More than just playgrounds: four ways to improve neighbourhoods for the very young

More than just playgrounds blog cover WRI India

Author: Kunal Kumar, Rushda Majeed, and Sree Kumar Kumaraswamy

Child-centric urban planning is about more than just building playgrounds. Here, Kunal Kumar, Rushda Majeed and Sree Kumar Kumaraswamy outline four ways to make neighbourhoods better for very young children, from creating dedicated spaces for play to improving early childhood care centres.

The 10 winning cities of the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge were announced by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) in India earlier this year. Through this challenge, MoHUA envisions to promote and enable healthy and safe environments for young children (0–5 years), along with easy access to crucial services and stimulating spaces for the very young and their caregivers. Adapted from the global Urban95 initiative, the key objective of the challenge and a two-year technical assistance phase is to integrate such interventions seamlessly into the planning and management of Indian cities.

The human brain develops at its most rapid pace in the first five years of life, when an estimated one million new neural connections are formed each second. Healthy brain development requires that children receive adequate nutrition, ample opportunities to learn and play, and a safe and nurturing environment. Studies also show that such attention results in better adult health outcomes and a higher lifetime income.

With almost 37 million children under the age of five living in urban areas across India, an early childhood-centric approach to city planning, design and management helps Indian cities achieve goals of economic growth, health, safety and sustainability.

In Phase I of the challenge, more than 60 cities conceptualised neighbourhood-level pilot projects centered around the needs of children in the 0–5 age group and their caregivers. Over a period of seven months, 25 short-listed cities implemented over 70 complementary and integrated projects improving public spaces, mobility and access to services for infants, toddlers and their caregivers. Finally, 10 winning cities were selected to scale up interventions in Phase 2.

The 10 Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge finalists were evaluated on five criteria – safety, playfulness, accessibility, inclusivity and greening – taken from the Infant, Toddler, Caregiver-Friendly Neighbourhood (ITCN) framework developed by MoHUA in collaboration with the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

A toddler playing hopscotch in the Vivekanand park in Kakinada © WRI India

As Phase 2 begins, this is an opportune moment to reflect on how the challenge has been helping cities rethink the planning and design of neighbourhoods. Here are four ways in which Indian cities can improve their neighbourhoods keeping in mind the very young.

1. Create dedicated spaces for play in underused spaces

Cities can tap into unused or underused spaces to get young children to spend more time playing outdoors. For instance, Bengaluru converted a dumping space in a public housing area into a pocket park for children, while Kohima created a colourful pocket park for young children by repurposing a little-used side street and developing it through crowdsourced funds. Kochi refurbished a local park based on inputs from the community, while Rourkela created formal public play spaces in slums and trained local women’s groups to monitor and maintain these areas.

A pocket park in Kohima, created by transforming a street-side dumping space © Kohima Smart City Development Limited (KSCDL)


An unused area in Basanti Colony in Rourkela is transformed into a play space © WRI India

2. Improve early childhood care centres for children

Cities can renovate early childhood development-oriented facilities such as anganwadis (government sponsored child and mother care centres in India) and public health centres with improved access, play areas, seating and amenities. This helps to create appealing interactive spaces for children and caregivers alike. For instance, Vadodara converted a gloomy, disused space adjoining an anganwadi beneath a flyover into a playful public space and identified local community leaders to maintain it.

An underused space beneath a flyover in Vadodara has become a playful community public space © SMAID University

3. Think of caregivers’ needs

To make city spaces more inclusive and accessible, authorities must consider caregivers’ needs. Caregivers are predominantly women or the elderly and the initiatives should include enhanced mobility opportunities for them.

For instance, Hubballi-Dharwad introduced priority queueing and a pram-sharing system at a bus station for the convenience of commuters traveling with young children. Jabalpur created a child-friendly waiting space at the Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT).

Pram sharing in operation at a bus station in Hubballi-Dharwad, easing travel for commuters accompanied by young children © Hubballi-Dharwad Bus Rapid Transit System (HDBRTS)

4. Create safer walking experiences

Young children are among the most vulnerable road users. Cities can enhance road safety measures along street intersections and public transit stations frequented by young children and their caregivers. Kakinada pedestrianised a section of its street to create a safer walking experience for families and refurbished a plaza as a play space for young children. Rourkela closed open drains alongside a public health centre to create a safe footpath and developed stimulating play spaces along it.

An underused street in Kakinada largely used for informal parking transformed into a pedestrianised area with a plaza and a play space © WRI India

What next for Nurturing Neighbourhoods?

The Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge aims to move cities away from car-dominated development and towards more walkable neighbourhoods in ways that anchor development to the needs of local communities. These are quick, small-scale and inexpensive interventions in everyday spaces that improve the daily life and lived experiences of all sections of society, including the most vulnerable. The interventions we have identified here all involved community members who helped to co-create solutions and mechanisms that enable them to participate in the upkeep of projects.

Ensuring children’s rights to public space in a city is vital in determining the liveability of the city © WRI India

Applying a young children-oriented lens to urban planning and design at the local neighborhood level is a sustainable and inclusive way to reimagine our cities. Child-centric urban planning is about so much more than just building playgrounds: city governments need to work towards institutionalising this approach by reimagining cities through a young children-friendly lens in designing, development and management.

About the Authors

Kunal Kumar is the joint secretary and mission director of the Smart Cities Mission, Rushda Majeed is the India Representative of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Sree Kumar Kumaraswamy is head of Sustainable Cities & Transport at World Resources Institute (WRI) India. The views expressed by the authors are personal.


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