Tipping the Scales Toward Child Friendly Cities

Editor’s note – Thanks to Ian Smith (no relation) for this guest post on Child Friendly Edmonton. Smith is passionate about including children in city life. As Coordinator of Edmonton’s Child Friendly Cities initiative, he is in a unique position to experience their meaningful contributions first hand. So much so that he is convinced that municipal planners, policy makers and citizens at large have much to gain from listening to young people’s perspectives and ideas. Ian would like to acknowledge and recognize that parts of this article including some phrasing, ideas and concepts are based on Mara Mintzer’s 2017 TEDx talk How Kids Can Help Design Cities and that the ideas have been adapted to reflect how they apply to Child Friendly Edmonton. 

Nearly 25 years ago, UNICEF and UN – Habitat launched the Child Friendly Cities Initiative. As of 2018, 30 million children in 38 countries were being reached by this growing global movement. Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, UK released Making London Child-Friendly: Designing Places and Streets for Children and Young People, a milestone for the movement as it welcomed a leading world city to its ranks.

Major philanthropic organizations like the Bernard Van Leer Foundation are also lending support to engaging children’s perspectives on city living through their multi-year Urban95 project and other strategies. Just last month, Urban95 hosted an online twitter forum on livable, child friendly cities.

Other helpful and reliable sources of information on making cities more child friendly are: Rethinking Childhood; Cities for Play; Child in the City; and, CityLab. And now for Edmonton….

Sixth Grade Science and the City of Tomorrow

Edmonton, Canada is one of North America’s youngest cities but to 150,000 of its children citizens, it can still feel out of scale, out of reach and out of touch. Since 2006, Child Friendly Edmonton has been cheerfully obsessed with educating Edmontonians about the opportunities of working with children to come up with city-design solutions. We believe that inviting children to be a part of the design process can lead to a happier and more inclusive city.

 

We believe that inviting children to be a part of the design process can lead to a happier and more inclusive city.

 

Common sense suggests we need to include all users and welcome children’s ideas as important sources of information and experience that contribute to the development of our cities? If we’re building a park to be largely used by kids, then shouldn’t kids have a say in the park’s design? Shouldn’t this premise hold for a mental health campaign, or policy on child care, or safety on transit or public washrooms? The list goes on. These are questions child friendly advocates grapple with every day as they prioritize decisions and assess impacts on children.

In Edmonton, we try to think about people of all ages and circumstances before we put another shovel in the ground, or sign off on another strategy. But too often, outside those laughter-filled rooms in our homes and schools, the city feels dismissive of our smallest citizens.

Quintessentially Canadian Street Play

Imagine you are an architect or a contractor constructing a new building in your city. If you do not consider the needs of children, what could some of the implications be? What should a city in 2020 or 2050 look like to be safe, playful, connected and ultimately livable for an urban childhood? Who better to ask about this than children themselves?

Many people wonder how it’s possible for children to actually grasp these big city issues and complex problems such as the affordable housing crisis, the development of a transportation master plan, the role of mass public transportation or, prioritizing density housing solutions? And even if they had ideas, wouldn’t they be childish, or unfeasible to implement? Questions such as these require consideration because excluding children’s participation in civic issues can result in bigger design problems. It’s not just about designing parks, it’s about the values we embrace in our collective city building efforts.

Child friendly advocates like Mara Mintzer and myself aren’t suggesting that all ideas from children should be implemented. It’s about the principle of including children. Some ideas from children – a fully electric transit bus fleet, no fees for recreation and leisure centres, no bullying or adventure playgrounds in every neighborhood – may not be immediately feasible, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. We need to seriously consider and use these ideas as visioning and concepts for the type of city we want to create.

Downtown Fun – Keeping Warm and Toasty

On various occasions I’m reminded of the concepts that Mara Mintzer brings up and reflect on them in our context. Kids think differently than adults, and that’s a huge value we don’t appreciate enough. Adults think about constraints: how much time a project will take, how much money it will cost and what potential risks it presents. In other words, how can we avoid risk and build for safety? This is obviously important, we need experts providing technical feasibility and advice. Kids are experts in their own lives. When kids dream up a space they very often include fun, playfulness and activities in their designs. This is not always what adults prioritize for public spaces. However, research shows that fun, play and movement are exactly what we need – adults and children together – to stay healthy.

 

Overall, children have an inclusive mindset

in their city planning.

 

Overall, children have an inclusive mindset in their city planning. Without even being aware of it, it just happens. They design for everyone, from their elderly friend with a walker, to their multicultural friend who is struggling to learn English, to the marginalized individual they see resting at the transit stop. Children design for people not for cars, politicians, advocacy groups, egos, or corporations. The last and perhaps most compelling discovery I have made is that a city which is friendly to children is a city friendly to all.

That line of thinking reveals something important that has for too long been a blind spot. If we aren’t including children in our planning, who else are we excluding from the process? We can’t possibly know the needs and wants of other people without asking. That goes for kids as well.

So, adults, let’s stop thinking of our children as future citizens, and instead start valuing them for the citizens and leaders they are right now. Go and read the Sixth Grade Science and the City of Tomorrow the result of a consultation on Edmonton’s draft City Plan that included feedback from over 1600 children. Our children are designing more sustainable cities that will make us happier and healthier. Children are designing the cities we all want to live in.

Meeting of the Minds on the Steps of City Hall

Our goal is to enable Edmonton’s children to feel like they have a role in the city and do not have to wait until they’re 18, voting age, for their opinions to be heard and considered. We want to help create the environment and circumstances where they’ll feel connected, invested and engaged in a community that feels joyful and optimistic – a place designed for them that incorporates their needs and perspectives.

We would like to thank all those who are long standing champions as well as new and future child friendly city advocates who embrace this approach. To learn more about what municipalities and other regions across the world are doing, visit UNICEF Child Friendly Cities. A thank you and recognition go out to Mara Mintzer and the team at Growing Up Boulder. You can learn more about the Growing Up Boulder (GUB) experience here.

Play is an important component of every child friendly city.

“For kids, play is not an outcome based pursuit. It is spontaneous and without any specific purpose beyond play itself. As adults we all have a responsibility to help children experience the joy of play. Let’s embrace risk and resilience and support the renaissance of play.” – Open Letter to Mayors and Councillors – PlayGroundology

Click through for additional information on Child Friendly Edmonton.

What strategies are being developed and implemented in your town or city to make it more child friendly?

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