The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child championed children’s participation in all social processes, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that UNICEF took that goal further by introducing the concept of cities by and for children.
In the last decade, organizations like the Children’s Environments Research Group and the Bernard van Leer Foundation have promoted the importance of children-engagement in urban planning. As initiatives to integrate children’s ideas into urban planning have spread, cities are finding the benefits are more than ‘pint-sized’.
It may go against the old maxim, but actually children must be seen and heard – especially in the cities in which they live. To enable this, a city should be designed on a scale that literally doesn’t overshadow them, so that children can feel confident and safe.
Child-friendly designs can take the form of pocket parks, pedestrian zones or educational hotspots. A safe and engaging atmosphere for children allows them to grow a connection with their city, as well as a fascination with their surroundings, and a curiosity about it.
This encourages children to interact with their neighborhood in age-appropriate ways, and eventually shape it – as they grow older – in ways that empower and promote their active participation, something all citizens and their cities thrive on.
Although many people find the idea of child-friendly cities endearing, they may not understand why children’s active involvement in decisions and urban design is important. It’s difficult for some to grasp that what’s good for children is good for all.
As cities have soared higher and higher, some have ignored street-level life – an essential component for residents to build relationships to each other and their surroundings. By literally taking it down to a child’s level, people can increase the intensity of urban interconnectedness, and strengthen the fabric of a good quality of life.
A city designed from the eyes of children encourages ideas that are healthy for all. Parks to play in become spaces for socializing, small-sized planning breaks up large-scale anonymity, pedestrian safety challenges auto-centric hubs, early engagement becomes social responsibility… and the list goes on and on.
To leave children out of urban planning means losing the chance to connect future leaders with issues like overcrowding, safety and sustainability. Getting kids thinking about their surroundings early on – observing and commenting – teaches them critical life skills.
Games like Minecraft have already tuned into a child’s need to construct a world all their own. UN Habitat recently used Minecraft to open a dialogue with young people. Now in 15 countries, workshops are organized where children use the game to present their ideas to local decision-makers.
The Box City classroom materials and events bring teachers and urban planners together to help children learn how a city is created and to find ways for them to creatively express their views on how to make it better.
While education is a first step, children must also be empowered. Organizations – both local and international, such as UN-sponsored The Children and Youth Assembly – are increasingly providing platforms for children to explore, discuss and shape their urban experiences.
Here are a few examples from around the world, where the voices of urban kids are being heard by their cities.
Sweden: “Jakopsgården” is a long-term development project that analyzes traffic, pedestrian and biking lanes, play and meeting areas, and buildings by engaging youth via dialogue, model building and urban walking tours.
Japan: School children in Keitaro Ito, Fukutsu City gathered in workshops and created presentations of their ideas for the water environment for a local park, in particular regarding the selection of fish and aquatic insects, and water depth.
India: A resource kit with a child-friendly pictorial survey tool enables Mumbai children to assess the quality of their communities in areas ranging from play to housing to health care. Also in Mumbai, a Humara Bachpan campaign helps kids in poor urban areas make 3D models of their dream neighborhoods to share with local government representatives, addressing issues such as street lighting and pollution.
To build better and more sustainable cities, we will all need to be included in urban planning. That means including children, too. Doing so now can only help everyone, as these children grow to become our ambassadors to the future of sustainable urban living.
We could also simply say that city planners come in all ages and sizes. Although the actual inclusion of children in planning cities is still in its infancy, the idea of child or all-age friendliness is inexorably affecting the design of urban planning.