The importance of building child-friendly places

Sarah Lewis from the Royal Town Planning Institute explains why and how we should build places with children in mind - and why this will deliver benefits for everyone. 

The built environment has a huge effect on a child
The built environment has a huge effect on a child's - and eventually adult's - quality of life. Image credit: Shutterstock
  • Updated: 30 September, 2021
  • Author: Sarah Lewis, planning practice officer, Royal Town Planning Institute

The Children’s Commissioner for England recently published the results of ‘The Big Ask’, the survey it launched in March this year, that aimed to understand the state of the nation for children in England.

The Big Answer’ on the over half a million responses received from children, who've been understandably heavily influenced by their experiences of living through the Covid-19 pandemic.

The findings confirmed my conviction of the importance the quality of where children live – their homes, schools, parks, local neighbourhood - the whole of the built environment - has on the quality of their lives now and as they grow and become adults.

Importantly, the results show that children are concerned about the world around them. Thirty-nine percent of 9- to 17-year-olds said that the environment was one of their main worries about the future, with 31% expressing concerns about fairness in society.

Children and the built (and natural) environment

The outcomes of the survey chime with the research I undertook while writing the Royal Town Planning Institute’s latest practice advice on ‘Children and Town Planning’.

The issues that affect many children in our society are stark. More than 10% of children in England were living in overcrowded housing in 2019, around 1.3 million children, according to the National Housing Federation.

Some 136,000 children live in temporary accommodation across Britain, sometimes in one of the 20% of homes that currently fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard. The numbers of children living in poverty are alarmingly high and the Social Mobility Commission has projected that the number of children living in poverty will increase markedly because of Covid-19.

The impact of living in poverty is felt throughout a child’s life. Only 57% of pupils entitled to free school meals have achieved a good level of development when starting school, compared with 74% of all other pupils. Meanwhile, at 16, only a quarter of disadvantaged students get a good pass in English and Maths GCSE, compared to half of all other pupils.

The link between green space and wellbeing is well established. The impact of spending time in green space is particularly important for children as it provides opportunities and space to play and experience the natural world. It improves children’s ability to cope with life stresses, concentration, activity levels and social skills.

However, almost 2.7 million people in the UK also do not have a publicly accessible local park or green space within a 10-minute walk of their home, and this restricted access to green space is most apparent in deprived areas.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international human rights treaty that grants all children a comprehensive set of rights. The Child Friendly Cities Initiative is led by UNICEF, and it supports local government around the world to realise the UN Convention.

Several cities in the UK are involved in the initiative, including the London Borough of Redbridge. This is a cross-department initiative and the Planning and Building Control team has a key role in its implementation. Actions it has undertaken include the engagement with youth groups on the design of developments as part of the consultation process.

Brett Leahy, Head of Planning and Building Control at the council, sees the Child Friendly City approach as an opportunity for levelling up and the potential to achieve tangible outcomes. I was impressed by his obvious enthusiasm for making the borough more child-friendly, but I admit that this is partly because I am a Redbridge resident, with two young daughters.

Why we need to listen to children

A key theme of ‘The Big Answer’ report is the need to listen to children and this is also key for designing successful child-friendly places.

To undertake successful and effective engagement with children, the engagement process needs to be tailored to the age group being worked with.

For the Liverpool City Region Combined Authorities consultation on their draft strategic plan, they worked with a specialist social enterprise organisation to work with young people.

When they ran engagement days in disused retail units, a group of teenage boys were so enthusiastic about the process they became advocates, pulling in their friends to join in. The Lead Officer for Spatial Planning, Mark Dickens, was delighted at the response of young people.

He said: “Younger people are less protective of what they have. They are not looking to maintain the status quo. It’s been a breath of fresh air.”

A playful approach

For younger children, a playful approach based at school can work well.

At Auchtertool Primary School in Fife, children from as young as five were involved in using the Place Standard Tool to create a map of their local area. They identified priorities for improvement, including road safety with traffic lights (or a dinosaur) outside the school, and a safe cycle path for children.

The children had a well-developed understanding of their local area, providing valuable insights into potential improvements, that may differ from what adults value as important.

How should we build for children?

There are a set of design principles that should be considered when creating child-friendly places. These can be applied to many settings - urban or rural, new development or existing settlement. It’s important that these principles are fully integrated, right from the start of any project to deliver the best (and cost-effective) outcomes that can make a real difference to children’s lives.

  • Welcoming - variety of cues to indicate they are welcome
  • Local - everyday services are located safe, walkable, distances from homes
  • Engaging - children and young people are involved in the design of places
  • Sustainable - places are high quality, adaptable and built to last
  • Play - places are designed with a variety of opportunities for play
  • Green - free access to green space at a variety of scales near to homes
  • Inclusive - places are designed to cater for diverse intergenerational communities
  • Confidence - places are designed to give children (and their parents and guardians) the confidence to use them.
  • Build for children – build for everyone

By focusing on the needs of children, built environment professionals can work together to achieve the green, inclusive, sustainable communities that we want to live in.

Tim Gill, the child-friendly design advocate, says “children can be seen as an indicator species for cities. The visible presence of children and youth is a sign of the health of human habitats.”

In this way, a place that works for children can be seen to work for everyone.

To find out more, visit the RTPI website.

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