The countdown to the Child in the City International Seminar in Antwerp continues. With that in mind, we present the second part of our interview with keynote speaker, Jens Aerts. In this article, Aerts discusses how we can shape sustainable cities for children.
Jens Aerts is an Urban Planning Specialist. He currently supports UNICEF in the development and implementation of its Global Urban Strategy. Aerts is the author of the recent UNICEF publication ‘Shaping urbanisation for children, a handbook on child-responsive urban planning’. He is also a board member of the Vlaamse Vereniging voor Ruimte en Planning (VRP) and a member of the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCARP).
How did the creation of your handbook, ‘Shaping urbanization for children’ come about?
The international development family, including UNICEF, has not been focusing on the most disadvantaged communities in cities for the last twenty years. This had its logic and also made sense from a certain perspective. Until recently there was a shared consensus that extreme poverty and the worst forms of discrimination and deprivations prevailed in rural areas. Urbanization as such was not seen as a major development issue to deal with. This changed when the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in 2015. This new international framework, that sets the agenda for 2030 for all international development agencies and member states, accounts for the importance of cities and of investment in urban development and local capacities.
My handbook aims to build a bridge between the child rights agenda and the sustainable urban development actors, developing a common language to call for both children’s rights and urban planning principles. As UNICEF itself is not an urban development agency, its strategy is to influence the urban development sector: investing in data and advocacy, developing the capacity of stakeholders and supporting better delivery of urban environments for children. UNICEF’s objective is to sensitize urban stakeholders to children’s vulnerabilities and to show them how impactful urban planning can be. In order to ensure that the handbook would be really inspirational and helpful to develop city-based strategies, a group of experts affiliated with globally active technical organizations supported its conceptualization. Also, a great group of UNICEF sector specialists brought in their views.
How can we help shape sustainable cities for children?
Shaping sustainable cities for children is a matter of working together and developing a common language. Built environment specialists need to refocus on social equity, with ‘E’ of ‘Equity’ referred to as one of the three E’s that stand for a holistic definition of sustainability, as envisioned already more than 30 years ago in the famous Brundtland report. This focus on equity means that urban planners should be 1. measuring spatial equity and working meticulously with data on children, 2. planning and budgeting for all people and thus working with universal design principles and child-responsive norms, 3. engaging with all stakeholders, in particular with children and more vulnerable communities, in technical and social innovation to scale up place-making pilots.
Furthermore, child development and child rights specialists need to acknowledge the spatial aspects of children’s deprivations when advocating for children’s rights in cities. For example, the right to play has been well described in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but without giving importance to the built environment dimension of this unique right for children, advocacy and programs for more play will not be effective.
Shaping cities for children together means also setting common goals that we can translate into action together, or use to adjust the daily practice in our own discipline. In the handbook on child-responsive urban planning, I developed a benefits framework with five dimensions that are understandable from both the urban planning and the child rights perspective: health, safety, citizenship, environmental sustainability and prosperity. This framework can be refined with detailed indicators to measure the performance of cities and urban development initiatives. It also allows different sectors to collaborate and develop together a robust discourse around specific policies for sustainable cities, such as developing transportation policies that prioritize walking, biking and public transit.
What are the most critical changes that we must make to face the future effectively?
The urgency to address climate change and environmental degradation requires a triple approach: individual behaviours need to change drastically, innovation in the use and re-use of resources should be a priority and policymakers have to enable the needed transitions. This means that the moment of change cannot be postponed until, for example, fossil fuel has been depleted. So the productive economy has to become entirely circular now. Transportation innovations merely focusing on electrification and driverless cars will not address all facets of sustainability. The individual behaviour needs to be changed as well. We need carless drivers instead of driverless cars. And guess what: children don’t drive cars: they crawl, walk and bike.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but in an ageing society, children should even be more central in this process of change. They are the future generation of adults that will bear the responsibility for a growing and ageing society. Children’s ability to grow up as healthy, smart and environmentally conscious citizens is what is at stake for all of us.
What can you tell us about your work with BUUR?
BUUR is an acronym for Bureau for Urbanism but also means ‘neighbor’ in Dutch. It reflects a belief that the city is a compact network of social connections that create shared intelligence, values and engagement towards urban sustainability. BUUR is, for example, an active partner in Leuven 2030, an ambitious multi-stakeholder roadmap to make the city climate-neutral. We also plan and design public spaces, green infrastructure and sustainable mobility networks. Lately, we entered a new phase by looking beyond the traditional deliverables – masterplan, technical design and policy reports. We now put more focus on systematic research and participation with stakeholders. We believe that ambitious sustainability objectives can only be achieved when we generate tailored processes in which all various actors start with sharing knowledge, in order to be able to co-design solutions for complex challenges together. These actors increasingly include ‘unusual’ ones: working on circular economies with waste operators, developing energy landscapes with local municipalities, turning neighbourhoods in car-low and loveable places with children and communities.
What is the biggest challenge to building child-friendly cities at the moment?
I am reluctant to use various adjectives that at the end aim for the same thing: to ensure urbanization to be sustainable, for all current and future citizens. Putting children central in our work as an urban planner is sensible, but not so easy. First of all, fast urbanization with poor local planning capacity forces the few in charge to work in a permanent reactive way, with short-term commitments and weak negotiation mechanisms, making it hard to transform private investment into urban development that is inclusive with shared public space. A survey of the planning profession in the Commonwealth shows that in India there is 1 certified urban planner for 350 000 people, 80 times less than in the UK. And if there is consistent practice and capacity in urban planning, the adults are in charge, often working with old recipes, listening to the loudest voices amongst adult constituents.
Secondly, urban planning has for a long time been focusing on the urban setting as a result of trade-offs amongst sectors in terms of supply of land and building rights, regulated with functional norms and standards, and less on the built environment as an eco-system in which in particularly children adopt behaviours. In that sense, I prefer to speak about the need to build child-responsive cities, which emphasizes that we have to design cities that respond to children’s needs but that are also ‘schools of life’ that teach children everything on sustainability and empowers them to be at the forefront of the urgently needed change. Looking at the current Youth for Climate movement, it is clear that all these engaged children are very conscious and principled in what it takes to save our planet and actually ask for us adults to plan our society and cities in a more consistent way.
A final challenge is that the international development community fails to understand that we should develop the capacity to build a new city capable of housing 1 million people every week during the next 15 years. It is hard to believe that these new urban contexts will cater to children’s needs. On the contrary, without integrated planning capacity on a city level, any health or social investment program will have diminishing returns. In order to avoid being spatially blind, donors and international agencies need to break the silos and rewrite their guidelines if they want to work successfully in urban settings.
What are common misconceptions people have about urbanization? How can we combat these misconceptions and communicate more effectively?
Within the global realm, there is a lot of discourse on the importance of urban planning, however, investment in urban planning is marginal. In Europe, all urban planning mechanisms exist, yet there is also still a kind of abandonment around sprawl, as if it is a necessary condition for economic growth and individual freedom, despite an almost halted demographic growth. This is not sustainable, looking at the science and numbers that illustrate the correlation between urban sprawl, transportation bottlenecks, increased investment costs for public infrastructure and public health.
Children, urban health and urban planning specialists can combat these misconceptions together, by highlighting the impact of sprawl on children and families, including children’s vulnerability to air pollution and transportation infrastructure, children’s isolation and decreasing independent mobility. Together we can call for a child’s right to the city.
What is the best resource for people who want to dive in deeper?
The resource pages at the end of each chapter in the Handbook on child-responsive urban planning will lead to more in-depth information on inspiring initiatives and tools to plan cities with and for children.
Is there anything we’re leaving out here that needs to be addressed?
I was born in Antwerp so this seminar is in a way coming back home. But also looking back at my own childhood. Can you imagine that I biked as a seven-year-old to my school, from home in Deurne-Noord to Borgerhout. With my older brother or with other friends I crossed large roads that at the time had no specific design features to protect cyclists. Unsurprisingly, I got hit by a car at an unprotected passage at the Sterckshoflei that crosses the Rivierenhof. I got hospitalized but kept on biking and a traffic light appeared at this unsafe crossing soon after. Maybe this was when Antwerp started to think about the children in the city?
The Child in the City International Seminar on ‘Children in the sustainable city’ takes place in Antwerp 20-21 May 2019. Spaces are limited so register today. Click here to register.
Jens Aerts will give his keynote presentation at the Child in the City International Seminar in Antwerp next month. His keynote is titled ‘Shaping a sustainable urban future for and by children’. In this interview, Aerts explains past and present challenges of urban planning. He also argues there is “an urban development expert in any of us”.
Jens Aerts is as an Urban Planning Specialist he currently supports UNICEF in the development and implementation of its Global Urban Strategy. Aerts is the author of the recent UNICEF publication ‘Shaping urbanisation for children, a handbook on child-responsive urban planning’. He is also committed to similar advisory work that bridges children’s well-being and sustainable urban development, such as the upcoming Street for Kids program for the Global Designing Cities Initiative.
As an urban planning specialist, what have been some highlights and challenges you have experienced in your role?
As cities will contain 60% of the world’s population in 2030 and all future demographic growth is an almost purely urban issue, an urban planning specialist might think of a great future of the profession ahead. But the scale, pace and complexity of urbanisation comes with enormous challenges, while there is a striking lack of urban planning capacity where urbanisation is still happening. It explains why 300 million children still live in slums, suffering from multiple deprivations, and that this number will only grow in dense city centre slums but also in low-density, fragmented sprawling urban expansions.
Against the backdrop of these challenges, I am more convinced that urban planners will play an important role if not only building upon the technical, rational and scientific aspect of their profession, as well as on their process capacity to facilitate complex urban transitions to happen in society – whether they are about low-carbon solutions, circular economy or social equity. A highlight is the push to co-design, innovate and accelerate implementation with other stakeholders, especially the unusual ones. Amongst child development and health specialists, for example, I see a growing awareness that the urban built environment is a key determinant in contemporary childhoods seen from their perspective, with new kinds of vulnerabilities in terms of environmental health issues, spatial isolation and physical unsafety. I see these new windows of collaboration as game-changers for our profession, to invest in joint research and advocacy, but also to develop policies and investment programs together.
How did you get involved in children’s well-being and sustainable urban development, and why do you stay?
Just like most architects, engineers and other built environment specialists that graduated in the early nineties, there was a strong education around urban form, the dynamics of globalisation and prosperous economies, but also a growing awareness on environmental degradation and climate change. While research and practice in sustainable urban development consistently developed in Europe, I cannot think of any major stream of work on people-centred planning, leave alone it would focus on children.
In Brussels, I worked a lot on public space, mobility and neighbourhood renewal projects, which brings the awareness a city is about people and their opinions in the first place and allowed also to experiment with various forms of community participation and new urban governance structures. Later on, I was involved in the drafting process of the New Urban Agenda, a major international framework to be presented in 2016 at Habitat III, the most important urban planning conference only taking place every 20 years. Being a blueprint for the future urbanisation and needed upgrading of existing cities, this global agenda highlighted very strongly the importance to make cities for all. In the same period, I became a parent and I was so struck to realise cities are not made for children and strolling parents at all. It is the cocktail of that personal frustration being an urbanite and the professional indignation that explains my involvement today, to turn my own profession upside down but also to build bridges with other disciplines in order to do better and faster together.
How has the cross-section of practice, policy and research changed in the past 5 years? What do you predict will happen in the next 5 to 10 years?
There is always interaction in any domain between the practice, policy and research. It is more interesting how interactions between different domains change and which ones are dominantly influencing others. Change does not happen in 5 years, but rather crystallises in 10 or 15 years cycles, that allow new ideas and insights to be brought in from outside a discipline, to be assimilated and mainstreamed.
I take the example of Barcelona, a city where I lived and worked, with a powerful tradition in planning the compact city and its collective infrastructure. In the nineties after the dictatorship, the regained democracy spurred into a rediscovery of the city centre and explains the focus on social infrastructure, public space design and urban economies. 15 years later, knowledge from bioscience and climate science led to investments in green infrastructure and eco-systems on metropolitan and district level. Currently, innovations in urban policy mark a third era in the Barcelona model, rethinking democratic processes and embracing community-based planning in all its dimensions.
I believe that in the near future interdisciplinary work on public health, eco-systems, city governance and spatial planning will grow, to create the right contexts in which the right technological innovations can scale up and have a real impact on all aspects of sustainability: equity, environmental responsibility and economic strength. Youth will take the lead in this complex thinking, but as cities are mostly ageing it is important to seek traction for a multi-generational agenda.
What are some of the ways people from your field are making a difference in the world?
Within the field of participatory city planning and architecture, the work of Alejandro Aravena and Kounkuey Design Collective are very inspiring. They work with limited resources in the Global South and understand the scale and pace of the problem, but also use the intelligence of communities in the design process.
But in general, I would say that often people outside the field change the game, similar to innovation in expert domains happens due to influence from other domains. Outsiders bring in the needed oxygen to change a discipline. The most famous example is Jane Jacobs that brought down New York’s powerful master builder Robert Moses and with him the legacy of car-oriented, top-down and male-oriented modernist planning half a century ago. Jacobs has been rightfully dubbed the most influential urbanist but let us not forget that she is not really an urban planner actually and that she recalled this herself. Being a talented journalist from Canada, she influenced the urban planning discourse in the US as an outsider, strategically fueling activism and the public discourse, and calling new urban planners to develop new practices that include community participation.
Working a lot on road safety and sustainable mobility, I am also moved by the fact that so many champions in this area took up the challenge to address the major cause of death amongst adolescents because of their own loss of children, family members or relatives. Also good, ‘crazy’ local politicians that stand close to their community change the way how cities are planned, addressing traffic fatalities, urban violence, pollution, poverty and children’s exclusion from decision making.
And in all cases, children and youth take up a significant role, like the Climate for Youth movement and other community-driven campaigns that have been instrumental in promoting the need for an ambitious urban planning agenda.
What is one piece of practical advice you would give to someone interested in making their city child-friendly and more sustainable?
Make a powermap about who is influencing and who is actually in charge of managing the city. Develop with them strategies for change in three dimensions: data and evidence to build the case and monitor change; participation with children and communities to create the basis for change and to start pilots; policy change in terms of spatial planning and financing.
If there was one key message that you would like delegates to take away from your presentation, what would it be?
There is a child development and an urban development expert in any of us. I would not say there is a child in us, no, we are now adults and should act as responsible adults, being conscious about our privilege that we have the right to vote and freedom in our choices. But we should definitely look at the child in us we used to be, as a mirror for us adults to get out of the seminar, define one thing we will do from tomorrow on in our practice that focuses specifically on children. And out there, there are so many children, young people and communities, much more tech and eco-savvy than we are, that use their time and knowledge to think and do better for their neighbourhood and city. Working together as professionals and include children is very needed. It is 5 to twelve: the planet is almost burning, and children feel the heat the most.
Jens Aert’s keynote presentation at the Child in the City International Seminar in Antwerp is on Tuesday, May 21, starting at 12:30. There is still time to book your place – view the full programme and register here.
Australia’s sprawling cities present many challenges to sustainability, but planning innovations can help achieve at least half of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Thirty years after the landmark Brundtland report, the debate on urban sustainability continues. Urban planners are still grappling with the challenges of making our cities sustainable.
Urban sustainability is an evolving concept. Our edited volume provides planning solutions for eight of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Has the concept of urban sustainability made a difference in planning practice? Our answer is yes.
Sustainability solutions involve trade-offs between these three dimensions. A planning innovation might solve a challenge in terms of social sustainability but be less efficient in regard to the two other dimensions. The Sustainable City paradigm has been a dominant school of thought since the 1990s. Yet it is still unclear how cities incorporate this paradigm in urban policies.
Influential works on urban policies have emphasised the transfer of urban policies from one context to another – known as mobile urbanism. Our book highlights evidence to the contrary. Planning innovations are generally shaped by local contextual factors and are not imported. Of the planning innovations presented in 12 case study chapters in our book, we present those most relevant to Australia later in this article.
Key issues facing Australian cities
Australian cities have urgent sustainability issues that require fresh policy initiatives.
Australia’s cities also have major social sustainability issues. Increasing numbers of professional and managerial households have priced poorer residents out of the best areas of the cities.
The result has been heightened spatial polarisation. Lower-income households have been forced to live further out in suburbs with inadequate public transport and jobs. Solutions for creating places in the suburbs were presented in a recent summit organised by UQ Planning.
The adaptive reuse of historical buildings has helped regenerate downtown Los Angeles. This particular planning innovation involved a regulatory rethink. Sébastien Darchen, Author provided.
What’s happening in cities overseas?
The innovative ways that overseas cities have responded to similar sustainability challenges can provide pathways for Australian cities to follow.
Helsinki’s experience suggests one means of overcoming a sticking point in achieving higher-density development: getting around NIMBY opposition and achieving community agreement on where denser development could go. In Helsinki, the public participated in a public participation geographic information system exercise. This mapped their preferences for areas that should not be developed for apartments.
Well-intended planning controls can hinder higher-density development, even in desirable locations. In Los Angeles’ historic core, old office buildings lay vacant after a new CBD office precinct outside the old core was developed. Residential use requirements for on-site parking and open space and for a building setback from the front property boundary hindered the conversion of the old buildings to residential use. By relaxing these requirements, the city’s 1999 adaptive reuse ordinance was a key to regenerating the old core as a residential area.
The challenge of reducing car use without large public outlays remains daunting, but Seville shows one way this can be achieved. There, a complete bicycle network of 180km – 12% of the total road length in the city – has been built since 2007. Separation from car traffic has been achieved through bollards and the like, or by parked cars where the bikeway is built on a footpath.
Cycle trips now make up about 10% of total vehicle trips in Seville, six times the previous share. The driving forces for the network were the formation of a cyclists’ association, public demonstrations and the election of a left-of–centre city government that gave political support. The demolition of motorways sounds like an extreme way of reducing car use, but the experience of Seoul shows it can have big economic and environmental benefits. The motorway built over a former stream in the central city was demolished in the early 2000s. The stream was restored to a natural state.
Cheonggyecheon after restoration. Sun Young Rieh/Global Planning Innovations for Urban Sustainability, Author provided.
This has reduced air pollution and the heat island impact of the former motorway, and created an ecological passage to the main river in Seoul. Recreational and cultural amenities along the restored stream have made it a desirable area and generated new economic activities. New bus services close to the stream have replaced car access. The strong powers and finances of the city government and a supportive mayor made the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project possible.
Spatial polarisation in cities results from market forces dominating urban redevelopment.
The experience of Vancouver illustrates how inclusionary planning can ameliorate these forces. City-sponsored local resident groups have been at the centre of making strategies to renew the city’s low-income Downtown Eastside area.
Instead of the high-tech-based development originally proposed, priority has been given to developing employment more suited to the low-income residents’ needs, including opportunities in the informal sector. City council-owned sites have been used for social innovation hubs, services to help residents find jobs, and a street market for a street vendors’ collective.
As explained in our book, these planning innovations are mostly the product of local contextual factors. Therefore, planning innovations for Australian cities will require local involvement in shaping sustainability solutions. Incentives such as changes in regulatory frameworks and tax subsidies might also be needed to develop planning innovations.
During the upcoming Child in the City seminar in Antwerp, Sven De Visscher will be part of the roundtable discussion on qualitative vertical housing environments for children. In this interview, Sven gives us insight into his work, challenges facing the child friendly cities initiative and what we can expect from the roundtable discussion.
Sven De Visscher is a lecturer at University College Ghent in Belgium and a member of Child in the City’s Scientific Program Committee (SPC). He is part of the urban education team in the department of social work that develops research and teaching projects about education and social work in urbanising contexts. Sven holds a PhD degree in Educational Sciences, based on a study of the social pedagogical meaning of the neighbourhood for children. His main research topics include child friendly cities, childhood studies, urban public space, community development and urban regeneration.
You co-wrote ‘Learning the City: Cultural Approaches to Civic Learning in Urban Spaces’, what made you decide to tackle this subject?
A cultural studies perspective on child friendly cities teaches us that not only physical infrastructures and social relations contribute to childfriendliness. The city also carries an important symbolic dimension. Referring to culture as an ongoing communicative process between subjects and objects producing (symbolic) meanings, the production of child friendly space appears as an ongoing interaction among subjects, symbolic frameworks and dynamic infrastructures. In our book, we gathered 5 papers from influential academics in this field, who explore different understandings of civic learning in, through and as a result of urban spaces.
What is the biggest challenge regarding the creation of child friendly cities?
I notice a growing international trend towards commercialisation of child friendly cities. Child friendliness has become a label or trademark that companies use to brand their products for young, affluent families. Also, local governments are sometimes using this label as a strategy in the interurban competition to attract young middle class families to their city or town. Just as one illustration, I recently came across a sign that indicated a ‘child friendly playground’. I think that this commercialization of childfriendliness is an impoverishment because on the one hand it reduces the meaning of childfriendliness to the market principle of demand and supply. And on the other hand it excludes large groups of children and young people. Therefore I think it is important that we keep underlining the UNCRC as a crucial foundation of the child friendly city: to support universal human rights of every child, and particularly those of the most disadvantaged groups within a local community, such as refugee children, children in poverty, disabled children, etc.
It is clear that the future of cities, towns and even rural villages will be characterized by increasing densification of their centers. If we want to safeguard the little bits of open unbuilt space and at the same time provide decent and healthy housing for our growing population, we will have to start living more closely together. Today we notice some reluctance in considering vertical housing as a good home environment for children. In this roundtable discussion, we don’t aim to go into the discussion of whether or not a vertical housing environment is desirable for families with children. We start from the knowledge that a growing number of children will live in some type of vertical housing in the near future, and work around the topic of spatial quality of such environments for and according to children and young people. We have collected three research teams presenting the results of studies on this topic. My own team will be presenting the results of interviews with children and teenagers. Professor Lia Karsten who is also an expert in this area, will then moderate a discussion and bring together the most important social, spatial, functional, cultural and political conditions for child friendly vertical housing environments.
In this paper, I explore the particular interrelations between pedagogical theories and perspectives on design. Space matters in pedagogy. Not only as the context of pedagogical provisions or activities, but also as an educator in itself with diverse pedagogical assumptions and agendas that shape societal relations. The social and cultural position of children and young people in the city is largely influenced by design logic. As such, it is reasonable to state that urban designers have a pedagogical role, even when they are not referring to any intentional pedagogical program or theory. In the text I suggest to promote a social pedagogical perspective on urban planning and design, connecting child friendly planning processes with a critical analysis of the social and political position children take in the city. This can be done by organizing urban planning processes as collective and continuous learning processes about the meaning of a desirable future for the city. In such processes, children are addressed as competent citizens who contribute to the analysis of what their city or neighbourhood needs.
What is the main way Child in the City seminars and conference can help make a tangible difference to children’s rights?
Many people, now and in the past, have been voluntarily and independently building networks, promoting and organising the conferences and seminars. Two decades ago, Jan Van Gils initiated a European network of people who share a concern about children’s rights and aim to contribute to this case, each from their own perspective. After his retirement, Lia Karsten organized a new interdisciplinary scientific committee within the CITC foundation. As a result, today these conferences and seminars succeed in bringing together a large and very mixed audience of people working in governments, ngo’s, nonprofit organisations, academia and industry. Experts in health, education, technology, design, social work, planning, architecture, participation, and so much more. This is one of the strengths of the conferences and seminars and a strong basis for an interdisciplinary dialogue about how to continue to promote children’s rights on a local level in a collaborative way.
As a member of the Programme Committee for the Antwerp Seminar, what are you most looking forward to?
Childfriendliness and sustainability are very much intertwined. The UN Habitat II conference in 1996 already concluded firmly that children’s wellbeing is a good indicator for the overall sustainability and livability of a city. In Belgium, the topic of sustainability and climate justice is high on the agenda among young people. A group of young people in Antwerp initiated the Youth for Climate initiative. They have been organizing weekly national school strikes on Thursdays since January, gathering up to 30000 children and young people, to put pressure on Belgian politicians to come out with concrete actions and policies for a more sustainable world. On the second day of the seminar, we will have someone from Youth for Climate included in a panel debate to reflect on the presentations and discussion of the seminar.
The third Child in the City International Seminar takes place in Antwerpen, Belgium on 20-21 May 2019. The early bird fee ends April 8th, so register now.
Urban green spaces – including parks, woodlands, riverbanks, and gardens – are an essential part of a web of physical and mental well-being. They provide spaces to socialise and opportunities to connect with the natural world. They are restorative enclaves in stressful cities.
The UK government’s first strategy on loneliness, recently launched, recognises the importance of green spaces in supporting this web of connections. But England’s urban natural environment is increasingly at risk, jeopardising the ambitions of the loneliness strategy from the outset.
A whole chapter in the loneliness strategy is devoted to community infrastructure – the places, spaces and activities that bring people together where they live. The strategy promises to unlock the potential of underused community space, including local parks. It recognises the wealth of research that shows how green spaces enhance health and well-being and provide community meeting places.
Our research at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture reinforces and enriches these key messages about green space and well-being. We are examining the relationship between natural urban spaces and mental well-being, exploring spaces, stories and connections in Sheffield, Britain’s fifth-largest city.
What we have found in Sheffield resonates internationally. A study in Adelaide, for example, highlighted the interrelationships of green space, walking and social interaction in supporting well-being. Another study in the Netherlands highlights the role of green spaces in reducing stress, encouraging physical exercise and enhancing social cohesion. Our concern has been not only to enrich this scholarly understanding, but to examine how it can be better translated into practice.
In our own research we have worked with local professionals and community members, from volunteers in parks to doctors and urban planners. We have identified five simple and inexpensive interventions that will help to maximise people’s connections with urban nature and create more favourable contexts for well-being. Three of those interventions have a direct bearing on isolation and loneliness.
One is the provision of toilets and cafes in parks and woodlands. As one community worker told us: “It’s not that the toilet improves people’s mental well-being, it’s that the toilet allows them to do the activity that will improve their well-being.” Without them, many older people, parents with young children, or people with disabilities or long-term illnesses may decide that the city’s parks are only for the fit and healthy. More than 1,700 UK public toilets have closed in recent years, although MPs have long argued that councils should have a duty to provide facilities in key locations such as parks.
A second intervention is the provision of staff in parks. These are people employed to look after and maintain the environment but also to run activities and support voluntary groups. One member of a local volunteers group told us how invaluable Sheffield City Council’s park rangers were in helping to organise and inform their work. Without them, the opportunity this group provided for meeting others and engaging in meaningful activity might be lost. According to the trade union Unison, 81% of parks departments have lost skilled staff since 2010.
We are also recommending support for voluntary and community organisations to put on activities in parks and green spaces. These are the organisations that are rooted in local communities and can provide a vital bridge between spaces and people, creating safe and supportive environments for those who might be nervous about venturing outside.
Groups like Manor & Castle Development Trust, for example, offer health walks and confidence-building activities for people in one of Sheffield’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Such community infrastructure doesn’t simply sustain itself: it requires support, links with local planners and policymakers, and financial and material resources.
One voluntary sector worker explained the difference a trusted local organisation can make: “Having a friendly face – having people there that they know and that they recognise … that’s so important. And for so many people, that might be the only contact that they have all day.”
These interventions are not expensive, but they do cost. They are also the easiest costs to strip out of hard-pressed local government budgets, with the effects felt disproportionately by disadvantaged people in deprived areas. When they are cut, green spaces become underused and can appear hostile rather than welcoming.
The government’s loneliness strategy highlights the £500,000 recently allocated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to “identify and share effective and deliverable models of service delivery” through the new Parks Action Group.
But the funds for managing the green spaces that people use to socialise, to meet friends or find restorative environments outside the home, continue to shrink. In just one city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, funding for parks and allotments has been cut by 90%. Over the next ten years, without further cuts, the council faces a shortfall of a further £17.5m.
These cuts are directly linked to austerity policies that have removed resources from local government while adding to local authority responsibilities. In 2019-20, English local authorities face a further loss of £1.3 billion in government funds.
In this context, even simple, cheap interventions to increase well-being and reduce loneliness become harder to achieve. The words in the loneliness strategy may be warm, but the climate lonely and isolated people face in English cities continues to grow harsher.
Yet all too often, strategies for urban regeneration seem to focus on improving a place’s image, instead of the lives of its residents. And participatory art – in which artists collaborate with local communities, leaders, institutions and business owners – is often more about helping people to accept their daily conditions, rather than to change them.
Working in this field myself, I have firsthand experience of the problematic roles we, as artists, are put in, while working in the context of urban development. For one thing, when developers have to consider the participatory and “inclusive” aspects of their developments, they often enlist artists to work with so-called “marginalised communities”. As a result, we can find ourselves in uncomfortable positions – for example, I have found myself doing projects with homeless people for housing developments that they will never be able to live in.
All too often, well-meaning community organisers cast artists as social workers, expecting us to use art as a way to mediate and intervene in heated social situations, rather than asking difficult questions about the situation itself.
Planners and government officials often write off our projects as mere fantasy, which has nothing to do with reality, because our work focuses on tactile and sensuous ways of knowing, as opposed to the rational and technical approaches that prevail in urban planning. And while trying to change the planning system from within, we are criticised for being used by “the system” when we accept commissions and funding from governmental bodies and planning institutions.
Participatory art is caught in a web of stubborn contradictions, which reduce art to a question of utility: what can this practice do for the city? Participatory art is expected to provide an answer: a quick-fix DIY solution to urban ills. Rather than trying to change or challenge the current situation, art is simply expected to make the best out of it. And as a result, local communities are positioned as the passive recipients of some form of creative consultancy.
Challenging the given order
But participatory art can do so much more than this, to meaningfully empower communities. From experimental performances to collaborative model-making, urban expeditions to co-produced audio walks, treasure hunts to city archiving – participatory art can help people articulate their experiences of the city on their own terms. And this has the power to question and challenge any given order, which directs how people think about cities, and live in them.
Administrators of urban space would like to have the public believe that the urban environment has a predetermined function: a bench is for sitting, not sleeping, on; a train station is for people on the move, not for people seeking shelter; a park is for families with children, not for groups of young people – and so on.
This “given order” of things risks making residents feel alienated from urban spaces. When the city’s functions are already decided, there is little room for residents to adapt its spaces according to their own needs. Urban space becomes a sort of jigsaw puzzle: the pieces can be moved around, but they only fit in one way. There is only one predetermined and rational way to assemble the pieces.
Imagine the possibilities
But in participatory art, urban space can be reimagined as a mosaic: the pieces fit together in many different ways, and the final outline is not predetermined. Different pieces can relate to each other to produce different forms and make new connections, depending on how you arrange them. This way of thinking about the city gives local people the freedom to articulate what matters to them, and express their own vision for the city’s future.
For example, when participants in Zurich, Switzerland, made an alternative city archive to document their own “unofficial” stories of urban living, they were given the power to decide what information counted as worthy and significant about their city.
When people go on audio walks, listening to local residents’ stories that imagine their neighbourhood as if it was already changed for the better, this challenges the view that the city’s future can only be produced by planners and designers.
Audio walk in Copenhagen by zURBS. Photo by ARA.
And when participants engage in collaborative model-making, using found objects to express their dreams and desires for their city, they are given space to imagine alternatives, without being mired in everyday realities and demands for concrete solutions on “how to get there”.
In the present political climate, democracy is seemingly becoming less sensitive to the demands of citizens calling for more just distribution of resources, a cleaner environment or the defence of common goods. Participatory art has the potential to give city dwellers a sense of agency, empowerment and entitlement, by promising that everyone is capable of imagining how things could be different. And that’s the first step toward forging a better future.
Last summer 275 children from 8 to 14 years joined a summer programme that introduced them to urban planning in Ho Chi Minh City. The children designed and planned for smarter and more child-friendly areas in the south Vietnamese city.
The programme, ‘Children innovate: A smart and Child-friendly City’ was initiated by UNICEF’S collaboration with the Saigon Innovation Hub and HCMC Department of Architecture and Planning. This is part of Ho Chi Minh City’s Child Friendly City Initiative Project (2017-2021).“Creative education is the very long-term foundation for the future Vietnamese generations to integrate into the world”, said Mr. Huynh Kim Tuoc, Co-founder & CEO of Saigon Innovation Hub.
There were 11 creative thinking workshops held over the summer and vulnerable and disadvantaged children also participated in the programme. Participants learnt design principles, design thinking, architecture, urban planning with hands-on activities and project team works. They were given a range of materials like clay, wood but also technical devices such as computers, Sketchup and Hololens.
Each of the workshops went on for five days, starting at 9 am and ending at 4 pm. During which participants worked on three hands-on projects during each day. The five days were broken up as follows:
Day 1: City planning principles, maps, scale, design principles
Day 2: Parks, traffic and public spaces, playground design
Day 3: Buildings and Landmarks, landmark design
Day 4: Services, smart city, computer related activities, photo editing
Day 5: Team work, preparation of exhibition and presentation, exhibition and presentation of results
All this culminated in a week-long exhibition at the Saigon Innovation Week. Where the children were given a platform to share their ideas and projects with urban planning experts, decision makers and the public.
Marianne Oehlers, Chief of Programme Partnerships Office UNICEF Vietnam said: “Almost everywhere in the world, the design process is undertaken by adults, while the end- users are often children, such is the case in parks, public areas and schools. Children Innovate: Smart and Child Friendly Cities creates an environment for children to express their opinions and influence decisions that affect them, so that a safe, secure and clean environment, taking into account children’s perspectives, may be provided by urban planning experts and decision-makers.”
Urbanization is changing the face of the planet – for better and for worse. City populations, GDP and investment are increasing exponentially. At the same time, carbon emissions are rising, more and more people are living in slums, and air pollution is a growing threat. Experts point to the need for urban transformation, yet few people have a concrete sense of how to trigger and sustain such rapid change.
The WRI Ross Prize for Cities aims to spotlight exemplary real-world examples of urban transformation to help inspire better cities for all. Nearly 200 projects around the globe submitted applications for the inaugural $250,000 prize.
Evaluators recently selected five finalists. These projects – from a waste-pickers’ cooperative in India to a cable-car system in Colombia – begin to paint a picture of what transformative urban initiatives can look like.
The finalists for the WRI Ross Prize for Cities hail from Colombia, India, South Africa, Tanzania and Turkey.
Inclusive Transport in Medellín, Colombia
As Medellín, Colombia has spread out along the sides of the Aburra Valley, its poorer neighborhoods have become increasingly disconnected from the city center – not only topographically, but socially and economically. Residents of the city’s hillside slums have historically lacked easy access to jobs, education and other services, with commutes sometimes stretching upwards of four hours a day.
So in 2004, the city’s transit operator, Metro de Medellín, came up with an innovative solution: the world’s first aerial cable-cable car system to be fully integrated into public transport. Connecting to metro, bus and bike stations, Metrocable soars above congested and dangerous streets, connecting the hills to the city center. Travel times have dropped by as much as 60 minutes, and a streamlined ticketing system eliminated double-charging for commuters using both the cable car and metro or bus systems.
Metrocable has redefined residents’ conception of Medellín’s borders, of who counts and who doesn’t. It’s part of a larger shift in the mindset of the city government and establishes a powerful physical and symbolic link between poorer neighborhoods and the city center.
Cities in sub-Saharan Africa face a neglected public health crisis: Children are twice as likely to die in a road crash than in any other region of the world. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the number of fatalities is poised to increase as the city’s population doubles between 2012 and 2030 and car ownership rises.
In 2014, the non-profit Amend set out to reverse the tide with its School Area Road Safety Assessment and Improvement (SARSAI) program. Starting in Dar es Salaam but quickly spreading to more than a dozen countries, the approach is attractively simple and low-cost: In each of their target cities, Amend partners with the local government; identifies schools with the highest rates of injury and death; implements safety infrastructure such as gates, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings; and works with students to teach them safer ways of crossing the street.
The SARSAI program has helped 70,000 primary school students get to and from school more safely. Amend is changing mindsets by putting children’s road safety on the political agenda while helping kids understand that their safety, mobility and freedom matters.
Informal workers like waste pickers and street vendors are the backbone of many cities around the world. By some accounts, they represent 50 to 80 percent of urban employment globally, yet they’re largely left out of public policy decisions.
Since 2008, Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) has helped change this dynamic in South Africa. In Durban’s Warwick Junction, AeT has worked with informal vendors to save the historic central market from being redeveloped into a shopping mall and displacing more than 3,000 jobs. Through collaborative design, training and advocacy, AeT has helped secure a voice for workers in city decision-making processes. Informal vendors now have the right to operate in the market and have become active participants in redesigning some areas. They’ve been able to secure cleaner cook stations, safer storage spaces and more.
What was once the black entrance to an all-white city during apartheid, Warwick Junction is now becoming the gateway to a more inclusive city. Beyond directly benefiting the livelihoods of more than 6,000 informal vendors, improvements have increased local access to affordable goods and produce, too.
Waste collection is a huge problem for many rapidly growing cities. By 2050, South Asia will double the trash it produces to more than 660 million tons annually. In Pune, India’s first worker-owned waste-pickers’ cooperative is not only helping to create an efficient waste-collection system that reaches more residents, it’s showing cities how to incorporate informal workers into a modern economy.
SWaCH Pune Seva Sahakari Sanstha (SWaCH) is owned and operated by its more than 3,000 members, most of whom are women and Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables.” This dedicated force provides door-to-door waste-collection services to more than 2.3 million residents, including more than 450,000 slum dwellers. Members collect more than $6.8 million in user fees each year and recycle more than 110 million pounds of waste, cutting as much greenhouse gas emissions as taking 32,000 passenger vehicles off the road.
The SWaCH model efficiently bridges a critical service-delivery gap while employing many of the city’s most vulnerable residents. It’s inspired national legislation to help incorporate informal waste pickers into municipal services across India. Members report more disposable income and more time for family, education and leisure.
Integrating Nature and Public Transit inEskisehir, Turkey
Urbanization often goes hand-in-hand with environmental degradation, including waste disposal problems, poor water and air quality, and the loss of wetlands and forests. In the post-industrial city of Eskisehir, Turkey, congestion was clogging the city center, and the central Porsuk River became one of the region’s most polluted bodies of water.
To combat these issues, the Eskisehir Metropolitan Municipality created a network of natural infrastructure to restore the Porsuk, expand public green spaces and link the entire corridor with a sustainable public transport network.
The Eskisehir Urban Development Project interweaves green and grey infrastructure with a new electric tram network to create a modern, nature-based city. Parks along the river have helped improve water quality and control flooding, while also spurring new commercial growth and pedestrian traffic.
Since the project launched, green space per city resident has increased 215 percent, 24 miles of electric tram lines move more than 130,000 people per day, and the city has become a hub for domestic and international tourism.
The finalists reflect the creativity spurred by a global move to cities and the potential for sustainable cities that work for people and the planet. In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring these pioneering projects in more depth. In April 2019, one will be selected as the winner of the $250,000 WRI Ross Prize for Cities.
Children are being left out of decisions about the environments created around them, when really, their needs should be at the heart of them.
In the UK, children are becoming less healthy – physically and mentally – and spend more time indoors than previous generations. Society is so caught up in discussing children’s health, education, safety and social media use, that little time is spent looking at the effect urban planning has on their lives.
Children growing up in towns and cities have less freedom to move around their neighbourhoods than their parents. Experts suggest that a ten-year-old child today has far less licence to roam than a ten-year-old two generations ago. The biggest problem here is the increase of traffic and dangerous roads, which makes many adults hesitant to allow children out.
Children can also be excluded from open space due to overzealous regulations such as “no ball games”, or the idea that that playing near their homes causes nuisance. There are even more problems for teenagers who are more likely to be treated with suspicion in a public space than adults. While social issues at heart, these problems are perpetuated by poor planning and urban design. This is leading to children living increasingly sheltered lives and experiencing the outdoors only in adult-led, organised activities.
Children today move around their neighbourhoods less freely than their parents did.
Children’s rights and needs
The UK signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child(UNCRC) in 1991. It gives all people below the age of 18 additional rights to adults, recognising that children are generally more vulnerable to being manipulated, and also less likely to be given a say in how they live their lives. Among these rights are three articles especially relevant to their environment:
Article 12: the right to participate in all matters that affect them.
Article 15: the right to freedom of association, including to gather in public space and organise their own activities.
Article 31: the right to play, rest, leisure and access cultural life.
Current planning policy across the UK recognises a need for greater sustainability and inclusivity. But in practice, this mostly takes into account economic matters such as providing enough employment opportunities; transport, traffic and parking; and enough housing to meet growing demand.
In the midst of all these economic concerns, social needs – and especially those of the youngest, most vulnerable citizens – can be brushed aside. When it comes to planning, a plethora of evidence shows adult communities often feel unheard, while involving children at all is still viewed as an innovative thing to do. The proliferation of parks, playgrounds and skateparks is an indication that children’s rights are not well understood.
Children need more than skateparks and playgrounds if they are to be independent and confident.
When children are asked about their favourite places to play, the playground is rarely their first choice. And most adults will often agree that they also favoured places other than the playground when they were children: parks, woods, riverbanks, fields and beaches were the places that captured imagination, not a few swings in an enclosed tarmacked space. Similarly, skateparks offer only limited recreation potential and tend to be favoured more by boys than by girls.
Playgrounds often lack a range of equipment to suit children of different ages and abilities and are not always well maintained. Children also have to be able to reach the playground safely on their own, otherwise they have to be accompanied. This can limit the time children have to play outdoors and contributes further demands on the time of already pressured parents and carers.
These exclusions and misunderstandings of what children really need contribute to environments that favour adults over children, and can leave children feeling disempowered, discouraged, inactive and dependent on the adults around them.
Fixing the problem
Far from a side issue, this leads to epidemics in childhood obesity, mental health issues and a lack of opportunity for poorer children. Environments need to become more child friendly, and everything has to start with planning policy.
First and foremost, the UNCRC can and should be integrated into UK law, putting children first at all levels of policy and practice.
Planners need to understand that keeping children in mind helps meet other agendas, such as improving facilities for cycling and walking, biodiversity, and ensuring access to green space for all. Planners can create more child-friendly environments if they take into account that for children to go outside they need time, space, and attitudes that support their use of public space.
Planning with children in mind can help fulfil other goals such as biodeversity and green space for all.
My research suggests five key steps policymakers can take to improve the facilitation of children’s rights in the environment:
Encourage and endorse children’s rights training for planners at both degree and professional level.
Produce guidelines and methods for engaging with children.
Create a robust and routine feedback practise between planners and children.
Encourage networking, collaboration, and skills exchange between planners and childhood professionals.
Collate an accessible evidence base on children, and their relationship to, and use of, the built environment.
Improving children’s rights in the built environment requires paying attention to both the process and the outcomes of planning. The environments we live in have a major impact on our routines and lifestyles, but they can be changed over time and include local communities, taking account of their needs.
Society has a vital opportunity here to seriously step up to create spaces and places that work for everyone. When determining what this looks like, the rights of the child are a clear and accessible barometer for progress, respecting the most vulnerable citizens now and in future.
But this can’t happen in isolation – what children need has to be integrated into all the other community needs under consideration. Playparks and skateparks are all very well, but if society is going to foster confidence and independence in children, the way environments are created has to put them at the centre of planning in the first place.
It is time that we put children at the center of urban planning. That is the opinion of Kirti Zala, Project Head of aProCh a community based initiative in the city of Ahmedabad. In this article, Kirti makes a case for why play is important in urban development and how aProCh helps children leave their mark on their city.
A city’s blueprint
When we look at the design of a city, what are the factors that come to mind? Roads, buildings, highways, bridges and so on. Basically the infrastructure. And what do we keep in mind when we plan a city? Things such as where the buildings will be made and roads with more traffic need to be wider. The planning for community spaces or places for people to walk and sit often comes last. In order to beautify our cities and make them smart, urban developers tend to miss out or give less attention to human needs.
So when we look at the most urbanized city, it may be technologically smart but not human smart. 30% of the population is made up of youth under the age of 18. And yet they are neglected when cities are designed. We may wish for a better future for our children, our cities and nation, but that does not happen without proper planning and participation.
The urban population
According to urban planner, Timothy Duin, “By 2030, the majority of the world’s urban population will be children. By considering children’s perspectives when planning urban areas, we can design cities that meet our needs now and into the future. We need to design spaces for all ages, abilities and backgrounds to enjoy together.”
Children should be able to play freely in their local areas. Children have the same right to use and enjoy public space as others. Local streets, estates, green spaces, parks and town centres should be accessible for children and young people to move around in safety and offer places where they can play freely, experience nature, explore their environment and be with their friends.
Street smart. Photo: aProCh
Children represent our future. As the urban population is growing there is an increase in the number of children growing up in an urban setting; it is time that we put them at the center of our planning and thus we will end up with better places for all. With more children growing up in urban settings, I believe it is important that they should know about cities, neighborhoods, and urban setting from an early age on. They should have opportunities to get involved and make their voices heard and their opinions count.
The rights of children
While each nation has various acts and policies to protect the rights of children, the implementation is still a question in most countries. The global processes such as urbanization are affecting children’s right at the local level. One of the rights of children to play is neglected most of the time in process of urban planning and designing. There is a huge gap in terms of children’s participation vs. children’s exclusion at policy level with regards to the creation and usage of public spaces.
The purpose and desired use of the urban public space is not often viewed with the same lens by young children and adults in the area of public space design. Most of the public spaces are designed by adults excluding children. There is still a lack of commitment from governments to guarantee children’s rights. Most countries face issues with children’s rights regarding violence, poverty, diversity and participation.
As a society, it becomes our responsibility to increase opportunities for children to play. Open spaces need to be designed to provide them with a chance for recreation, curiosity and socialize. Children learn about their society, community, through exploration and observation. Limiting them to only the playground will restrict their creativity and curiosity.
City as my landscape. Photo: aProCh.
Play is fundamental to children’s development and shapes their capacity for learning and social growth, particularly in the early years. Free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus and selfdiscipline. Socially, it improves cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness. A study published by the American Medical Association in 2005 concluded, “children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.”
aProCh (a Protagonist in every Child) is a community based initiative started in 2007 with a vision to create “Child friendly city”. With programs like Street Smart, Moving Experience, Parents of the Park, City on Cycles & City as My Landscape, they provide varied avenues to explore with curiosity engage in creativity and community and experience the joys of childhood. It is an attempt to sensitize children toward the city and their role as emerging citizens of the future.
Engaging children and young people in research and consultation ensures that their perceptive and voices are taken into account. aProCh provides a platform for children to be visible and heard by letting them design and create legacies; thus leaving their mark in the city.
Involving children at a very young age in community matters such as the city’s problems, expansion of the cities, the expectations of the citizens from the city, and their role in the city’s growth; will nurture them towards becoming empowered and responsible citizens of the future.