Urban planning has its roots in creating better places for children and families, but traffic growth has created a mortal threat and reinforced sedentary lifestyles, writes Tim Gill in this extract from his forthcoming book
The adults who shape cities - architects, planners, developers, and also politicians and decision-makers - have a massive impact on the lives of children. Despite this, within the UK’s planning system, newts and bats are deemed more worthy of attention than children.
Yet the global urban population is not only growing, it is growing younger. In 2005, 43% of all urban dwellers were under the age of 18 – up from just 27% in 1955. By 2025, 60% of the world’s children will live in cities.
Childhood has undergone profound changes since the Second World War. Just two generations ago, children typically enjoyed high levels of freedom to play and get around their neighbourhood from an early age. Fast-forward to the children of today, and their horizons have shrunk to the shadows cast by their homes.
The shift to car-centric neighbourhood planning has only reinforced the logic of declining childhood freedoms and indoor, sedentary lifestyles.
To highlight this change is not to hark back to some golden age of childhood. It is a spur to reflect on its changing nature, and to ask ourselves what this might mean for the children – and the cities – of the future.
Traffic growth has transformed the domains of urban childhoods. Over the last hundred years or so, traffic has emerged as a mortal threat to children who wish to get around their neighbourhoods, and parents who want to allow them to do this. The shift to car-centric neighbourhood planning has only reinforced the logic of declining childhood freedoms and indoor, sedentary lifestyles.
While children are rarely the focus of planners, they arguably suffer the most from poor planning – particularly those in low-income families. Yet urban planning has its roots in creating better places for children and families. The Victorian town planning pioneer Ebenezer Howard embraced the masterplanned Garden City as a response to rapid, unplanned urbanisation, and as the answer to ordinary families’ needs and wishes.
Since then, interest in children’s experiences of urban public space has ebbed and flowed. In the UK and other high-income countries, post-war town planning inspired by both the Garden City movement and Modernist architecture aimed to create spacious, green, pedestrian-friendly residential neighbourhoods that would appeal to young families in particular. However, by the late 1970s visions of urban utopias and welcoming, family-friendly neighbourhoods had faded.
After decades on the margins, child-friendly perspectives are beginning to re-join the mainstream, partly driven by a growth in child populations in downtown neighbourhoods
After decades on the margins, child-friendly perspectives are beginning to re-join the mainstream, partly driven by a growth in child populations in some previously child-free downtown neighbourhoods. This trend – a reflection of parental preferences for a more urban lifestyle – has left some municipalities playing catch-up, and has prompted new thinking on planning and design. The Covid-19 pandemic has only underscored the importance of public space and the hyperlocal.
We must elevate the status of children in city-building. Fresh perspectives are gained when urban neighbourhoods are seen through children’s eyes. My forthcoming book Urban Playground shows how cities can deliver sustained child-friendly planning and design programmes and unveils a new urban vision that steers cities away from ecological, economic and social decay, towards an equitable, sustainable, liveable, post-pandemic future.
Tim Gill will be speaking about how child-friendly planning and design can save cities on Thursday 21 May from 10-11:30am via Zoom at a free Festival of Place Bytesize event and attendees can register here.
This piece is an extract from Gill’s forthcoming book, Urban Playground.