How Can City Planners Design Kid-Friendly Urban Spaces in the UK?

April 5, 2024

When you think of cities, your mind may not immediately associate them with children. However, cities are home to a large number of young people, and it’s becoming increasingly important to design urban spaces that cater to their needs. But how can city planners achieve this? How can they create spaces that are not only safe and accessible but also engaging and fun? This article explores how city planners can design child-friendly urban spaces in the UK, focusing on key areas such as safety, inclusivity, community involvement, and creative design.

Making Public Spaces Safe for Children

A child-friendly city is a safe city. Safety is paramount when planning and designing spaces for children. This extends beyond the obvious considerations such as traffic and stranger danger to less apparent hazards such as air pollution and inadequate lighting.

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Creating safe public spaces requires a holistic approach to urban planning. It involves strategic placement of parks and playgrounds away from busy roads, installing adequate lighting in all public areas, and ensuring there are safe walkways and cycle lanes that children can use to travel around the city.

Air pollution is another key concern in many UK cities. Planners can counter this by implementing low emission zones, promoting sustainable transport, and integrating more green spaces into the city landscape. These spaces not only help to improve air quality but also provide safe, open areas where children can play.

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Planning Inclusive Spaces for All Ages

Equally important is ensuring that urban spaces are inclusive and cater for children of all ages. This means designing spaces that are accessible and engaging for toddlers, pre-teens, and teenagers alike.

When designing spaces for young children, planners need to consider elements such as playground equipment that is suitable for their age and abilities, clear sightlines so parents can easily supervise, and soft ground coverings to cushion any falls.

For older children and teenagers, skate parks, basketball courts, and youth centres can provide places where they can socialize, exercise, and engage in recreational activities. Incorporating technology, such as free WiFi and charging stations, can also make these spaces more appealing to this age group.

Engaging the Community in the Planning Process

Creating child-friendly urban spaces isn’t just about design, it’s also about community involvement. By engaging children, parents, and other community members in the planning process, city planners can gain valuable insights into what people want and need from their urban environment.

This could involve holding community workshops or consultations, or even setting up child-led design projects. These initiatives can empower children and young people, giving them a sense of ownership over their local areas and encouraging them to take care of their urban environment.

In cities like London, community involvement has led to the development of innovative projects such as the Mayor’s School Air Quality Audit Programme. This initiative not only helps to tackle air pollution around schools, but also engages students in the process, teaching them about the importance of clean air and sustainability.

Prioritising Play in Urban Design

Play is a fundamental part of childhood. It’s not only fun, it’s also crucial for children’s physical, social, and cognitive development. Therefore, it’s important that urban spaces provide plentiful and diverse opportunities for play.

Rather than just providing traditional playgrounds, city planners should consider how they can integrate play into the everyday urban environment. This could involve creating interactive art installations, incorporating playful elements into street furniture, or designing ‘playable’ landscapes with features such as hills, water elements, and natural materials for children to explore.

Cities around the UK, such as Bristol and London, have already seen success with this approach. The Bristol Playful City initiative, for example, has introduced a number of playful features into the city’s streets and public spaces, making the whole city a playground.

Encouraging Development Through Design

Finally, city planners should consider how their designs can support children’s development and wellbeing. This means creating spaces that encourage children to be active, explore their environment, and challenge themselves.

For example, natural play spaces, which incorporate elements such as trees, rocks, and water, can offer a range of sensory experiences and opportunities for risk-taking and problem-solving. These kinds of experiences can help to build children’s confidence, resilience, and physical abilities, as well as fostering a sense of connection with nature.

At the same time, city planners need to ensure that urban spaces promote social interaction and community cohesion. This might involve designing communal areas such as city squares and gardens, where families can gather and children can interact with people of different ages and backgrounds.

Adopting Green Spaces and the Built Environment Approach

The built environment refers to man-made structures and spaces, including buildings, parks, and transport networks. In the context of child-friendly cities, emphasis on green spaces within the built environment is critical. These spaces provide a natural setting for children to explore, play, and interact with the environment. They also contribute to improving air quality and creating a visually appealing urban landscape.

City planning should prioritise the inclusion of these green spaces in urban designs. These may include parks, gardens, walking trails, or even rooftop gardens in high-rise buildings. The Bernard Van Leer Foundation has been instrumental in emphasizing the impact of green spaces on children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Their Urban95 initiative, for instance, encourages city planners to view the city from 95cm – the average height of a three-year-old – to ensure the city is designed with young people in mind.

Including natural elements like trees, flowers, and water bodies in these spaces can offer children a rich sensory experience, stimulating their imagination and curiosity. Green spaces also serve as communal areas where families can spend time together, thus enhancing community cohesion.

Creating Family-Friendly Transport Systems

How children and young people move around the city is another critical aspect of child-friendly urban planning. A family-friendly transport system is one that prioritises safety, accessibility, and affordability.

This means creating safe pedestrian paths and cycling lanes, ensuring public transportation is accessible to prams and wheelchairs, and making these services affordable for families. A sketch created by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation illustrates this concept, showing wide, well-lit pedestrian paths, bicycle lanes separated from vehicle lanes, and bus stops with shelters and seating.

City planners should also consider implementing school walking buses – a scheme where children walk to school in a group under adult supervision. This not only encourages physical activity but also teaches children about road safety and navigation skills.

In cities like Cambridge, where cycling is a dominant mode of transport, city planners have made efforts to create a network of safe, well-signposted cycle routes. This kind of initiative encourages families to choose healthier, more environmentally friendly modes of transport, contributing to the overall goal of creating child-friendly cities.

Conclusion: Building Child-Friendly Urban Spaces

In conclusion, designing child-friendly urban spaces requires a comprehensive approach. City planners must consider safety, inclusivity, play, and community involvement. They should also focus on creating green spaces within the built environment and developing family-friendly transport systems.

Cities like London and Bristol have led the way with innovative projects, proving that it’s possible to create urban spaces that cater to young people’s needs. As more cities embrace these principles, the UK will move closer to a future where all children can grow up in safe, engaging, and inclusive urban environments.

Creating child-friendly cities is not just beneficial for children. It contributes to the overall wellbeing of all city residents, creating safer, healthier, and happier communities. As such, the child-friendly approach should be at the heart of urban planning, shaping the cities of tomorrow. By doing so, we make cities welcoming places for everyone, where children can learn, play, and thrive.