Conversations: How Can We Improve Children’s Experience of the Urban Environment?

Minzayar Oo / Panos / Save The Children

Author: Cities4Children

What if everything we did in our cities had to work for both an eight-year-old, and an eighty-year-old? That’s the premise behind Gil Penalosa’s work, founder and chair of 8 80 Cities, who has worked in many cities worldwide as an urban planner. Every week he invites guests to speak about cities, parks and green space on his webinar, A Walk In The Park With Gil. 

On January 27th, friends of Cities4Children – the Global Alliance, Cecilia Vaca Jones, Executive Director, Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Tim Gill, an independent scholar, writer and consultant on childhood, joined Gil Penalosa to share their thoughts on children, parks, and green space. Sarah Milligan-Toffler, director of Children and Nature Networks US, also took part.  

Wissam Andraos / Save the Children

Every city is different. There’s no one size fits all model. But we can adapt and improve what it offers, Gil says. Here are some key takeaways from the Children and Parks, Nature and Cities webinar: 

We’re witnessing the ‘shrinking horizons’ of childhood 

How much of the city a child can access independently is getting smaller with every passing generation, a trend repeated across Europe and possibly beyond, says urban researcher Tim Gill. In his book, Urban Playground, he profiles one family and shows how back in 1919, a child’s great grandfather could roam six miles across the city without supervision. Today, that child can only walk 300 metres to the end of his road, and that’s more than most children in the UK, where the case study is based. 

A big reason why this is happening, says Gill, is how we build our towns and cities. He zeros in on playgrounds, asserting that playgrounds, at least in the way so many are designed, small and fenced off, are not enough to provide a healthy human habitat for children. Instead, we need to think about how children access and experience the city. 

Hanna Adcock / Save the Children

Child-friendly cities matter for everyone, not just kids 

Cities that are not able to attract and retain families, are places where their long-term economic future is bleak, says Gill. A child-friendly city benefits everyone. The best examples are sustainable, create community and put children’s rights ahead of car rights.  

‘Nature’ isn’t just a nice to have. It’s critical for children’s wellbeing and development 

Nature builds resilience, reduces stress, and is important to leading a fulfilling life, says Sarah Milligan-Toffler. People need food, access to education, but also access to nature to thrive. To make change, the Children and Nature Network tries to influence big systems that impact children’s lives, for example schools and local governments. A recent blog by Sheridan Bartlett explained in detail the importance of  nature in children’s lives. Cities should ensure they have spaces where play is not adult-directed: nature-based play is ideal, with boulders, logs, foliage, as it’s more child driven. “Nature-based play can improve physical health, executive function and social skills,” says Toffler. 

The ‘ultimate child-friendly neighbourhood’ has high levels of mobility and things to do 

Providing choice for children is important. The ideal neighbourhood should include nature, playspaces, areas children can meet their friends, and activities nearby. Improving children’s mobility is vital in these situations. For children, this means getting around on foot or by bike, so keeping that front of mind in urban design is important. Tim Gill cites the example of Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg in Germany, which has very low levels of car ownership and is medium density – making it a great place for children to explore. There are no segregated, fenced-off playgrounds, but play opportunities are woven into the streets. “It’s a lighthouse for planning and changing cities,” says Tim Gill. “It’s about creating compact, sustainable urban design, thinking about how children get around with their caregivers.” 

Credit: Vanessa Touzard/Bernard Van Leer Foundation

It’s not just about providing good services: it’s about ensuring the environment children are raised in enables them to thrive 

At the Bernard van Leer Foundation, as part of the Urban95 initiative, they ask the question: if you could experience the city from 95cm (the average height of a healthy three-year-old child), what would you change? Cecilia Vaca Jones, the foundation’s executive director, states that by thinking with this lens, the foundation discovered that the best types of urban environments are places where children are encouraged to form healthy connections not only with their environment, but also with their caregivers and other children. Using urban design and planning to ensure well-being and equity are proven as effective ways to support healthy early childhood development. It’s time to think about babies as an inclusive design principle.

Children are more important than cars 

Prioritising public space for people and children over cars is important. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, pop-up parks were introduced on 20 different streets to encourage young people to take back ownership of their cities. The intervention isn’t permanent, but the government has shown it understands how critical it is that children have access to public space in the city. 

Vaca-Jones also introduces the example of the Kiryat Safer park in Tel Aviv, where children can be in contact with nature. Parks must go beyond a metal slide, she says. It’s about getting children in touch with natural elements such as water and trees, create spaces to play, and ensure caregivers and babies are also considered when designing the space. Urban planners and decision makers need to think about what young people are experiencing in the city, and how their designs are encouraging healthy development. 

To find out more and to watch the full webinar recording, click here  


The Conversation Series summarises some of the key points and ideas made at public events such as webinars and conferences, participated in by Cities4Children or our partners.

Read more about how to create child-safe homes here.


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