DESIGNING FOR CHILDREN: Urban Design and Planning in Championing Child-Friendly Practices
The kernel of these ambitious and necessary UN declarations is societal inclusivity, irrespective of age, creed, gender, and ability. Inclusivity is at the core of ERA-co’s mission of Advancing Humanity Through Place. And we believe that by focusing on inclusivity as an organizing principle in design–thinking we will ultimately yield better developments, communities and therefore cities. As our urban areas continue to expand, inclusivity should be at the forefront of minds to prioritise diversity, equity, and accessibility for all residents and workers, regardless of their background, gender, abilities, or socioeconomic status.
Jane Jacobs, The Death, and Life of Great American Cities
Recent years cities are beginning to show positive progress toward commitments to breaking down barriers and ensuring that every individual can participate fully in the social, economic, and cultural life of the community. There is an emerging understanding that inclusivity extends beyond an absence of discrimination; in design, it actively seeks to create physical places where everyone can thrive.
All members of a community are impacted by poor planning and design, however there are those who are disproportionate affected, and feel the consequences that lead to exclusionary environments and negative daily urban experiences. Here, across three articles, we’re taking a closer look at the effects on children, the elderly, and the neurodivergent members of our communities. There have been valid concerns regarding the insufficient response from the built environment field. We can do better. These pieces explore the role of inclusivity across urban design and planning as it relates to Movement and Social and Play Spaces by showcasing examples to inspire.
Designing for Inclusivity: Children and families
The theme for the 2023 Children’s Day is “Investing in our future means investing in our children”. Considering that the UN estimates that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s children will live in cities, the trend of global urbanisation and the increasing pull of cities for families with children, urban environments are emerging as the backdrop on which a future generation of children will need to flourish. As children’s studies gain prominence in the realm of social sciences, it is crucial to engage and align with developments in urban design and planning to gain a nuanced understanding of the contemporary challenges and requirements of children across our urban environments.
The significance of urban design and planning in championing child-friendly practices should not be underestimated. Establishing avenues for children’s participation in decision-making processes, ensuring equal opportunities, enhancing the quality of public spaces, and strengthening safety measures, can be integrated into urban planning and design strategies.
Living in cities can present advantages: vary degrees of access to essential services, social networks, cultural resources, shorter commutes between home, work, and school. It’s this mix and quality of daily activities, individual preferences, together with budget considerations that present implications on choice. Rather than a ‘nice to have’, the establishment of child-friendly community is a cornerstone in the construct of a resilient, thriving community, the building blocks of cities.
There are also health and well-being implications of inclusivity: as child obesity rates rise and social capital diminishes among children, certain critical themes have come to the forefront to help mitigate these challenges. These include the importance of outdoor play, fostering independent mobility, introducing, and enhancing urban green spaces and ensuring safety. To address these priorities effectively, it is essential to develop a comprehensive urban understanding of the interdependencies between the various elements that shape child-friendly spaces and their broader impacts on the community.
According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), children are defined as individuals under the age of 18. This is particularly crucial because the needs of children differ depending on their age group and gender. The requirements of younger children are closely linked to the immediate surroundings of their home. Conversely, older children possess a broader range of mobility, can actively participate in community initiatives, and tend to be more self-reliant. In both scenarios, it remains essential for parents to experience a sense of safety, security, and accessibility to services for themselves and their children, especially when dealing with much younger children.
Movement: Getting from A to B
While recognising the advantages of walking and cycling to school, recent decades have witnessed a decline in children being granted the autonomy to get to school independently. This erosion of children’s self-reliance during their daily journeys is primarily attributed to the growing reliance on cars. Consequently, urban public areas have become less accessible and safe for children. The proliferation of cars has become a self-perpetuating cycle. The increasing number of cars encourages more parents to opt for car transport for their children. The interaction between cars and children has always posed challenges, and the design of streets has now become a central focus in the development of child-friendly urban environments.
Poor public realm
Unsafe crossing and corridors
Balancing pedestrians and car use in urban areas is a crucial challenge. City planners are struggling to strike workable solutions for both walking/cycling and vehicular movement which are both necessary considerations for thriving urban environment. The slow but growing use of electric cars may inch us toward environmental sustainability, but they don’t reduce congestion, nor do they increase safety and accessibility for pedestrians.
This subject has garnered extensive international research attention and has translated into some guidelines implemented by local government and traffic authorities. To curtail vehicle-produced air pollution, increase cycling and create car-reduced environments for safer means of connections, access for children and families are core KPI that is being targeted. There appears to be three broad themes of design and planning initiatives to make this happen:
Close off or introduce shared traffic
The Dutch context has long tradition in this. An early example is the adoption of the concept known as ‘woonerf,’ which was introduced in the 1970s. A woonerf, translates to mean a ‘living yard’ or ‘residential yard’, represents a street design approach that focuses on fostering a safer and more people-oriented environment.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the woonerf is the restriction on vehicle speed, ensuring that cars move no faster than a person’s walking pace. This effectively limits the maximum speed to approximately 5 km/h, significantly enhancing safety within the area especially for children and young families. This concept goes beyond speed limit, it shifts the design concept of a local route: conventional sidewalks are abolished, creating a shared space where bicycles, and pedestrians are the priority, and cars can have limited access. The created shared environment compels all users to be more attentive and fosters a culture of road safety.
Examples of Dutch woonerf shared surface streets
Except for a few cases the woonerf concept largely remained in the Netherlands, until the arrival of COVID-19. The global pandemic required city dwellers to remain local, carry out daily trip by walking and cycling. In the UK, ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs)’ a concept that had its origins in the 1960, took off, especially in London. Since the end of the pandemic the scheme expanded and has become a planning tool to reduce the traffic generated by “rat-running” — a practice where cars use residential roads as shortcuts — those residing and working in these areas can experience easier and safer road access.
Recent findings from London are showing that around two years following the introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN), residents start to reduce their reliance on cars, and child-friendly movement along the LTNs are on the increase. This shift in behaviour takes time, but the uptake is dependent on the provision of good public transport provision and the placement of the LTN.
LTNs frequently spark controversy, with one critique being that they are introduced in more affluent areas, potentially favouring wealthier residents. However, recent studies of LTNs are showing positive trend of equitable distribution of the scheme including in low-income areas of London. The more influential critique comes from car-user groups and lobby who deem them anti-motorist.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in London
Policymakers in mainland Europe are adopting similar measures. Traffic-filtering initiatives, resembling the UK’s LTNs. For example, Barcelona’s superilles, or superblocks, are transforming road intersections into public parks. Berlin is implementing Kiezblocks, which employ bollards and one-way streets to shield neighbourhoods from through-traffic.
Then there are temporary road closure strategies on roads that are adjacent to schools. In the UK School Streets are designed to limit vehicular access during morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups. The inaugural School Street initiative was introduced in Camden in 2017, and as of 2019, there were fewer than 90 such schemes in operation across London. Today, the city boasts a total of 511 School Streets, encompassing nearly 25% of its primary schools, and the number continues to grow with the addition of new installations.
School Street (London)
School Street (Vancouver)
Reduce vehicle speed
One of the main drivers of urban safety for children walking and cycling are cars and their speeds in built-up areas. Across recent decades not only have cars dominated the public realm of cities, but their speed limit guidelines haven’t changed to reflect other users. In 2020 the Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in conjunction with World Health Organisation published the Stockholm Declaration. The declaration set out a series of guidelines, one of which was to strengthen law to mandate a maximum road travel speed of 30 km/h (20mph) in areas where vulnerable road users and vehicles mix. This was the first recognised global effort to start address car speed as a factor of safety in cities.
As a part of this effort the UK-wide ‘Twenty is Plenty’ campaign has helped convince decisionmakers to lower speed limits in and around built-up areas. Today, in London around 51% of streets follows the 20mph speed limit. Noticeable parts of London are seeing increase levels of cycling since the introduction of this policy, especially of teenagers.
20mph campaign, UK
30mph limit Edmonton, Canada
There is a positive perception around safety in numbers. Across the world there are community-led initiatives such as Bikebus or Bicibus where groups of children cycle together, following a specific route and schedule. This is a concept that has been implemented in various cities as part of efforts to promote cycling as a safe, active and eco-friendly way of getting children to school.
The Parkland Walk case study
There is a community appetite for such initiatives, and the commonly asked questions are not why but where and how? School locations, residential areas, various stretches and configuration of roads, public realm quality, all raise a unique set of questions that need to be considered create a best set of interventions for a child-friendly environment.
These are the types of questions that are raised during the planning consultancy process that are often only answered via community consultation and traffic modelling, which typically don’t take into consideration how pedestrian move around in an urban environment. At ERA-co we regularly use a suite of analytical methods to enhance our understanding of urban environments, how people use and explore them.
Every community is unique and will offer its own potential to introduce a design strategy to make it more child friendly. As a case example of ‘opportunities’ the neighbourhood of Crouch End in North London has taken an old, disused railway track and over a couple of decades has turned it into a nature trail. Parkland Walk stretches for 4km and is popular with local runners and walkers. Yet along its car-free route it is rare to see children using it for school-based journeys. To make it more accessible and available for a wider group of people including wheelchair users, the local authority is introducing a series of paved ramps. These ramps together with resurfacing will help local children avoid the main roads and use this green corridor to reach their school location.
Within a 200m catchment the Parkland Walk corridor neighbours 6 primary schools that host 3,000 children. Considering the residential density and the local demographics, Parkland Walk presents itself as a great piece of green infrastructure that could serve as a safe, cycling and walking route for children attending these schools.
Our network analysis of the spatial importance of Parkland Walk to attract cycling movement (left) is high. When the alignment is extended further east, its spatial importance is substantially increased. By introducing some additional connectors, the trail would increase its access to Finsbury Park, which holds multiple playgrounds and sports facilities for older children.
Social and Play Spaces
The social and play domains of urban children around the world are undergoing a significant transformation, shifting from outdoor spaces to indoor environments. There has been a notable increase in the amount of time children spend indoors, making them more centred around their homes. Activities that were traditionally conducted outdoors are now increasingly taking place inside. This transition, which has seen public spaces geared more toward adults, has contributed to a decline in the autonomy of children in the public sphere. Children are less inclined to play outdoors and have limited range of exploration in their neighbourhoods.
A substantial body of literature underscores the health advantages associated with outdoor play, and this awareness is increasingly finding its place within the urban design and planning community. Engaging in outdoor play enhances social skills, motor development, cognitive growth, and academic performance and focus. Furthermore, outdoor play significantly contributes to the daily physical activity requirements for children, thereby promoting preventive measures against obesity and chronic diseases. There is growing advocacy for more cohesive connections between, recreational spaces, safety measures, and public health initiatives.
Children’s urban experiences may exhibit variations across multiple dimensions, such as age, socio-economic status, geographical location, and gender. Playgrounds are communally understood to be safe spaces for children, where they can explore play and learn social interaction. These spaces are challenged to meet the variety of needs of children, and this multiplicity can’t be address here. Nevertheless, we would like to touch on spaces for playing (Temporary play spaces) social interaction (Spaces for teenage girls ) and address the issue of Lighting which impacts all spaces for children.
Temporary play spaces: Play Streets
Kids playing in street 1960s England
Bristol Play Streets
In cities, affluent and well-planned neighbourhoods typically offer a wider array of recreational facilities. In these parts of cities, activity areas in large parks, small playgrounds in pocket parks can be found within walking distances. However, in economically disadvantaged areas, the streets often serve as a cost-effective alternative to more expensive recreational and leisure options. Consequently, the neighbourhood roads emerge as the fundamental building block of daily experiences for most children, playing a pivotal role in shaping their overall well-being.
The genesis of Play Streets goes back to New York in the 1910s, when city administrators recognised the dangers of cars to playing children and authorised street closures during certain hours to allow children to play. In the UK it started in the 1930s but has only really expanded in the last ten years. Across the UK the Play Streets scheme is a free resident and community led initiative. Rather than be used sparingly during national holiday, Play Street sessions can be held weekly, monthly, quarterly or as a one-off proposal. The street is closed to traffic during play sessions but will remain open to the people who live there. This successful strategy goes beyond giving a place for children to play, they also bring the local community together. Recent research has shown that communities that have engaged with the scheme have more community participation and engagement across wider local issues.
Spaces for teenage girls
Teenagers require space for play, socialising, exercise, and unwinding. A range of studies examining the use of public spaces such as playgrounds, outdoor exercise facilities, and public parks indicate a notable gender disparity, with a substantial majority of users being male. Research shows that up to the age of seven, both boys and girls use playgrounds equally. However, a shift occurs from the age of eight onwards. Statistical data reveals that at this point, 80 percent of the teenage users of parks are boys, and girls experience a tenfold increase in feelings of insecurity in public spaces.
Make Space for Girls a British charity has done a great deal of explorative work on this topic. Their studies show that teenage girls experience a sense of exclusion in park environments. There are numerous factors contributing to this phenomenon. One key factor is that teenage boys tend to assert their presence in expansive, undivided areas, whereas girls tend to gravitate towards more dispersed patterned spaces; in park design, the latter rarely exists. Additionally, disparities can be observed in seating preferences; boys often prefer positions where they can observe ongoing activities, whereas girls often prefer arrangements that allow them to face one another. Safety concerns also come into play, adding complexity to the issue.
Swing Time, Boston
There are growing community-led movements aided by advocates and informed by teenage girls to upgrade existing spaces. There are a small and increasing newly designed spaces that consider the unique needs of teenage girls.
To create inclusive public spaces, they should be designed to accommodate the requirements of users spanning all age groups, including teenage girls. Public spaces extend beyond merely promoting physical activity; they are also settings that nurture creativity, encourage social interaction, and ensure safety. Consequently, the design approaches for public spaces should prioritise the incorporation of elements that actively promote the engagement of teenage girls. These strategies should aim to attract them, facilitate their participation, foster social connections, and encourage shared experiences with their peers, all while ensuring that they do not experience a sense of unwelcomeness or vulnerability.
When winter months nights draw in early, and warm summer nights are long, children nevertheless want to stay out and play. Although playgrounds remain accessible around the clock, their nighttime use is minimal. Often, they’re poorly lit by tall lampposts, which are ineffective for a community playground. There is a need for better lighting in parks and playgrounds to ensure children always have access to physical and social activity.
In built-up urban areas are significantly more likely to have a park or playground within a short walking distance. However, the appeal of using these spaces diminish considerably when users don’t feel secure using them after dark.
Aalborg Waterfroint, Denmark
Cities across Scandinavia are leading the way in making playgrounds usable all year round.
Some early explorations of lighting strategies led designers away from the constraints of functional lighting as required by roadways. Instead, smart tech allowed for activating the lighting of public space that is more human-centric, playful, and creative. Working closely with communities, cities such as Uppsala in Sweden, are using smart lighting systems to light several playgrounds. From a central location, lighting can be remotely managed with varying levels of brightness and hues according to time of day and activity levels. The ability to dim lights, reduces energy consumption. Having a thoughtful approach toward lighting has seen an increase in their use, making parents and the children feel safe and secure in well-lit environments.
Designing for Inclusivity – future direction
Community-led movements advocating for child-friendly cities are carrying on the legacy of their predecessors. Through their appropriation of urban spaces, the implementation of citizen-driven approaches, and the mobilisation of large numbers of people, they are generating opportunities to envision and consider alternative, child-friendly shaping of their communities. The gains that are beginning to materialise across our cities, is a direct influence on emerging planning guidelines, and initiatives that at their inception began at the grassroots level.
While physical infrastructures may require time to change, the way communities utilise them can evolve more swiftly. Growing concerns about children’s well-being, combined with the pressing need for a sustainable transformation in urban transportation, provide these movements with newfound leverage.
Whether we are on the verge of a major paradigm shift or not, it appears that, in certain respects, these community-inspired initiatives are setting future directions. On their local children cycling buses, through to the creation of temporary streets, they are not merely advocating for a better future; they’re setting the direction.
But what is the role of the designer in all of this? It surely needs to be of the engaged, listening advocate. Cities are generators of innovation, wealth, and prosperity, and where we socially come to meet and live together. As we talk of the future city with its buildings and infrastructure, the current children will be those living in them and equally important to set the future direction. It is incumbent on the design and planning professions to listen to their needs and design with consideration and inclusivity.
Atakan Guven, Director of Urban Analytics – ERA-co
Atakan is Manager of Urban Systems with SUPERSPACE and Senior Associate at Woods Bagot. Prior to joining SUPERSPACE, Atakan worked at Space Syntax Limited, where for over 5 years worked on an array of projects including the Jeddah Metro project with Foster + Partners and the Duqm masterplan with Atkins. While at LSE Cities, he managed a research project for PBL Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency and the London Development Agency, focusing on regional-scale city planning.
Atakan has an MSc in Geospatial Sciences at UCL where he gained a broad understanding of methods of spatial data acquisition and analysis, ranging from terrestrial surveys to satellite imagery. He has over 15 years’ experience working in the urban research field with a focus on utilising GIS and other analytical packages to inform and implement urban design and masterplanning strategies. Using an evidence-based, multi-actor approach, he has worked on projects at varying scales from the neighbourhood to the city-region level.