Author: Tim Gill

With growing worldwide interest in making cities more child-friendly, what approaches can municipalities take? Tim Gill sets out three models for local governments and explores the pros and cons of each.

Child-friendly urban planning and design means taking children’s needs and wishes seriously when building or changing neighbourhoods, especially their public realm. Drawing on ideas from sustainable urbanism, community participation and public health, the approach – as I have argued previously – is about much more than creating play areas. Streets, sidewalks, traffic levels, parks and other public spaces, and the buildings that border and define them can all influence children’s health, development and quality of life.

While municipalities have different structures, roles and powers worldwide, their responsibilities often include land use planning, urban and neighbourhood design, parks and public space design and management, street design, and transport planning. Precisely because children’s spatial lives unfold in different contexts and spaces, municipalities are central to making neighbourhoods work better for them and their families.

While child-friendly urban planning is on the rise, it is still marginal to the work of most cities. What different models are available to municipalities that want to make the built form of their urban areas work better for children? What is known about their pros and cons? I see three broad approaches.

Model 1: Strategic focus

The most far-reaching approach – potentially at least – is to create a strategic focus at a relatively senior officer level, working across departments. Perhaps the most ambitious, strategic municipal child-friendly urban planning programme along these lines has been that in Rotterdam. The city had come to be seen as one of the worst Dutch cities for bringing up a family (in part due to its car-centric reconstruction after World War II) and its political leaders realised that this a serious threat to its long-term prospects. Hence, they invested tens of millions of Euros over a twelve-year period from 2006 – 2018, with the results being robustly monitored and analysed. Interventions included neighbourhood-scale street makeovers, playful public space improvements and schoolyard greening projects (alongside initiatives to improve the housing stock and schooling). The result? A real shift in families’ views of the city – and an increase in the number of families choosing to move there.

In the Belgian city of Ghent child-friendliness has become part of the municipality’s DNA. A long-established team based in the children and youth department works closely with key delivery departments. In one project, the team fed into  a major urban regeneration initiative, resulting in a new walking route (called the ‘roder loper’ or ‘red carpet’ due to the use of red surface markings) that ‘stitched together’ key public spaces, education facilities and neighbourhood centres.

Map of ‘red carpet’ through Brugse Poort, Ghent, showing connections to key facilities and destinations © City of Ghent / Fris in het landschap / Kind & Samenleving

Model 2: A single-department approach

A second model – seen in cities including Antwerp, Fortaleza and Vancouver – is to create a focus within a single department, such as planning, transport, or parks. In Fortaleza, the focus was road safety. In the late 2010s the city,’s  mobility agency,  with technical support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, augmented its ongoing traffic safety programmes by adding interventions that reclaimed spaces for children through redesigning streets.

Cristo Redentor scheme, Fortaleza © Paulo Winz / NACTO-GDCI

One effort focused on the streets around a major children’s hospital, a second converted 4,000 sqm of asphalt to public space around a downtown cultural centre and a third created safer road crossings and a playful public space in a high-density, low-income neighbourhood, starting with temporary changes to build local support (see image above). Others have targeted schools. The initiative made smart use of data. Demographic and crash statistics helped to identify target areas, while monitoring revealed dramatic reductions in traffic speeds.

Vancouver has a decades-long history of land use planning approaches that aim to make its dense, mixed-use downtown core a sustainable, walkable place where families will want to live. Former chief planner Larry Beasley described the presence of children as “the key feature that domesticated our ever-intensifying city, and made it relevant to the broadest possible spectrum of people.” Guidance and regulations aim to stimulate a decent supply of apartments suitable for families while securing appropriate services and facilities, including parks and green spaces. The policies first emerged in the late 1970s, and continued to have a notable impact on a series of high-density post-industrial schemes in the 1990s. However, a change in federal housing subsidies led to an unfortunate loss of momentum.

Antwerp’s approach is something of a hybrid, reflecting the fact that the municipality’s city development department already brings together several key functions, including public space and mobility. An officer in this department oversees a rolling programme of neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood child-oriented reviews. These cover play areas, other public spaces, and walking/cycling connections, and are complemented by engagement work with schoolchildren to develop ideas for improvements.

Model 3: Partnerships with civil society organisations

In a third variation, municipalities have supported civil society organisations, social enterprises or other external agencies,  catalysing and supporting policy development and delivery. Worldwide, the most common municipal partner is the Child-Friendly Cities Initiative run by UNICEF. The CFCI, originally launched in 1996, takes a rights-based approach to helping municipalities develop effective children’s participation initiatives across various topic areas. It has a highly structured programme and accreditation framework, and is currently active in towns and cities in some 40 countries across five continents.

While not all CFCI-accredited municipalities choose to address urban planning/design topics, a significant proportion do. In Germany, where children’s participation in planning is underpinned by legislation, the scheme is run by a specially-created organisation, Kinderfreundliche Kommunen, set up through a partnership between UNICEF and the national NGO Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk.

Some municipalities have supported local organisations that focus exclusively on child-friendly urban planning. In Tirana, the NGO Qendra Marrëdhënie (set up with support from the Van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 programme) provides child-oriented urban design expertise to several municipal departments. One pilot project is improving safety and play opportunities by redesigning the streets outside schools to encourage walking and cycling and to open up spaces for play and socialising.

In Boulder, Colorado, the NGO Growing Up Boulder offers expertise in youth engagement that has helped shape projects including a high-profile downtown civic area and public park. It is supported financially by the municipality and is based in a local university that has a global academic profile.

Other municipalities have forged partnerships with local agencies that have a broader focus. In Barcelona, the child health and welfare agency Institut Infancia gained municipal support to develop a citywide play strategy; early results included investment in new play facilities in five major parks. In Freiburg, an independent rights-based Children’s Office runs neighbourhood engagement initiatives that feed into playground refurbishments and other municipal projects, and promotes temporary play streets and other child-friendly programmes.

No single recipe

There is no single recipe for successful child-friendly urban planning and transformation initiatives. The three models discussed above are not mutually exclusive. Each has its pros and cons, and much depends on context. Central, strategic teams have the greatest potential to have a large-scale impact and to forge valuable links across departments. They can also enable better participation and evaluation. Overall, they act like the hub in a wheel (see figure below). However, they require time, resources, and ultimately, political support, all of which may be in short supply.

Hub-and-spoke model for municipal action © Sam Williams and Tim Gill

While a more operational approach can deliver quicker results, it may struggle to transcend departmental boundaries. Relying solely on an external agency risks weakening the policy focus and limiting the scope for political engagement. However, it can help secure external funding and bring in other potential partner agencies.

One clear pattern is that, leaving aside structures and partnerships, political leadership is a potent catalyst. This is evident in several of the cities discussed above, with Ghent and Tirana in particular featuring mayors or deputy mayors who became public champions for making their city more child-friendly.

The final lesson I take from my visits to cities over the years is that when it comes to municipal action, people matter as much as policies. Successful child-friendly urban planning is inherently cross-cutting and multi-disciplinary. It also remains an emerging set of ideas, and progress requires innovation, creativity and adaptability. First and foremost, these are qualities that reside in people. Policies and procedures also matter because they help to capture and embed successful approaches. But as tools, they are only as effective as the people who put them into practice.

Cities worldwide are wrestling with health, social, economic, and environmental challenges. Everyone cares about children, and people are prepared to contemplate bold solutions if children’s lives are going to be improved. With the right municipal team, in the right place, child-friendly urban planning can be a powerful catalyst for change: one that all cities should take seriously.

About the author

Tim Gill is an independent scholar, writer, consultant based in London, and a global advocate for children’s outdoor play and mobility. He is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Local Governance, a UK Design Council Ambassador, and a Churchill Fellow.

The Public Spaces for Children series showcases ideas for action, innovation, programmes, policies and practice that make public spaces child friendly. Read more of our blogs here. 

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