Antwerp’s Play Space Web: smart, child-friendly neighbourhood planning in action

When it comes to making Antwerp more playful and child-friendly, Wim Seghers is the man with a plan. His role is to develop the city’s playgrounds. But his award-winning approach is to start not with the play space, but with the neighbourhood beyond, making full use of Antwerp’s world-class data in the process.

Wim – my host for the first leg of my European study tour of child-friendly urban planning – explained to me last week how his city’s ‘play space web’ (‘speelweefselplan’ in Dutch) approach works.

It starts with the 60 or so neighbourhoods that Antwerp’s 500,000+ inhabitants live in. These neighbourhoods are well-defined and well-understood by residents, officials and politicians alike. For children in particular, the neighbourhood is much more concrete than the city as a whole (as I saw in my conversation with a group of 11-year-olds in Kleine Muze school, located in a diverse, inner city area of the city).

Whiteboard showing children's views about their Antwerp neighbourhood

Children’s views about their Antwerp neighbourhood

Hence these neighbourhoods are also at the heart of city planning and service delivery, supported by a vast, user-friendly open databank and a skilled data analysis team.

The importance of this democratic municipal resource cannot be overstated: in Wim’s own words, it was a game-changer for the city’s approach. It means they can start by drawing up a kind of masterplan for the neighbourhood, including the parks, playgrounds, public spaces, sports facilities and schools, and also the cafés, shopping and other key features.

Play space web for one Antwerp neighbourhood

Play space web for one Antwerp neighbourhood

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Studying child-friendly cities, Northern European style

This post shares news of the second and final leg of my Churchill Fellowship study tour, which starts on Monday 26 Feb. In the following four weeks the tour will take me to Antwerp, Ghent, Rotterdam, Oslo and Freiburg (dates below).

Along the way I will meet decision-makers, municipality officials and partner agencies to find out more about each city’s efforts to make their streets, parks and public spaces more child-friendly, and to make it easier for children to travel around their neighbourhoods and the city beyond.

I also plan to gain some insights into children’s own experiences of the neighbourhoods where they live and play.

Playful public space, Vauban, Freiburg

Playful public space, Vauban, Freiburg

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Snow 1, Snapchat 0 – and why this result matters

Last Sunday it snowed round our way. For the first time in years my neighbourhood – like much of London, the South East and beyond – woke up to a blanket of fresh, snowball-perfect snow. And guess what: children went outside and played. They sledged. They made snowmen and snow angels. They had snowball fights.


To repeat: children went outside and played.

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New Arup report places children at the heart of urban planning

Cover of Cities Alive: Designing for Urban ChildhoodsA new report from planning and built environment firm Arup argues that children should be central to good urban planning and design around the world.

Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods takes its cue from the oft-quoted maxim of Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa that the child is an indicator species for cities. Part of Arup’s Cities Alive series of publications, it shows that child-friendly urban planning is about much more than providing playgrounds. Rather, it is part and parcel of making cities more livable, sustainable and successful for all citizens. Continue reading

The London Plan is just the start | Child in the City

Change is in the air at City Hall, as followers of my facebook page will have spotted. Last week Mayor Khan fleshed out his vision of ‘good growth’ for London in the draft London Plan. And the signs are that child-friendliness is part of the picture.

The Plan, with its bold statements about integrating play into neighbourhoods and improving children’s independent mobility, shows genuine progress (see Policy S4, pp 212-4). Here Holly Weir (former senior strategic planner for the Greater London Authority) gives her take on the story so far, and the challenges to come. As co-author of the original planning guidance on play, I agree that clear, effective guidance will be key to implementing the policy.

Does the new London Plan, published last week by Mayor Sadiq Khan, herald a renewal of the UK capital’s commitments to become a genuinely child friendly city? Holly Weir, who worked on the plan for two years at the Greater London Authority (GLA), believes it is a big improvement on its predecessor, but that the […]

Source: The London Plan is just the start | Child in the City

Reflections on the Natural Phenomena conference

Recently my work has had a strong focus on the built environment: how the decisions and actions of planners, highway engineers, designers and others shape children’s lives. Which has meant that the other side of my work – connecting with educators, playworkers and others who work directly with children – has taken a back seat.

But last weekend at the Natural Phenomena conference in Whangarei, New Zealand, the educators were to the fore. And it reminded me that there’s nothing quite like hanging out with people who are deeply committed to children, and deeply engaged in the sometimes messy, sometimes challenging, sometimes joyous art and practice of supporting children’s learning and play. So at the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I’d like to share some of the feelings and experiences of that remarkable time and place.

The Wild Woods: venue for the Natural Phenomena conference

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Is Calgary ready for child-friendly urban planning?

Calgary is the Canadian big city that looks and feels most like many US cities: sprawling, ever-expanding, and hugely car-centred. The very idea that the built form of the city could be great for children is likely to prompt a raised eyebrow from urban planners, if not outright derision.

I have just spent a week in the city, at the International Play Association conference, and then interviewing people and visiting sites as part of my Churchill Fellowship project looking at child-friendly urban planning. And my top-of-the-head response is that those urbanists would not be far wrong. But could this be about to change?

I’ll come back to that later. First, a thumbnail sketch of the city’s built form. Three broad types of residential neighbourhood form a classic urban typology for the city.

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