Do you want to be a child-friendly city? Just take the children in your city seriously and think of their families, older friends, and neighbours while you are planning, designing, and organizing the maintenance of outdoor space for play – and you will get a city that is friendly to everyone.
1. Remember, once we were kids
Have you ever wondered what happens to us when we grow up and lose the ability of children to accept circumstances and enjoy opportunities of the moment?
It crossed my mind the morning after the city became white from the first seasonal snow. Someone broke into the debate about the daily inconveniences snow generates, saying: “But the kids love it!” Suddenly, we all started to talk not only about how our children love snow but also about how we appreciate the snowy days, the breaking down of everyday routine and the joy of unpredicted socialising while cleaning the sidewalks with our neighbours.
Adults who plan space for children in our cities should remember their childhood too. Only some kind of oblivion can explain how – at a certain point – we ended up with boringly safe and tidy playgrounds on one side and with children lacking opportunities to play outdoors close to their homes on the other. These two extremes aroused public interest on the turn of millennium. Research findings showed how seriously exaggeration with safety standards and poor planning and management affect the living conditions of children, media reports reached a wide public interest.
2. Back to the future
The well-being of children is considered the ultimate indicator of a healthy urban habitat, democratic society and good governance. By launching the initiative Child Friendly City, back in 1996, at the Second conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), the United Nations (UN) stressed that children’s rights must be at the centre of our concerns if we are trying to provide the best possible conditions for growing up in cities.
The care given to the conditions children meet outside of their homes only appeared with the development of industrial city, in the late 19th century. The idea of playgrounds developed as a response to unhealthy and dangerous living conditions, along with ideas of public parks and of social services. Since then, a playground is considered a safe public place that improves physical and social living conditions of children in the urban environment. Playgrounds are an element of urban social infrastructure. Social policy is closely linked to urban planning when it comes to ensuring social equality, cohesion, and inclusion.
Basic planning rules on children welfare were developed around the concept of “neighbourhood unit” (Clarence Perry, 1929) and were confirmed by findings of research, summarised in the legendary urbanistic reading book Pattern language (Alexander C. et al., 1977) . These rules are that:
– A local school/park/playground must be placed at a short and safe distance from the home, maximum 5 minutes away from home, so that the parents and kids do not lose the motivation to visit.
– The play/recreational area must be large enough to offer shelter from the negative impacts of the city life.
Safety encourages parents to let the children to go play alone. But a simple plain accessible space is not enough to attract children to play, to keep them motivated, and to have them return over time. The playing area must be also covered with trees and other plants. These simple, yet vague rules are known to guarantee the quality of outdoor life, health, and social development of children from the early 20th century on.
What happened to urban development in the 20th century, the century of child, which made it necessary for the United Nations (Habitat II in 1996) to intervene and remind us of children’s rights?
Evidence proves, also in Europe , that many urban children still feel the negative effects of poverty and inequality (Children in an increasingly urban world). Children in our cities feel the consequences of the weakening of social policy and spatial planning. Both combined cause wide spatial inequalities in our cities, between inner cities and urban outskirts for instance. It impacts on children’s quality of life. The United Nations raised the voice on a base of evidence that children need such an intervention from a globally recognized institution.
Since the United Nations declared that the “well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society and of good governance”, we, planners, tend to search for new solutions that take into account the perspective of children.
3. Planning, planning, planning
Starting from children needs, each city must find out its own list of problems and solutions. Spatial planning is one of the most efficient tools to improving urban children’s quality of life. Spatial planning enables cities to reserve the proper amount of land for accessible open public space in appropriate locations, along with housing and public services like schools, community centres and health care institutions. So far no other way proved to be more efficient in providing equally fair opportunities for health, social equality, cohesion, and inclusion.
Cities must act strategically to fulfil children’s need to play (Adrian Voce, 2017). For instance, the city of Vienna provides ambitiously planned new public parks for diverse set of users along with new housing areas, as well as small urban interventions to improve outdoor facilities in existing denser city areas (Urban Development Plan Vienna Step 25, 2014). Cities in Scotland are supported by a national strategy built on a wish: that “Scotland to be best place to grow up”. It implies “to improve the play experiences of all children and young people, including those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
4. Ask the children
Once a city provides space for play, the questions about design, equipment, and safety pop up. At some point safety managed to overcome all other aspects of design. Exaggeration on health and safety standards was the reason why many playgrounds became so safe that children lost interest in them. Children need adventure, the excitement of the unknown, unpredictable and dangerous. Now we, planners, are facing a new imperative: “as safe as necessary” instead of “as safe as possible”, as experts say: risk prepares kids for life.
Playground experts and designers go even further. They started asking children what they appreciate about playgrounds and how they want to play. Research and pilot projects brought out two new aspects:
– children care more about nature, trees, shrubs, wood, sand, and water than about sophisticated play equipment and
– children love to be involved in construction too.
Close cooperation with children triggered a whole new revival of adventurous playgrounds.
5. Design for all
Designing for children requires from us to think about all children, no matter their abilities, and about adults too. If once the perspective of adults mislead to too safe designs, now designers are more aware that playgrounds are public spaces that should meet the needs of all generations, since play is a basic human need.
Universal design is the key: design accessible to all, to people without disabilities and people with disabilities. Play areas should be combined with new types of equipment, more benches, coffee pavilions, and public toilets. Adults become responsible again for safety and children are motivated to play outdoor or assist them, like for instance on the junk playground in New York.
As they say in Finland: play is serious business.
6. Involve the community, including children
When planning a new playground one must always include maintenance solutions. The play value can only be sustained thanks to maintenance.
Many new playgrounds in our cities prove that there is a strong political will to please the needs of children. Considerable sums of public money are spent for construction of new, impressive imaginary playscapes like the ones of the city of Malmö , which Alex Smith (@PlayGroundology) describes as “simply playgroundalicious”.
At the same time, due to budget cuts, play opportunities in residential neighbourhoods, especially in poor urban communities and on the urban outskirts, are being neglected.
It seems that we are trapped in place-making and forgot about place-keeping. The innovative – and rather new term place-keeping – as defined by professor Nicola Dempsey (2012) (@DrNicolaDempsey) is an activity which ensures that the quality of newly arranged places is secured for the long term. To overcome lack of resources for maintenance, new models of collaborative maintenance are being tested.
The municipality of Macerata (Italy) – an URBACT Good Practice – tested new solutions to improve the management of everyday play possibilities in housing areas within a project called Play and Grow (QUIsSI Gioca!). The collaboration between municipality, local actors, and interested local residents, children and adults, started from the very beginning of the planning process for the regeneration of abandoned public space, in order to serve the needs of local residents as well as their capability to keep the space and the programme running. In Macerata they now know that children’s needs are best served if we involve them in planning and design as well as in construction and maintenance of play areas.
7. What is good for children is good for all
Children today have needs similar to those of their forebears: they need opportunities to play outside, close to their homes. They are highly stimulated by nature and by other people, children and adults.
Cities can fulfil these needs by taking into consideration long term spatial development, in particular for housing and public space. Collaborative methods of design, construction, and management can significantly improve the capacity of local authorities to cope with the work and with the expenses.
Experience also proves that once a city administration and politics open up fairly to care for the needs of all children, they start to work in favour of other groups of citizens too. Providing safe and healthy childhood for all children actually means taking good care of all of us.
Photos: Maja Simoneti