Towards Child-Friendly Cities
In Conversation with Nidhi Gulati of Project for Public Spaces (PPS)
“ If a city is designed with the health and well-being of little children in mind, your decisions will look different and so will the built environment itself. You will tend to find more slow streets suitable for play than speedways. You are more likely to see smaller parks in closer proximity to people’s homes than mega district parks farther apart. Our streets will be lined with vendors for all kinds of things. You will find bus stops and train stations within safe distance with a shelter, a water fountain, and restrooms in sight. All these things are possible, we just have to think harder about what makes our environment truly more livable. "
For the first time in our history, we have more people living in cities. In 2015, 54% of the global population had become urban, and this trend of urbanisation is going to increase manifolds in the coming decades, especially in countries like India, China and Nigeria. It is estimated that by 2050, nearly 70% of the global population will be living in urban areas.
While cities present opportunities for growth and development by driving the global economy, they also tend to harbour inequalities among different groups. One such group that finds little mention in the discourse of inclusive and equitable cities are the children. Out of the current urban population of 4.2 billion people, one-third of them are children—who start their life as completely dependent beings and are strongly (and often negatively) affected by many societal changes. Like any of us, children are individuals too, but their needs are rarely heard and considered in the development process.
On 9th June 2019, we organised a public forum on Child Friendly City Design in collaboration with Trust for Regeneration of Indian Settlements (TRIS). We had Adarsha Kapoor, Ishleen Kaur and Naina Seth as the speakers for the forum.
With the aim of promoting the idea of developing cities that provide health, well-being and equity to children, we talked to Nidhi Gulati, who is a Built Environment and Social Impact professional, and works as a Program Manager (Streets and Transportation) with Project for Public Spaces, New York NY.
We asked for her insights on child-friendly cities and the importance of a participatory process in ensuring a long-term change. Here is what she had to say:
1. How the planning and design of cities can help in assisting a happy childhood?
Most people don’t realize how enormous an impact the design of our cities and towns has on the experiences we have as a baby, a toddler, and a child. For example - our mode of transportation impacts cognitive development in children and their ability to map things in their heads, in addition to dictating whether or not you run into people from different walks of life, your ability and opportunity for physical fitness, and exposure to certain pollutants. A study in London recently found how detrimental diesel emissions and pollutants are to children’s lungs, and being inside the automobile only puts makes you more vulnerable and closer to the source. Alternatively, children who take public transit are twice as likely to get their physical exercise without any additional effort put into it. So the decisions made by public/political forces, combined with the design of the cities perpetuates or inhibits the overuse of certain modes of transportation, which can have a huge impact on children’s health and well-being.
Physical health is more commonly understood and studied around the world, but two other facets of health that are equally important and less well-understood are mental and social health. I eluded to the cognitive health benefits of compact, walkable cities a bit above. To elaborate, children who walk and cycle with caregivers or alone develop a much better understanding of the built environment, especially in the first 5 years of their life. Also, they are much more autonomous and independent when they aren’t driven around everywhere and non-reliant on the generosity of an older adult who controls their schedule and mobility.
For psychological health, scientists around the world are finding out that the younger generations are more susceptible to loneliness than their parents generation. It is easy to blame technology and screen exposure for this epidemic. What is less intuitive is that people are increasingly living in secluded suburban environments with way fewer opportunities to gather in the public realm and interact with other human beings. Serendipitous encounters are being engineered out of our lives fueled, to some extent, by fear and the aspiration for a better life. Climate change and the rising temperatures only make it harder to be outdoors, and guess what, the suburban and drivable built environment is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse emissions, putting future generations at risk.
If a city is designed with the health and well-being of little children in mind, your decisions will look different and so will the built environment itself. You will tend to find more slow streets suitable for play than speedways. You are more likely to see smaller parks in closer proximity to people’s homes than mega district parks farther apart. Our streets will be lined with vendors for all kinds of things. You will find bus stops and train stations within safe distance with a shelter, a water fountain, and restrooms in sight. All these things are possible, we just have to think harder about what makes our environment truly more livable.
2. Who are the key stakeholders and actors in ensuring long-term child-friendly development? What is the role of a family in this development process?
For any long term change, you have to change policy and manuals for city planning. Anyone in advocacy can tell you how hard it is to sustain change without changing the mandates that perpetuate the same cookie cutter, and unthoughtful design of our cities. In order to change policy, you have to think about your elected and public officials as major stakeholders. Policies don’t change without political will.
Secondly, you need data to create political will and not just quantitative data, but qualitative data as well that tugs on the heartstrings. So, academics and researcher have got to be your friends who are ready and willing to probe the right questions and find the evidence.
Third, the ultimate beneficiaries of these decisions - children and their caregivers have to be looked at as allies and stakeholders. Citizen support is not only helpful in making and sustaining change but also to identify the right kind of change. What is it that these vulnerable (and often overlooked) group of our citizens even need? It is very important to take a human-centered approach to understand the needs and sensitivities of your audience, young families in this case. I bet if children were picking between a train or road, they will pick the train; a child's excitement around trains is one of the most universal feelings. If caregivers were picking, smaller parks near their homes would be preferred over a large, consolidated green. And so on. After all, an urban family has the most to gain (or lose) when their environment prioritizes (or ignores) their needs. Someone once told me, there is no better advocate for safer streets and walkable cities than mothers. The group called - Mothers out Front in NY is an example of that passion in action.
3. Have you experienced any changes in the way children (of various age groups) behave or interact in areas with child-friendly interventions?
Yes! Watch a 5-year-old cycle autonomously in Harlem, Netherlands; an 8-year-old take the subway from school in New York City with a snack in his/her hand, and a pre-teen wait impatiently (and helplessly) for their caregiver to pick them up in a car outside their school in suburban Toronto. These are all indicators. Other indicators include kids’ ability to learn new languages based on frequent (however brief) exposure, level of comfort befriending people who look or sound different from them, often diverse food palette, courtesy the exposure (again) to people from different walks of life without seeking them out. These are all signs of what a city does or doesn’t allow for and they aren’t even subtle, you just have to want to see them. In the 21st century, melting pot cities have to be created. They don’t occur organically and that is really what you are aiming for here.
We have to remember what Winston Churchill said - “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Something that a global leader in human-centered design, Jan Gehl modified ever so slightly to say - “We shape our cities; thereafter they shape us.” Our behaviors at any age in the built environment are merely a result of what it affords us to do, and how it wants us to behave.
4. How can a neighborhood or a community assess and understand the needs of children? How do you make them identify the gaps and aspire for change?
I would propose two approaches here -
First, talk to young families and children of a certain age about their needs, hopes, and desires. That is the basis of human-centered design - an engagement process for the beneficiaries. Get creative about engaging the actual beneficiaries in all stages of the decision-making process. You really have to deploy more than one tactic because no two people have the same level of comfort speaking up in public processes, so, you have to meet people’s level of comfort rather than expecting them to step out of their zone. From that point, it is our job to translate those visions, challenges, and opportunities into a product - The city.
Secondly, it is important for everyone involved in the planning, decision making, and implementation process to be considerate of the needs of young families. I would even urge you to go beyond consideration, and aim to convert those outside of the target beneficiary group to become advocates for young families. How do you do that? By walking in the shoes of children and caregivers. Bernard Van Leer Foundation, based in the Hague, the Netherlands has championed some very interesting engagement tactics where they make people perform an Urban95 test and stroller test. So people who don’t usually push a stroller through a city, or see the world through the eyes of a 5-year-old are asked to do these things. I promise you if you kneel down closer to the ground pretending to be a 5-year-old at the intersection of a street, you would not want to own an SUV or speed through an intersection in a pick-up truck.
You can’t be what we can’t see, and you can’t expect your decision makers to do so either. So, the challenge is to make as many people see what makes a place great for children because they are the future of our civilization and we must put their needs at the forefront. And guess what, a city that prioritizes the needs of its youngest, retains its population the best and serves the needs of all other demographic groups just as well.
Design for the most vulnerable and you have got everyone else covered. Good luck on this journey!