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.

Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Evolution or revolution … the challenge of delivering future high streets

The crisis facing our high streets and town centres shows no sign of ending, with end-of-year figures revealing that December was the ninth consecutive month in which shopper footfall declined. The vacancy rate of high street premises also continues to be high – an estimated one in nine premises are lying empty across the UK.

This data suggests a systemic problem for present-day retailing and town centres. The causes are complex including business locational strategies, planning decision-making, consumer spending and expectations, household debt, technology and online shopping opportunities. In addition, inquiries such as the Scottish National Review of Town Centres and the Future High Street Forum evidence review, have shown that town centres remain a pressing planning challenge, with strategic and local ramifications in terms of economic, social and environmental well-being.

Making our town centres more resilient will require changing our attitudes to the use and management of these spaces. They need to deliver a mixed and diverse economy, and provide social experiences not just retail. But while this message seems to be accepted, putting it into practice seems to be more problematic.

Policies into practice

At a policy level, the National Review of Town Centres in Scotland asserted the case for a deliberate ‘town centre first’ principle to stem the leeching of investment and retailing activity to out of town locales. The review also advocated the diversification of town centre activities, including provision of residential uses and affordable housing. This was broadly accepted by the Scottish Government; and the Town Centre First principle, agreed with COSLA, to discharge a ‘collective responsibility to help town centres thrive sustainably, reinvent their function, and meet the needs of residents, businesses, and visitors for the 21st century’ sums up this ambition.

Meanwhile Paragraph 23 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), along with the revised National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) on town centre development and planning, recognises town centres as being at the heart of communities.

Addressing complexity

In practice, however, the ongoing failure of many high streets suggests that they are not transforming at the rate or scale that is needed.

Positive, organised and strategic (joined up) intervention, working across the public and private sectors, seems to be the only way to address a highly complex matter. Initiatives such as business improvement districts (BIDs) have been trialling new ways of managing and marketing successful town centres. A report last year from the Centre for Policy Studies looked at the positive impact of the 41 BIDs within London – 7.6% of London firms and over 11% of the total London workforce were located in BID areas.

The report noted that outside of London and Scotland, property owners cannot financially contribute to the measure. Business tenants tend to demonstrate relatively more short-term approaches to the development of the BID, so rolling out of property owner BIDs across England could be a way to maximise the full potential of the business-led measure.

Applying lessons from London to other parts of the country can be problematic however – after all, London is a city and a city-region with a very marked concentration of economic and political power in terms of investment, spending power and employment. The experience there of economic resilience does not resonate with the circumstances elsewhere across England and the UK.

Moreover, BIDs involve not simply economic considerations but complex issues around governance, democracy and transparency. Understanding the challenges of town centres must involve an appreciation of market decisions and the unintended consequences of government actions to address those very problems.

The barriers created by complexity were also raised last month in a report arguing for town centre investment zones to align initiatives and unlock improvement. Pooling a critical mass of property assets into an investment vehicle could allow area-wide problems to be tackled.

The community dimension

What seems to be missing from the town centre debate at the moment is a specific focus on the causes of a tangible malaise – the loss of community in many urban areas. The BID concept could very well be a compelling one, but a wider and more informed political conversation is needed before we dismantle all public interest considerations.

And so the conundrum at the heart of our towns and cities remains … how do we create and maintain vibrant places that people want to work and live in, when our planning and economic policies are still geared towards prioritising growth over wellbeing?

And how do we transform our high streets in a strategic way, to meet the needs of 21st century living?


This blog draws on the article by Professor Greg Lloyd that first appeared in Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal: Greg Lloyd (2015) High streets again! SPEL 172, pp124-125

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Read our other related blogs:

Garden cities – back to the future?

Ebenezer Howard

Image by Monty Trent on Flickr via a Creative Commons License

By Dorothy Laing

Today’s announcement that Bicester is to be the second new garden city with 13,000 new homes, is a reminder that the UK’s housing shortage requires large-scale solutions. According to the Town and Country Planning Association’s estimates, between 240,000 and 245,000 new homes are needed each year up to 2031 to meet the needs of our growing population. This demand can only be met by building new settlements including schools, transport links, infrastructure and community facilities. Continue reading

Loosening the belt: the debate over building on green belt land

By James Carson

“The green belt has been exalted as sacrosanct in a way in which almost no other policy area has been indulged, and any attempts to have a serious conversation about its development have been swiftly stifled with the same kind of force as would usually be reserved for suggestions to entirely dismantle the NHS.”

So said Andrew Carter, the Acting Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, writing on the Conservative Home website earlier this month. It’s true that green belts have long been regarded as untouchable. But there are signs that the bulletproof shield protecting them could be breaking down.

In September, the Wolfson Economics Prize went to regeneration consultancy Urbed for its proposal to create a city of 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing town and building on the surrounding green belt. The following month, Rowan Moore, The Observer’s architecture critic, considered the arguments for and against green belts and concluded:

“…it is no longer good enough to insist that green belts must, at all costs, never change.”

Meanwhile, defenders of green belts have been voicing their concerns. “A weakening of protection for green belts would lead to urban sprawl over precious countryside and farmland,” said the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), launching its campaign for a stronger commitment from government to review the latest threats to the green belt. And after the Wolfson prize winner was announced, architect Richard Rogers spoke out against Urbed’s proposal to take a bite out of the green belt, calling it “a ridiculous concept.”

The idea of curbing urbanisation is not new. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a three-mile wide belt around London was proposed in order to stop the spread of the plague. More recently, the garden city movement’s ideas about urban and rural areas, led to the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which allowed local authorities to include green belts in their town plans.

Today, there are 14 green belts in England, 10 in Scotland, 30 in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. They exist as buffers between towns and countryside, and successive governments have ensured that they are maintained. The UK government’s latest National Planning Policy Framework sets out the green belt’s five purposes:

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

Historically, green belts have been regarded as one of Britain’s great planning successes. But there has been growing criticism of the costs of the green belt, typified by Rowan Moore’s observation:

“It stops cities expanding, which had previously done so for centuries. It contributes to the scarcity and cost of decent homes in large parts of the country. It encourages bizarre and wasteful patterns of commuting. It often fails in its original aim of providing accessible recreational space for city dwellers. It is enforced with a rigidity that makes little sense, except as a sign of mistrust.”

Britain’s housing crisis has amplified calls for the green belt to be breached.  Government projections suggest that the UK needs six million new homes in the next 30 years. Proponents of building on green land contend that existing urban and brownfield areas alone cannot cater for the housing demand, an argument underlined by Urbed in its submission to the Wolfson competition.

Centre for Cities has claimed that building on 5.2% of green belt land within and around Britain’s least affordable cities would deliver 1.4 million new homes.

Their opponents disagree. This month, the CPRE reported that a minimum of 976,000 new homes could be built on identified brownfield sites in England, and that the supply of these sites is steadily increasing. The organisation has also suggested that housebuilders are “sitting on huge areas of land with planning permission which could provide over 280,000 new homes.”

With a general election on the horizon, the main political parties have been drawing up their battle lines. The Labour Party is showing signs of greater flexibility on the green belt issue. In October, Sir Michael Lyons published the final report of his independent review of housing for the Labour Party. One of his recommendations included allowing more homes to be built on parts of the protected green belt if the land has little “environmental or amenity value”. In response, the Conservative Party has reiterated its commitment to protecting the green belt.

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s at the local level that changing policies on green belts can be most clearly seen. Councils in England are responding to the housing crisis by using localism powers granted to them by the coalition government to de-designate or swap greenbelt land in the context of making a local plan. Figures published in August by Glenigan planning and construction consultants revealed that 5,600 new homes were approved to be built on green belt land last year, a 148% increase on the 2,260 green belt homes in 2009/10.

The debate now seems to be moving towards a recognition that some infringement of green belt land is inevitable, which is perhaps why a recent commentary on the subject by an academic from the London School of Economics was not titled, “Why should we build on the green belt?” Instead, it was headlined: “Where should we build on the green belt?”.


Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on planning. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Delivering change: building homes where we need them

Utopias that work: how to create tomorrow’s garden city

Removing obstacles to brownfield development: how government can work with communities to facilitate the re-use of previously developed land (Foresight paper no 2)

Uxcester garden city (second stage submission for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014)

Greenbelt under development: special report

Green belts: a local way forward for the twenty first century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.