Reimagining cities for young children in India: seven key strategies

Reimagining cities for young children in India

Author: Sree Kumar Kumaraswamy, Madhura Kulkarni and Chaitali Patil

This blog describes how the innovative Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge (NNC) is promoting healthy early childhood development across 10 cities in India. It outlines seven key urban governance strategies for working with city governments that can strengthen the planning and management of cities to create inclusive and child-friendly spaces for young children and their caregivers.

With India accounting for nearly one-fifth of the world’s annual child births, an early childhood-centred approach to city planning, urban design and management is essential. Urban design and city planning – beyond just building playgrounds – play a crucial role in shaping the early years of a child’s life: the most vital period for their long-term health and development. For young children to reach their full potential they need nurturing care, supportive ecosystems and healthy physical environments.

Recognising this, the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge (NNC) in India is promoting healthy early childhood development for children aged up to five years across 10 Indian cities simultaneously. The programme is the first of its kind in India and is led by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and the Smart Cities Mission, and supported by the Van Leer Foundation with World Resources Institute (WRI) India as its technical partner.

With a focus on neighbourhood-level improvements, the NNC is using a child-centred approach that is helping to mainstream the perspectives of young children and their caregivers into city planning and management, while strengthening the capacity of Indian city governments that may lack experience of working with this demographic.

What are the seven key strategies?

The experiences of the NNC have resulted in the development of several new key strategies and frameworks that can act as reference points for future urban development. These include the importance of strengthening the capacity of local stakeholders, using robust data-driven approaches, building strong partnerships, and piloting innovative solutions before taking them to scale. There is also the need for diverse funding sources, mainstreaming child-centred guidelines into urban policies and planning, and ensuring that dedicated organisational structures are in place to aid effective coordination and implementation between different stakeholders.

1. Strengthen the capacity of local stakeholders

Helping city government officials to understand the needs and priorities of young children and their caregivers is crucial for building inclusive urban spaces. Yet key decision makers are often unfamiliar with this demographic. As part of the NNC, city officials from departments such child development services, parks, roads and transport, and health have been provided with trainings, study tours, guidelines and other resources to sensitise them to the needs of young children and their caregivers. Frontline workers such as community health workers, early childcare-centre teachers, public healthcare professionals and craftspeople have also been trained to help create new, child-friendly spaces.

Building the capacity of teachers to help transform early childhood centres into young child and caregiver-friendly public spaces © Arunima Saha/WRI India

2. Use data-driven approaches

Data-driven decision-making is key to ensuring equitable urban development. For the NNC, data were collected through spatial mapping as well as on-the-ground surveys that engaged caregivers and health workers to better understand their challenges and perceptions. Their insights highlighted contextual issues and helped build consensus for creating long-term, sustainable solutions.

For example, the NNC city agencies in Indore and Rourkela  mapped the availability and accessibility of early childhood development (ECD) facilities, such as anganwadis and public health centers in their cities. As a result, they were able to develop such facilities near residential areas for ease of access, thereby leading to greater uptake. A mapping of formal and informal settlements in Rourkela revealed disparities in the provision of public spaces. This led to the scaling up of public spaces across neighbourhoods in informal settlements.

Spatial mapping shows the unequal distribution of public spaces in slums compared to affluent neighbourhoods in Rourkela, Odisha. This led the city to develop new public spaces in the slums. Mapping by Arunima Saha/WRI India. Source: Google Maps

3. Build partnerships for continued success

To sensitize all stakeholders to the needs of young children and caregivers, it is important to connect and engage with them through continued partnerships. Under NNC, various engagement sessions, such as focus group discussions and co-creation exercises, have helped mobilize community groups and sensitize government stakeholders.

Involving community members, in different phases of the project cycle, also inculcates a sense of ownership in the community, ensuring the upkeep and maintenance of the transformed public space. Sustained engagement with community members also helps create ‘champions of change,’ who are key to increasing demand for equitable and accessible public spaces.

Mothers of young children, anganwadi teachers and other frontline workers in Aranya Nagar, Indore learn how they can play a crucial part in sustaining the anganwadi © Indore Smart City Development Limited

4. Test and scale solutions

Piloting an intervention helps gauge and gather community response and inputs. Based on this feedback, the design for the proposed intervention is further worked upon before being implemented on the ground.

The Placemaking Marathon, a national campaign conducted under the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav initiative, gave much-needed impetus for cities to test low-cost and scalable public space interventions. The quick wins and learnings from this initiative helped scale up young-children-friendly public spaces across Indian cities. For example, the success of the pilot intervention at the Eraveli Anganwadi in Kochi, led to the city scaling safe, accessible and playful outdoor spaces with shaded seating areas across 29 Anganwadis in Fort Kochi.

A safe play area added to the premises of the Eraveli Anganwadi in Kochi to enable outdoor playtime for young children © Cochin Smart Mission Limited.

5. Explore diverse funding sources

Typically, cities have access to municipal budgets used for large-scale infrastructural development. Dedicated funds to facilitate small-scale young-children-friendly public spaces are lacking. Therefore, cities need to seek out alternative sources. Under NNC, cities did this through convergence with existing programs and other departments. This especially enabled smaller cities to implement multiple interventions despite their funding constraints.

As cities started to formulate scale-up strategies, NNC enabled them to also explore other innovative funding mechanisms like crowdfunding and accessing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds. For example, in Kohima, a roadside pocket park was implemented by Kohima Smart City Development Limited (KSCDL) in collaboration with Forest Colony residents through crowdfunding whereas in Rourkela a clustered public space was created by pooling funds from different schemes such as JAGA Mission, MUKTA Mission, UNNATI Mission, District Mineral Funds and municipal corporation funds.

The pocket park in Forest Colony, Kohima, developed through crowdfunding © Kohima Smart City Development Limited.

6. Mainstream child-centred guidelines in urban programs and policies

To ensure the long-term sustenance of young-children-and-caregiver-friendly urban development, it is essential to integrate this approach with city-specific programs, policies and planning processes. Going beyond the city ULB, this approach needs to be institutionalized across all government departments through appropriate policies and guidelines.Under NNC, the Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) in Karnataka, a state in South India, has amended its checklist of components for the State Urban Transport Fund (SUTF) to include young children and family-specific interventions in bus stations and other transit hubs. All transit agencies across Karnataka, seeking funds from SUTF, are mandated to implement the guidelines.

Signage inside a bus and at a ticket counter indicating priority seating and queuing for pregnant women and caregivers traveling with infants © Madhura Kulkarni/WRI India.

7. Create a dedicated institutional setup

Creating a well-trained core group, consisting of multi-sectoral representatives within a ULB, is essential to mainstream this approach. Local champions in the government can help sustain the vision, collaborate across departments, and engage with the people on the ground. In each of the ten cities that won the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge, a Nurturing Neighbourhoods Cell was formed, headed by the Municipal Commissioner or the Smart City CEO. These institutional setups act as the primary node for inter-departmental co-ordination and help in laying out a roadmap for scaling the young-children-oriented public spaces across the city.

Cochin Smart Mission Limited (CSML) and Kochi Municipal Corporation partnered up towards the scaling up of safe and accessible family-friendly public spaces in Kochi © CSML

Developing stimulating, inclusive, and healthy public spaces is one of the best investments cities can make. Fostering sustained conversations through community engagement, capacity building and other creative approaches, will go a long way in creating an intent-level change and sensitizing all stakeholders. Learnings from NNC can help other cities build upon and generate momentum for developing safe, accessible and inclusive neighbourhoods.

About the Authors

Sree Kumar Kumaraswamy is the Program Director – Clean Air Action, Sustainable Cities & Transport at WRI India. Sree has co-designed the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge, hosted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs with the support of the Van Leer Foundation, with WRI India as a technical partner. He also plays a key role in supporting cities in enabling municipal actions to create child-friendly environments.

Madhura Kulkarni is the Program Manager – Transport with the Sustainable Cities and Transport program at WRI India. She plays a key role in managing the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge across 10 cities by supporting cities to formulate and adopt children-centred strategies for implementation and long term sustenance towards creating children friendly neighbourhoods.

Chaitali Patil is the Program Communications Associate at WRI India, where she handles communications and outreach efforts for the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge. She extracts compelling stories and creates impactful narratives based on the implementation of projects seen across ten winning cities of the Challenge, ensuring wide-reaching engagement.

The original version of this article appeared on WRI India’s blog on November 10th, 2023. Views expressed here are the authors’ own.

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