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How kid-friendly urban design makes cities better for all

A new report from Arup argues that child-friendly design is our urban future.

Hudson River Greenway playground in New York City.

Promoting urban planning projects often relies on an inspiring narrative: what are we as a community trying to accomplish, and how do we want our neighborhoods to evolve? Few stories are as universal as building a better future for our children. But in urban design, it’s too often a tale untold.

A new research report focused on child-first urban planning, Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods, argues that designing for children can be the anchor and central theme animating a larger progressive urban agenda. Written by the international engineering, planning, and consulting firm Arup, the report offers numerous case studies, sobering statistics—such as the fact that 1 billion children live in urban settings right now—and visions for tackling what they see as the main hurdles to more youth-friendly metropolises: traffic and pollution, high-rise living and sprawl, crime, isolation and intolerance, and unequal, inadequate access to the city’s benefits.

Most importantly, it suggests a child-friendly lens can help leaders, planners, and designers envision a better city for everyone, one that offers a wealth of social benefits (society gains $8 in benefits for every $1 spent on early play-based education, according to a University College London study).

“Perhaps uniquely, a child‐friendly approach has the potential to unite a range of progressive agendas—including health and wellbeing, sustainability, resilience and safety—and to act as a catalyst for urban innovation,” the report notes.

Maggie Daley Park in Chicago

Many sweeping, and optimistic, modern movements to change metro design focused on children. From the Garden City movement to the post-war suburban boom, updated living environments have often been sold with a promise of healthier living environments for our kids.

But today, urban environmental and health issues are increasingly on the rise, a crises when experts believe that by 2030, 60 percent of all city dwellers will be under the age of 18. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of overweight children globally will skyrocket to 70 million by 2025, from 41 million in 2016, and rates of childhood mental health problems, triggered by the stress of urban life, is also on the rise.

To reverse these trends, Cities Alive proposes a combination of parks, play, equitable planning, and making nature more prevalent. Cars, specifically the amount of real estate given over to roads and vehicles, presents a big problem. This infrastructure often form borders between children and freer access to playspaces, and limits other mobility options.

The report says that the problem, exacerbated in developing countries, is a universal challenge for cities. Road fatalities cost between $65 and $100 billion annually, according to NACTO, and recent research found that for every 10 minutes spent in a car, a child’s time spent participating in communities activities falls by 10%.

“With less independent mobility, children have a reduced ability to navigate and experience the city,” the report states. “This means fewer opportunities for social interaction, chance encounters, playful journeys and discovery.”

Numerous cities have started to seek out feedback from their youngest citizens and plan with children in mind. Rotterdam, Vancouver, and Toronto, which recently released kid-friendly guidelines for high-rise development have created kid-centered design and development guidelines. Oslo spearheaded the development of an app that allows children walking to school to play “secret agent” and report issues with street repairs and heavy traffic, to allow them to have a say in street-level design. Many cities have, not surprisingly, reaped the benefits of allowing teens to participate in park design, or have created children’s design councils to discover how to design for this particular constituency.

Cities Alive suggests an agenda that focuses on walkability, safety, and shared urban spaces obviously not only benefits children, but offers widespread societal and economic benefits that can’t be ignored. Pedestrianization of streets can boost foot traffic and commercial activity, adding $9 per square foot to annual rents, according to a Walk Score analysis. The authors suggest evaluating streets by the popsicle test: can a child safely walk to a store, buy a popsicle, and return before it melts?

The examples range from temporary interventions to massive redevelopments. In Leeds, England, a pop-up park program in the town square not only brought more families downtown and created additional playspaces, but increased foot traffic and spending. Surveys found 85 percent of families would spend more time downtown due to the improved playground, parks, and playspaces. Another UK project, the Housing Design for Community Life study, examined landscape design in public housing, concluding that developments with the most external playspaces for children exhibited the highest levels of use by adults. The Darling Quarter in Sydney, a large mixed-use project anchored around a sizable playground, has become one of the city’s most-visited destinations.

Barcelona’s ambitious superblock program, a widespread reconsideration of land-use that will turn streets into public spaces, will line city blocks with pedestrian zones, parks, and increased activity, creating more “citizen spaces” with increased space for culture, leisure and community activities.

With urban populations growing, the oft-repeated cliche about children being our futures is doubly true in cities. Cities Alive argues that keeping them at the center of building and design discussions will fuel smarter, more sustainable growth.

“If children are not designed into our cities, they are designed out,” wrote George Monbiot, who is quoted in the report. “This means that they are deprived of contact with the material world, with nature, with civic life and with their own capacities.”