Why child-friendly urban design matters

Author: Tim Gill

If current trends continue, the future of humankind is in cities, and urban childhoods are set to become the global norm. Yet, as they grow, few cities work well for their inhabitants. Too many – in high-, middle- and low-income countries – are polluted, car-dominated and inequitable.

How might we improve the built form of cities so that they are a force for good: not just for children, but for everyone, and for the planet? One compelling answer – set out in my book Urban Playground – is to adopt child-friendly urban planning and design: to make the public realm of cities – their streets, squares and parks – more accessible, welcoming and engaging for children of all ages. This approach embraces the maxim made popular by Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, that the child is an ‘indicator species’ for cities. The presence of children of different ages playing and moving around – being active and visible in public space – is a sign of the health of urban habitats, just like salmon thriving in a river.

While the importance of housing and urban utilities is unarguable, child-friendly urban planning highlights spatial features that make a difference to children’s well-being and quality of life, beyond their basic needs. Because children need not just to survive but to thrive: to take their rightful place in urban public life.

The author exploring the city from a child’s perspective. Credit: Cynthia Gentry

Child-friendly urban planning offers a substantive vision for neighbourhoods: one that sees children’s everyday freedoms, and the resulting benefits for them and their families, as essential. It also focuses on built environment disciplines. Of course children’s spatial lives are shaped by other factors, including adult attitudes and practices (as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recognises). But these disciplines are uniquely influential, because they fix the basic physical form of cities, and their decisions – for good or ill – will last for generations.

Central to Urban Playground’s vision of child-friendly planning is a two-dimensional framework or model first set out by the Finnish planning and environmental geography academic Marketta Kyttä. This framework highlights the role of – on the one hand – the choice and variety of spaces across a neighbourhood, and – on the other – children’s mobility. Provocatively, my book proposes the German flagship sustainable master planned suburb of Vauban as a concrete example of a district that, in spatial terms, is highly child-friendly. It works particularly well for children because, as well as having plentiful, playful green space in a compact, walkable urban form, it is largely car-free.

This vision unarguably reflects the views of children themselves. They value freedom of movement, choice and variety, and welcoming green spaces, and dislike traffic and run-down places. These views (which resonate with the childhood memories of older generations) are surprisingly consistent.

While influenced by Northern European cities and urbanists, this vision is also relevant to the Global South. It can be seen in municipal programmes in Recife and Fortaleza in Brazil, as well as Tirana in Albania (one of Europe’s poorest countries). Likewise the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Streets for Kids initiative, which brings a child-friendly lens to transportation planning, is working in Kigali, Santiago, Cape Town, Pasig (Metro Manila) and Udaipur, amongst other cities.   

One unifying fact about cities is that, no matter what their location, they are inherently complex systems. They have a bewildering array of stakeholders, with differing concerns and often competing values. Change can happen in countless ways, with many possible types, scales and levels of intervention, with often unpredictable consequences.

Photo: World Bank / Vincent Tremeau

A child-friendly lens is a powerful way to navigate this complexity. It ensures a focus on the longer term and on the common good. It highlights equity and fairness, weakening the influence of vested interests that can otherwise dominate decision-making. And it takes difficult, abstract debates – for example about land use or sustainable transport – and makes them more concrete and relatable. All of which helps to build consensus around the ethics, politics and practice of city-building.

So, what do you think? Can a child-oriented, public space-focused approach cut through in cities that are currently dominated by cars? How about cities where rapid, unplanned urbanisation is creating huge pressures? Or cities where, thanks to longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, the child population is in decline? Do share your views and experiences as this series unfolds.


This is the first article in a series by Tim Gill based on his 2021 book Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities – showing how a child’s lens can help to tackle the challenges cities face.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. When re-sharing this content please ensure accreditation by adding the following sentence: ‘This blog was first published by the Global Alliance – Cities4Children (www.cities4children.org/blog)’