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Child-Friendly Cities: From Playgrounds To Streets

A recent report from Arup identifies five challenges for children living in urban areas: traffic and pollution; high-rise living and urban sprawl; crime, social fears and risk aversion; isolation and intolerance; and inadequate and unequal access to the city.

These challenges paint a sad image of living in or growing up in a city as a child. How can we reimagine cities to cater to children? What does a child friendly city look like?

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of Afta P. Gunawan via Stock Snap

The Evolution of Playgrounds

Playgrounds for young children were seen as fundamental for child development and essential in the educative process well into the 21st Century. The early design of playgrounds in Germany were influenced by physical fitness and health. In the United States in the late 19th century, the emphasis was on social factors, especially protecting children from street life, perceived as socially and physically dangerous.

In the seventies, architects Richard Dattner and Paul Friedberg both designed environments to unleash children’s natural instincts and enable them to shape their own experiences - enabling individual exploration, social interaction, and ingenuity. Play, as Friedberg noted in his 1970 book Play and Interplay, was not merely an “expenditure of excess energy,” as previous generations had been accustomed to treating it. In contrast, play was “essential to a culture” and designers had a civic duty to facilitate opportunities for both children and adults for creative interactions with the urban environment.

From Playgrounds To Playful Cities

Play is a form of behavior not only reserved for children but concerns people of all ages.. A person's inclination to play depends on their physiological, emotional state as well as their surroundings. Designing opportunities for creative urban interactions can go beyond the playground, and a child friendly city is therefore a playful city. It is a safe and stimulating environment that encourages children, teenagers and adults to explore urban spaces, learn and socialise. Author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, Tim Gill describes a child-friendly city as one that allows “everyday freedoms”, so a child can feel safe to venture out, explore and discover their urban terrain as they grow.

Imagine having cities that encourage play in more places than just parks and playgrounds and actively reimagined their landscape to incorporate easier and more dynamic play throughout the city - improving exploration and safety in play for all age groups. Here are some examples that can inspire space designers around the world.

Bike Friendly Cities Are Child Friendly Cities

Everyday freedoms refer to children’s ability to safely travel unsupervised on foot or bike —from home to school, to a recreational facility or to a park. Strategies to ensure such child-friendly design focus on walkability and decreasing the dominance of the automobile. In Amsterdam 60% of journeys are by bicycle - increasing accessibility makes the city appear smaller, allowing people to travel further in shorter timescales. Amsterdam has turned the infrastructure hierarchy on its head, putting the cyclist first and the car last, making the city much safer for children to explore without fear of car accidents.

Amsterdam, Image courtesy of Flickr

A city that is adapted for cycling enables other kinds of activity play, such as skateboarding, running and rollerblading to name a few. In cycle friendly environments children and adults alike have more freedom and flexibility to use their bodies as opposed to transportation to wander through urban environments. Children reportedly grow up riding on their parents’ bikes, then later cycling beside their parents, developing an awareness of their city and their self - becoming confident cyclists and navigators as well as more active as it is not reportedly not uncommon for children to cycle 5km to school every day.

Urban designers Bobby Lee & Grant Menzies describe cycling as ”the ‘vehicle’ of social interaction. It is a way of increasing social capital. It is play!” Adapting cities for more mobility on bikes has not only physical but social benefits as it gives a diverse population access to the city and its amenities and provides children with an even larger ‘playground’ to explore and grow in.

Image Courtesy of Flickr

Bring The Wild Into The City

Most city dwellers crave for more green spaces. Natural spaces are the most exciting learning environments, as children get to touch and feel their way around, learning about their environment. The Bicentennial Children’s Park in Santiago, Chile, is a perfect example - it spans the city and provides a continuous, green walkway and play space through neighborhoods of different demographics.

Image: Cristobal Palma via Arch Daily

Rotterdam, which was voted the least attractive city to grow up in in 2006 has made strides to be stripped of this title. The city has invested €15 million on improvements to public spaces, housing and safe traffic routes in lower income neighbourhoods in an effort to build a child-friendly city.

The city also converted a forested area, called - ‘Natuurspeeltuin de Speeldernis’, into a natural playground where children can enjoy the ‘wild’ by making dens, fires, and rafts—and even camp out overnight. This unstructured playground - allows them the same benefits of out outdoor life as if they were living in the countryside.

Images: 1- Courtesy of Rotterdamas; 2 - Courtesy of Nice Fruitijsjes; 3 & 4 - Courtesy of Schoolreis

Playful Streets

Often city streets are unsafe places for children to play with the danger of cars and the potential for injury with the hard concrete pavements and tarred road - play also becomes restricted and unimaginative. Play requires soft, malleable surfaces that facilitate running, falling, rolling, etc. The element of play is not always reflected in the design of city streets, buildings and housing estates. According to George Monbiot, “Children are being airbrushed from our towns and cities,” and children’s play is longer welcome in what is increasingly seen as adult territory.

Creating playful space also involves adding spontaneity, the element of the unexpected to inspire creative play. One example is the Urban Lounge in the centre of St. Gallen in Switzerland, which covered the streets of an entire office quarter with a bright red rubber surface which organically forms benches or planters, even giving the illusion of covering a car. Water features are also incorporated into the design - giving varied forms of entertainment for children. Its unique design makes it enjoyable to occupy and is located in the city center - catering for both the young and old - it provides a comfortable and peaceful place to rest and supervise children playing freely on a safe surface.

Images: 1 - Architecture Ireland; 2 - Switzerland Tourism; 3 & 4 - Carlos Martinez Architekten and Pipilotti

What if instead of investing in devices like the mosquito and other devices designed to deter children from city centers, cities redirected their efforts towards creating inclusive environments that are safe and conducive for play? Adults also enjoy play in varied forms to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The examples above demonstrate a variety of approaches cities could adopt. Now it is time for Urban policy makers have an important role to play in shaping healthy urban environment looks like, and it starts with prioritizing the children.

Adapting cities to be more child friendly affects the physical health of all demographics, as play is not an isolated experience for children alone.

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