What makes a city child-friendly?

In 1996, Unicef launched one of the first initiatives to promote a child-friendly approach to urban design – the Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI).  Since then, interest in the design and development of ‘child-friendly cities’ has grown significantly.

In the UK, the CFCI has inspired a number of city-based initiatives that, while not officially part of the CFCI, have adopted its ethos.  Examples include the Bristol Child Friendly City (CFC) movementChild Friendly Leeds and Bath and North East Somerset Child Friendly City and Community.

There is a common perception that the provision of parks and playgrounds is sufficient to make an environment ‘child-friendly’.  However, in reality, many different aspects of the urban environment have significant impacts upon children’s health, wellbeing and development.

What do children want?

According to Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard, Founder and Director of the International Making Cities Liveable conferences:

There are three things that children need in their normal everyday world: face-to-face social interaction with a community of all ages; direct interaction with nature; and the chance to develop independence at every age

Indeed, research has consistently found similar overarching themes.

The role of good urban design

Good urban design clearly has a central role to play in the creation of such environments.  But what does this mean in practice?

One indicator of good urban design is the extent of children’s independent mobility. However, over the past few decades, this has declined significantly.  For example – the number of primary school children travelling home from school alone fell by 61% between 1970 and 2010. High traffic volumes and unwelcome public spaces are partly responsible for this.  These are two areas that planning can directly influence.

Studies have found that a carefully planned mix of accessible green spaces within a reasonably dense structure might provide the most child-friendly environment. A dense urban structure promotes active journeys to school (e.g. walking or cycling), increases independent mobility, and means that locations meaningful to children, such as parks and green spaces, are only a short distance away.

Other child-friendly design elements include:

  • parks, playgrounds and sports and community centres
  • zones with priority for pedestrians, players and cyclists
  • access to landscaped green areas, open spaces and nature
  • affordable and accessible transport options

For children living in poorer areas, opportunities for play in and around the street can be an important alternative to more costly leisure and recreational activities. Indeed, Play Streets where streets temporarily close to enable children to play have been successful in Bristol and London.

Similarly, a key theme to emerge from a report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was the importance of making provision for ‘slack space’ within the urban environment that is conducive to spontaneous re-use and re-invention by children and young people.

Ten top tips for building a child-friendly city

Leading child’s play researcher and advocate, Tim Gill, highlights a succinct 10-point checklist for child-friendliness, based on the work of a Vancouver urbanist and writer Jillian Glover. Important factors for building a more child-friendly city include density, family–oriented housing, walkability/bikeability, and access to nature.

Intergenerational interaction

Urban design not only influences the way that children use and access public spaces; it can also facilitate interaction between different generations. Flexible public spaces and community initiatives such as gardening and food-growing projects provide great opportunities for young and older people to come together.

Research by Future Cities Catapult has looked at ways of encouraging better intergenerational encounters in urban areas.  Examples include shared service hubs and ‘accidental’ encounters in public space.  There is a clear crossover between the needs of children and older people in cities.

Designing for teenagers

Of course, children have varied needs across their life course – from babies to older teenagers.  A study by Growing Up Boulder – a child-friendly city initiative in Boulder, Colorado, USA – found that some of teenagers’ most consistently requested features for public space included Wifi, affordable and diverse food options, and lighting and safety features.

A city that works for everyone

As well as addressing the different needs of different groups of children, there is also a need to cater for children and young people with specific needs, such as those on the autistic spectrum or those with disabilities.

As such, child-friendly urban design shares many of its principles with that of other movements, including the design of cities for older people, those with disabilities and those with dementia.  Indeed, many of its principles, such as improved road safety, walkability and accessibility of public transport, are of universal benefit, regardless of age or disability status.

As Peter Madden, Chief Executive of the Future Cities Catapult, has observed::

If a city works well for very old and very young people, it is likely to be a city that works for everyone”.

Keen to make your city more child-friendly?  Why not read our previous blog post on involving children in the town planning process.   

Idox Information Service members can also download our briefing on Planning a child-friendly city via our customer website.

Helping people with dementia to live well through good urban design

Earlier this year, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published their first practice note on how good planning can play a stronger role in the creation of better environments for people living with dementia.

It summarises good practice guidance from Oxford Brookes University, the Alzheimer’s Society and the Scottish Government, among others.

Living with dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently around 850,000 people living with some form of dementia in the UK.  Although the risk of developing dementia increases with age, it is not just a disease of the elderly.  There are currently around 40,000 people with dementia in the UK under the age of 65.

The vast majority of cases of dementia cannot be cured. However, there is a lot that can be done to enable someone with dementia to live well with the condition. Many people with dementia can continue lead active, healthy lives for years after diagnosis.  Even most elderly people with mild to moderate dementia can continue to live in their own homes.

The importance of good urban design

Evidence has shown that well-planned, enabling environments can have a substantial impact on the quality of life of someone living with dementia and their ability to retain their independence for longer.

For example, being within easy walking distance of shops and other local amenities can help people with dementia to remain physically active and encourages social interaction.

Having access to green space and nature also has particular benefits, including better mood, memory and communication and improved concentration.

Key characteristics of a dementia-friendly environment

Drawing on the principles set out in ‘Neighbourhoods for Life’, the RTPI advises that urban environments should be:

  • Familiar – functions of places and buildings made obvious, any changes are small scale and incremental;
  • Legible – a hierarchy of street types, which are short and fairly narrow. Clear signage;
  • Distinctive – including a variety of landmarks and a variety of practical features, e.g. trees and street furniture;
  • Accessible – access to amenities such as shops, doctor’s, post offices and banks within easy, safe and comfortable walking distances (5-10 minutes). Obvious, easy to use entrances that conform to disabled access regulations;
  • Comfortable – open space is well defined with public toilets, seating, shelter and good lighting. Background and traffic noise minimised through planting and fencing. Minimal street clutter;
  • Safe – wide, flat and non-slip footpaths, avoid creating dark shadows or bright glare.

Dementia-friendly communities

In addition to specific guidance on how to improve the urban environment, the RTPI practice note also highlights the crucial role of planners in the creation of ‘Dementia Friendly Communities’.

This is a recognition process, which publicly acknowledges communities for their work towards becoming dementia friendly.  It aims to involve the entire community, from local authorities and health boards to local shops, in the creation of communities that support the needs of people with dementia.

There are 10 key areas of focus.  Those particularly relevant to planning include:

  • shaping communities around the needs and aspirations of people with dementia;
  • the provision of accessible community activities;
  • supporting people to live in their own home for longer;
  • the provision of consistent and reliable transport options; and
  • ensuring the physical environment is accessible and easy to navigate.

There are currently over 200 communities across the UK working towards recognition as dementia-friendly.  Dementia Friendly East Lothian and the Dementia Friendly Kirriemuir Project are two such examples.

Local government policy

By 2025, it is estimated that the number of people diagnosed with dementia will rise to over one million.  Significant under diagnosis means that the number of people who experience dementia may be even higher.

However, the RTPI report that at present few local authorities have made explicit reference to dementia in their adopted local plans.

Worcestershire County Council and Plymouth City Council are notable exceptions:

  • Plymouth have set out their ambition to become a ‘dementia friendly city’ in its current local plan; and
  • Worcestershire are currently developing a draft Planning for Health Supplementary Planning Document that covers age-friendly environments and dementia.

A beneficial environment for all

While these are important first steps towards the greater recognition of the role of planning in supporting people with dementia, it is imperative that planning explicitly for dementia becomes the rule, rather than the exception.

Not only will this benefit people with dementia and reduce healthcare costs, it may also benefit the wider community, including young families, people with disabilities, and older people.

As the RTPI rightly state, “environments that are easy for people to access, understand, use and enjoy are beneficial to everyone, not just older people with dementia.”