“Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone.”- Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogotá
Childhood is a beautiful time of our lives, where the perils of being an adult never seemed to bother us. A scene that’s conjured up constantly is childhood summer – holidays that seem to never end, ice lollies that never seem to be either ice or water, going out and playing till 8 PM amidst the frantic shouts of our moms. We’ve all been there.
It’s interesting to see the entanglement of urban space and childhood. A typical childhood in a middle-class city includes the street as a space for play and relaxation. The true nature of a street is really in its neutrality – it serves as a space with diverse activities and includes every person living in the street. But let’s be real – we’ve all been that neighbor who yells at the kids for interrupting traffic on the streets. “Look at these irresponsible kids! Don’t they know the dangers of playing on the roads?”
This idea of streets belonging to vehicles and the vilification of joyful recreation on streets has been embedded in the post-industrial era. Ever since cars took charge of practically every facet of urban life, any activity that aims at curtailing their reign has been met with harsh criticism. And yes, that includes scoffing at children exercising their liberty to play on underutilized streets. Although if there’s one thing I’d like to admit, as a former child and somewhat of a rebel, the thrill of playing on the streets was all the more heightened when it was considered forbidden. Children love engaging in activities, especially when the grown-ups disapprove of it. No wonder kids are still playing on the streets!
So how can we break this stigma attached to streets and children? How can we make the streets safer for our young ones? How can cities be made more stimulating for children?
1. Children as stakeholders in planning – Defining a child-friendly city
The United Nations defines Child-Friendly Cities as a city, or system of local governance, that is “committed to fulfilling children’s rights.” And while the UN created an initiative to bring to light the negligence of creating safe spaces for children, highlighting child-stakeholders might isolate their complexly interconnected issues. Child friendliness not only ensures healthy children but is beneficial to the entire urban populace. Since children are an integral part of young families, child-friendly cities are essentially family-friendly cities too.
The Growing Up In Cities Project by UNESCO sheds light on children and their experiences. Kids don’t talk exclusively about playgrounds and separate play spaces as much as they talk about streets, courtyards, public squares, and other informal spaces. This shows that children cherish individuality and freedom, as much as exclusivity. The kinds of spatial freedom that children get to re-imagine how they’d use streets, squares and courtyards are fundamental to fueling creativity.
2. Children and informal urbanism
As Indians, jugaad or informality is in our instincts. Making play places out of ordinary tools is our USP and it has been instilled in us for generations. In a sense, Indian children have truly experienced and reclaimed the democratic space of a street, Katcha or pucca. Historically too, due to urban density and often a lack of dedicated parks and playscapes, streets often substituted as playgrounds.
In Indian cities like Udaipur, Bhubaneshwar, and Pune, urbanists are taking play places one step further. The Urban95 MoU with the Bernard van Leer Foundation has taken strides towards making Indian cities child-friendly. Bhubaneswar has aimed to be India’s first child friendly-city by investing in the Child-friendly Smart City Centre and working on public art with the aid of children.
Meanwhile, in Udaipur, the first child-friendly street art was initiated, using principles of tactical urbanism. The proximity of the intervention to Vidya Bhawan Primary School was crucial to make the space inviting for children.
3. Child-friendly urban design through green spaces
Green spaces not only enhance the ecological aspect of a city but are necessary for the development of children’s cognitive and motor functions. Initiatives and studies like those of Cities Connecting Children to Nature prove that children’s interaction with nature makes them healthier and more resilient, as well as emotionally fulfilled. Children with respiratory ailments like asthma might also benefit from this.
Having small pockets of gardens, plenty of access to local parks, gardens and even forests for trekking and camping help maintain this connection. So it is not a surprise that children’s imaginations go soaring when they find twigs, branches, and mud lying around.
So grandma’s gardens have been beneficial all along!
Children like to occupy and explore a myriad variety of spaces. Urban interventions, therefore, need to address the importance of designing along various verticals. Designer Annie Palone posits in her thesis about these verticals – districts, housing and play places.
The City of Northern Vancouver’s authorities focussed on housing solutions and built forms. Housing units catered to families were prioritized (about 25% of units were reserved for young families) with at least two separate bedrooms, one of them having in-built play place provisions. Also, houses were made closer to street levels, making kids more visible to their parents from their house. In a survey, 96% of its residents recommended living in CNV.
4. Play places: Sonder Boulevard, Copenhagen, Denmark
An erstwhile abandoned median dubbed “Europe’s biggest dog toilet park”, this Boulevard is packed with spaces of every kind, for every age. It was expanded 15-17 m wider, creating a host of spatial opportunities – BMX and skate parks, basketball courts, toddler playground, blossom gardens, and seating spaces.
5. Bringing Change Systematically
It is obvious that when we design cities, we often consider adults as major stakeholders. The definition of diversity often ironically limits itself to caste, class, creed, and race but doesn’t extend itself to age. In a young country like India, the population of urban children is increasing rapidly. As of 2011, children comprise 32% of the 377 million urban Indians, where around 36.5 million children are below the age of six. So children and elders must be included in city planning. Children are indeed the future and fostering their creativity and freedom can lead to them growing into fruitful, healthier adults.
With examples like those in Europe and America, urbanists are rethinking cities to voice the opinions of children. There are certain apprehensions regarding the inclusion of children – “they’re children! They don’t know what they want” is a common retort. But the curiosity of children is what makes them important assets in city planning, and their concerns must be heard.
It’s time that urban planning practice undergoes a complete overhaul – because designing cities is no child’s play, but we must include children in the process!