In London, children are helping to design the streets

A hand holding a pencil depicting someone drawing

Young people are essential when considering the cities of the future. Image: Unsplash/Neven Krcmarek

Alex Thornton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Planners are recognizing the need to put children’s welfare at the centre of urban design.
  • Surveys suggest most young people want to be consulted about the future of their communities.
  • NGOs are providing templates for how to bring young people into the planning process.
  • Child-friendly policies can have long-term social and environmental benefits.

Children see the world differently. A busy road can be an insurmountable barrier, an underpass an intimidating place full of danger, a patch of grass an oasis of fun where imaginations can run free. The urban environment shapes the lives of hundreds of millions of young lives. But children have rarely been considered, let alone consulted, by those who plan and build our cities.

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Involve children in decision making

The dangers to children in a built environment.
The different ways children can be vulnerable to their environment. Image: UNICEF

That is starting to change, thanks to people like Dinah Bornat. She is the co-founder of ZCD Architects, and is an expert in the design of child-friendly cities, now working with the Mayor of London’s office as one of 50 Design Advocates. Her philosophy – engaging with young people and involving them in decisions about their communities – is increasingly being adopted around the world.

“Young people can’t vote and they don’t pay taxes but don’t we want to know what they think?” she told The Guardian. “If consultation letters go through doors they will be opened by adults. We need to go and find young people and actually ask them how they use space and what they want to do in it.”

A UK survey by the international property company Grosvenor Group shows the gap between young people’s desire to have a say, and how often they are actually consulted. It found 89% of 16-18 year olds surveyed had never been asked their opinion about the future of their neighbourhood, despite 82% saying they wanted to be involved.

In east London, Dinah Bornat has been invited by the Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association) to canvass the views of local teenagers on a new development. They tell her about how they use the space around them – where they play, areas they avoid and what they would like to be able to do. That feedback provides a different perspective that can challenge traditional assumptions, and often highlights the need to cater more for pedestrians rather than cars.

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Bornat has helped to develop Voice Opportunity Power, a toolkit that can be used by developers and planners as a template for involving local young people in decisions about their communities.

Child-friendly policies are gaining traction

Why engage young people?
The company’s mission statement encourages planners and developers to include children in the process. Image: Voice Opportunity Power

The push for more child-friendly cities all around the world is also being championed by UNICEF, which sees urban planning as essential to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It has produced a handbook on child-responsive urban planning that covers everything from open spaces and the importance of areas dedicated to play, to transport infrastructure and energy and data networks. The organization is already working on projects on every continent, in nations both rich and poor. For example, in Senegal there are 52 collectives representing municipalities committed to promoting child-friendly policies, monitoring children’s wellbeing and including children’s rights in planning and budget decisions.

Child-friendly policies tend to benefit not just the residents of a city, but wider society. Traffic management schemes that create more space for pedestrians and cyclists are central to sustainable transport networks, reducing air pollution and lowering carbon emissions. Access to green spaces has been linked to better mental health and a reduction in the risk of developing psychiatric disorders. Measures that reduce economic and educational inequality at an early age continue to pay dividends throughout a person’s life.

For Dinah Bornat, the growing willingness to listen to children and design with their needs in mind is a cause for optimism about the future. “I am getting calls from leading architects and developers, local authorities, housing associations,” she told The Guardian. “When I speak to them they are excited about this approach. They get it, if you listen to young people you end up with better places to live.”

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