Cities & Towns for Children

Illustration of a cityscapeMore and more children live in cities and towns today. We need to think urgently about how those urban neighbourhoods cater for children’s needs.

But there is a growing concern with the loss of freedom which children have suffered. A general increase in traffic has made city streets unsafe and as a result many parents prefer to drive their children places. This of course leads to a vicious cycle of even more cars on the road. A tendency to drive rather than walk means people are less likely to get to know their neighbours. That lack of community familiarity feeds into worries about ‘stranger danger’ which causes considerable fear among parents for their children’s safety. With all these worries and concerns, it’s no wonder parents are afraid to allow their children to wander about.

In an attempt to address the loss of freedom, cities and towns increasingly create child designated places such as playgrounds, schools crèches and after school centres. While all these facilities have an important role in children’s lives, they do also have the adverse effect of removing children from their local streets and restricting their freedom to wander freely through their communities where they would otherwise develop a sense of place and belonging.

Urban worlds

Photograph of a child walking to school.My own research indicates that children flourish when they feel they are part of their urban worlds. When they can walk through their neighbourhoods to school and other places, they enjoy a stimulating and rich experience. They describe that experience as sensory, as quite imaginative, as pragmatic and as highly sociable. In fact children have a lot to contribute to the city. By being present they help develop social networks among children and adults alike, they see a beauty often hidden from adult eyes and they describe an extraordinary level of nature from snails slithering across the footpath to the vitality of leafy trees scattered around.

But children also know the down side of the urban realm. They are concerned with high volumes of traffic, neglected sites and buildings, litter, dog dirt, rubbish and graffiti. Their naturally playful instinct is inhibited by rules surrounding what is considered appropriate behaviour in public space.

Children who regularly walk through their urban neighbourhoods are experts on the ups and downs of their towns and cities, and we have much to learn from them. There is a lot of talk these days about creating ‘child-friendly’ cities. Children deserve cities which cater for their need to participate in city life. But we can only understand those needs if we ask them. Children have a lot to teach us and our cities benefit considerably when we listen to them. Contact us for more information on how to plan child-friendly cities.