Cities: An urban play-lab for children

Cities are the new critical urban laboratories for interactive engagement of children with the urban environment. The Child-Friendly Smart Cities initiative puts forward this opportunity to open a discourse and encourage cities themselves to become catalysts in mainstreaming the needs of children and contribute to a new form of playable urbanism.

Today, 27% of the world’s children live in cities and nearly half of them live in slums and dilapidated conditions. Considering he fact, that cities not only have a direct impact on children’s health but also act as critical facilitators of fundamental thinking on how children perceive and become an active part of their urban environment, reinforces the importance of balanced development of all groups of children within their urban context through skilful planning of cities.

Given that by 2020, India will be the youngest nation with 64% of its population under 29 years of age, re-establishes the importance of harmonious development of its children and youth within their urban context. The National policy of children, 2013, India emphasizes the importance of a sustainable, integrated and inclusive approach for development and protection of children, recognizing the rights of children to have an appropriate life. Proactive efforts have led to aligning children’s needs in urban areas as part of the national urban development missions such as the Smart Cities Mission.

Although policy frameworks and global urban agenda has addressed the rights of children in cities, their everyday needs are often not fully considered in the urban planning processes and mainstream discussions about urbanism. While children growing up in urban areas have access to various opportunities, they are also vulnerable to urban challenges such as pollution, cramped housing conditions, long commutes, inadequate access to recreational and play spaces and high crime rates etc. In addition, rapid and uncontrolled growth of cities in recent decades has further outstripped the capacities of urban administrations and infrastructure services to meet the physical and social needs of people living in them. It is well known that issues which make urban life difficult for children also impact other sections of society, such as women, elderly and disabled. Thus, including child-friendly aspects in city making is an objective that cuts across many overlapping problems and does not just benefit children alone.

In this intensively urbanising world, cities need to play a stronger role, towards developing an inclusive urban form which can be enriched and further interwoven with physical cues that provide a sense of place from the vantage point of children. To realise this, innovative methods such as the popsicle test1, the toddler walkshed2, urban953, need to be explored in detail to overlay a new form of playful urban dimension into the constrained existing urban fabric. Only through such pro-active urban experiments can a discourse be opened, that promotes children’s everyday freedoms and choices and links it directly to their local geography, mobility and safety; cultivating a unique identity for the city and fostering a sense of belonging for its children and youth.

These principles of inclusive city making are being supported by the city of Bhubaneswar, through establishment of Child Friendly Smart City Centre, to develop knowledge driven, effective planning and urban design frameworks that include children’s perspective and encourages their participation to create vibrant urban neighbourhoods. The initiative promotes layering of the city from the perspective of children through micro-landmarks that shape their understanding of a place, provide opportunities for independent mobility and greater interaction for a better designed public realm and open spaces. It is through such urban dialogues that children will discover and develop ingenious ways to shape unexpected places and make the city their own.

About the Authors: Sabina Suri and Divya Jindal are researchers at NIUA engaged with the CFSC initiative. NIUA is developing a strong knowledge base and advocacy campaign for Child Friendly Smart Cities (CFSC) in India with support from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, The Netherlands. The CFSC initiative focuses on planning and development of children and family-friendly smart cities in India, with a view to transform urban areas into safe, livable, equitable and nurturing environments for all children.
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