a gradual citywide structural transformation. The superblock rethinks traffic infrastructure in the part of the city with octagonal blocks. Every superblock consists of three by three regular blocks. Within the superblock streets do not have crossing traffic, surface parking is moved underground, and speed is reduced to 10km/h. This creates space for greenery and communal activities in the public space. The project of restructuring has started as temporary tactical interventions such as turning traffic crossings into neighborhood plazas with playgrounds, places for a picnic, and providing a space for families to meet or enjoy a drink from a local cafe. Later, temporary interventions were replaced by permanent public space design originating from the needs of a community. Thanks to the superblocks, children got safe places to play, they could walk or cycle independently, and inhabitants got to know each other.

Source: Ajuntament de Barcelona


There is something all these cases have in common – retrofitting our cities for the youngest, creates more space for pedestrians, lowers noise and air pollution, strengthens green-blue networks, and sparks stronger communities. No matter what scale we work on, there is always a positive impact. The result is an urban environment that is more resilient to shocks, let it be environmental, economic, or pandemics, all of which we might face more often in the future. Redesigning cities to accommodate children benefits the population as a whole.


Authors: Gintare Norkunaite and Marianne Lefever


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