Putting children at the heart of urban planning: a call for action

Authors: Tim Gill, Adrian Voce, Darell Hammond and Mariana Brussoni

Cities around the world are failing children. 30 years after the launch of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – which aimed to make children’s needs and views central in policy making – most cities are hostile if not life-threatening places for their youngest inhabitants.

The global death toll of children on the roads is surely the most shocking illustration of the failure of urban planning. Road traffic is the leading global cause of death among people aged 15–29, and the second highest single cause of death for children aged 5–14.

Dangerous hilly road with cars and pedestrians, Ciudad Bolivar, Bogota

Ciudad Bolivar, Bogota

The lives of urban children are also blighted by polluted air (much of it caused by road traffic). Around 2 billion globally live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds international limits, and almost 300 million live in areas where levels are considered to be toxic. Worldwide, around 127,000 children under the age of 5 die each year from outdoor air pollution [pdf link].

Poor urban planning restricts children’s play and mobility, fuelling the global epidemic of child obesity: a public health problem whose existence would have staggered experts back in the 1970s. It also plays a part in rising levels of adolescent mental health problems, by preventing many children from developing resilience early in life through opportunities for independence.

Of course, children are not the only ones suffering from failed urban planning. To quote Enrique Peñalosa’s memorable phrase, they are an ‘indicator species’ for cities. The sight of children being active and visible in public space is a sign not just of their own wellbeing, but of a generally healthy, liveable urban environment.

2 posters at Extinction Rebellion protest, Bristol, 2019

Extinction Rebellion protest, Bristol, 2019

Meanwhile – as growing numbers of young people around the world are telling us, with voices at once clear, insistent and persuasive – cities are struggling to respond to the climate crisis. And aside from a handful of cities in high-income countries, they are failing here too. In the vast majority, rapid urbanization and unplanned growth are storing up huge problems for our future.

Why children should be at the heart of urban planning

In our view – and as backed up by a growing body of evidence – the most compelling response to the problems of urbanization, and to the call for climate action, is for children to be at the heart of urban planning. This article lays out the principles and strategic actions that flesh out this view.

As longstanding, committed advocates for children’s play, we honour the importance children attach to the ability to play freely out of doors, even in circumstances where adult eyes see more pressing priorities. Outdoor play supports children’s health and development in ways that other activities like structured sport or indoor play do not. It is central to our vision of a city that works for children.

But this does not mean that the solution is to create playgrounds (valuable though they may be). In too many cities, traffic-dominated streets carve up neighbourhoods, leaving children and families cut off from nearby parks and play areas.

Mobility unlocks neighbourhoods and the wider city for children and their caregivers. For the vast majority – and especially poorer families – mobility means walking. Walkability is the glue that holds neighbourhoods together. Hence fundamental to a child-friendly urban future is a shift away from car-centric planning and towards walking (and cycling, a gateway to expanding children’s horizons as they grow up).

Children playing during Streets for Play project, Jundiai, Brazil

Streets for Play project, Jundiai, Brazil

The phrase ‘everyday freedoms’ – as adopted by the global planning and engineering firm Arup – neatly sums up our vision for children’s play and mobility. It is tempting to see this notion as a ‘nice to have’: a luxury compared to policy priorities like sanitation or schooling, especially in low- and middle-income contexts. But a moment’s thought shows this is mistaken. Education is a case in point. Making it safe and easy for children to get to and from school is hardly a ‘nice to have’. Rather, it is an indispensable part of the goal of securing universal access to education.

What needs to happen now

The problems of car-dominated neighbourhoods, inadequate and poorly-designed public space and environmental pollution must be tackled head-on. We do not need to wait for children to raise these issues (though they have been doing so for decades, in cities the world over).

Indeed, a shift in emphasis is needed, from process and participation to outcomes and impact, drawing on robust data and sound evaluations. Helpful though children’s participation is, the best measure of progress is positive change in the everyday lives of whole populations of children.

In an emerging field like this one, there is still much to learn. But we know enough to say that programmes must address children of all ages from birth through adolescence, focus on the residential neighbourhoods where most families live, and prioritise the marginalised communities who suffer the most from poor urban environments.

We are also calling for a broader set of actors to work together. No one agency has a monopoly on what makes cities child-friendly. We need to break down the professional and organisational silos that so often lead to isolated schemes, missed opportunities and wasted effort.

This in turn needs a level of cooperation ­– both between the leading agencies, and with the many smaller campaigning and advocacy groups – which recognises that the child friendly city concept has been taken up in different ways around the world by a wide variety of groups and individuals.

That said, it is municipalities that typically hold the functions that most strongly shape cities: planning, housing, green spaces, transport and schooling. They are the key agents of change, supported by national governments that create an enabling policy framework, and by strong partnerships with NGOs, civil society and the private sector.

We are impressed by the municipal innovation and leadership that is emerging from a handful of cities. Cities like Tirana, whose mayor Erion Veliaj sees children as both the lens and the catalyst for a new consensus vision for a fast-growing, polluted, car-dominated city that is trying to recover from its turbulent past. Cities like Ghent, which is integrating children’s perspectives into radical, sustainable planning, green space and transport policies.

We acknowledge the progress made by UNICEF’s official Child Friendly City Initiative, and welcome its increased profile, as signalled by the October 2019 summit in Cologne, Germany. We also recognise the excellent work done by NGOs and others who have taken up this topic. The Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative (which two of us are part of) places the perspectives of infants, toddlers and their caregivers at the heart of global urban planning and design debates, and works on the ground in cities as diverse as Tel Aviv, Recife and Bogotá. At the community level, the UK campaigning group Playing Out has created a resident-led model of temporary road closures that is spreading around the world – and in doing so, is leading thousands of ordinary people to reimagine who and what streets are for.

Playing Out session, Hackney, London

Playing Out session, Hackney, London

Many more cities and agencies need to take up the cause of child-friendly urban planning: to build culture change and embed successful initiatives in policy, so that it is not left to a few isolated champions but instead becomes mainstreamed. This will require global learning networks that effectively nurture and share successful approaches and take them to scale.


No one actively wants to make cities worse for children. Rather, children – alongside other vulnerable city dwellers – are suffering the side-effects of short-termist, unsustainable, often uncontrolled, urban policies and programmes. With the equivalent of a new city of 1 million inhabitants being needed every week, it is time to call a stop on failed city-building that harms children and the planet.

Placing children at the heart of urban planning highlights both the key challenges facing cities, and the most promising solutions. It invites us all to look beyond our narrow, immediate concerns and instead to focus on the collective good, and on the longer term. The fact that cities are such complex organisms, and that urban planning is such a wicked issue, only amplifies the need for clear, unifying responses.

Seeing cities through children’s eyes is the best way – and perhaps the only way – to forge a compelling, consensus vision, and to build policies and programmes that match up to the enormity and complexity of the task facing city leaders.

About the authors

Tim Gill is an independent researcher and writer, and the author of No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society (2007). His 2017 Churchill Fellowship looked at child-centred urban planning in cities in Europe and Canada.

Adrian Voce is the director of Playful Planet and current president of the European Network for Child Friendly Cities. He is the author of Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right (2015).

Darell Hammond is an advisor for the Bernard Van Leer Foundation Urban95 strategy, amongst other advisory roles with Foundations and philanthropists. He was also the founder of US based NGO KaBOOM! which works to ensure that all kids get the play they need to reach their full potential.

Mariana Brussoni is a developmental psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Her research focuses on child development, injury prevention and outdoor play.

Tim Gill and Adrian Voce will each be speaking at Towards the Child Friendly City, an international conference on children’s rights in the built environment in Bristol, England on 27-29 November 2019. More details here.


9 responses to “Putting children at the heart of urban planning: a call for action

  1. Thanks you for this great article and call to action and act now to improve public space! Can you give a little more explanation as to why play is beter for children than organized sport? In practice, I see more money going to organized sport than to free play.

    • Thanks for this Madeleine. I share your frustration at the lack of resources going to play. The piece doesn’t say play is better than sport. It says play has benefits that structured activities do not. As the linked research suggests, this is partly to do with children’s level of control and engagement in play, and the flexible, adaptive learning that emerges. In my view, there are also links with connection to nature (a separate topic, though linked because of many children’s preference for, and attachment to, natural outdoor environments).

  2. Excellent article. Hope it adds additional momentum to your endeavours.

  3. Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    Focusing on designing and making a city kid-friendly has been found to be make a city more friendly and usable for all!

  4. Considering that children are everywhere, these excellent contributions should be making national headlines. That they are not is a national scandal, yet I see plans for new homes being approved with no playspace whatsoever within or near the housing area. Even where bylaws exist to impose a quantum of playspace for every family home, greedy developers know how to avoid it. This must stop.

  5. Great call to action! I especially appreciate your drawing to attention the interlinked issues of air pollution and lack of outdoor/ nature play spaces – both needed in Asia though challenged by inaction and apathy. Parts of Asia is unfortunately inundated with the air pollution challenge. Every day, 630 million children under five breathe in toxic air that kills 600,000 children every year. I welcome views on air pollution & young children in Asia here: https://tinyurl.com/y5vabpap

    By 2050, over two thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities, with Asia and Africa accounting for around 90% of the increase. Already there’re momentum in Asia but more needed: 1st ASEAN Placemaker Week in Malaysia next week; December ARNEC Regional Conference with a theme on physical environment and young children.

    Please keep talking about the need for child-centered urban planning – and I’d like to see many more of such initiatives in Asia.

  6. Pingback: An immodest proposal for Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund | Rethinking Childhood

  7. Pingback: Future Cities; Re-imagining Kathmandu. Part 1 – antariksa

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