Is child-friendly urban planning and design a ‘rich city’ pursuit? Or can it gain traction in the global South, where most of the world’s urban children will soon be living? I spent a week in Recife, Brazil exploring this question.
Why Recife? Because mayor Geraldo Julio has made early childhood a defining theme – and central to his vision is making the physical fabric of the city work better for families.
Recife: an introduction
Recife, a tropical, coastal city of around 1½ million people (with another 2½ million in the wider metropolitan area), is the fifth largest city in Brazil. Originally a colonial outpost, it is now a hotspot for Brazil’s tech and medical industries, with tourism and agriculture also important. Its central parts are low-lying former marshland, sliced up by rivers and channels. Surrounding this, hilly regions make up the majority of the city’s land area.
Recife has high levels of income inequality even for Brazil, and problems with violence. Its neighbourhoods are sharply segregated by socioeconomic status. The middle classes live in low-lying areas, mostly in modern, high-rise apartment blocks (sometimes 20 or more storeys high) with secure, gated parking. Their car-dependent lifestyles insulate them from close contact with poorer neighbours. Public transport (a bus network and four rail lines) is largely used by low-income people.
The majority of the population live in low-income neighbourhoods, where levels of sanitation are poor (although most homes have water and electricity supplies). Most live in hillside favela communities in cramped, one-to-three storey housing. Many homes are perched precariously close to steep slopes and at real risk of collapse (tragically, seven people died in a landslip just a week after my visit). Getting around is especially hard. A journey home may involve a slow bus ride along steep, twisting roads and then a walk through narrow alleyways and up lengthy, steep, uneven flights of steps.
A second type of favela, made up of similar housing but with at least some wider, straighter roads (though also narrow, often unpaved alleys) is found in some low-lying areas closer to downtown. In these low-lying favelas cycling is common (at one nursery I visited, around 70% of children arrived on bikes).
This engaging video (entitled ‘Children’s Place’) gives a playful, child’s-eye-view of one low-lying Recife favela.
The third and most economically disadvantaged group of neighbourhoods are clusters of flimsy, stilted homes (called palafitas) built right alongside the riverbanks.
Rivers and channels are usually polluted, and low-lying parts of the city are at risk of flooding.
As a readable 2019 report from Princeton University shows, the catalyst for Recife’s child-friendly urban planning initiatives came in 2017, when the mayor, his wife Cristina Mello (a paediatric cardiologist) and Guilherme Cavalcanti (at the time CEO of ARIES, the city’s independent strategic planning NGO) all attended an executive leadership program at Harvard University.
The fortnight-long program (supported by Bernard van Leer Foundation and other partners) explored the potential impact of early childhood interventions on a whole range of social issues including education, employment and crime. And one of the featured initiatives was Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative (where I was one of the speakers).
As a result, the mayor put together a high-profile, cross-departmental work programme and strategy, working in partnership with Urban95 and coordinated by the newly-created post of secretary of early childhood. It includes legislation, internal and externally funded capital projects, and programming around public awareness, engagement and education.
Recife’s child-friendly urban planning initiatives include:
- Two pilot ‘children’s priority zones’
Two as-yet incomplete schemes aim to improve public spaces and connections between homes and ‘anchor institutions’ including schools, childcare and other key public services, based on Urban95’s key intervention model. One pilot, in hilly Alto Santa Terezinha, centres around the city’s first COMPAZ, an imposing new building (with public and sports spaces around it, including a swimming pool) that is home to a wide range of leisure, educational and anti-violence projects as well as municipal services. The second, in low-lying Iputinga, will link several small public spaces with two local schools and a daycare facility.
- An ongoing favela improvement initiative
The Mais Vida nos Morros (‘More Life in the Hills’) initiative was created to tackle problems with domestic waste, drainage blockages and unstable slopes. In response to the mayor’s early childhood agenda, it has expanded to include improvements to stairways, alleys and public spaces. It also embraces eye-catching paintwork and murals for homes and walls. It is supported by dedicated participation workers whose methods include walkabouts with local children.
- A major new park
The city has ambitious plans for a new 15 km long linear riverside park, Parque Capibaribe. It aims to physically and figuratively stitch the central neighbourhoods of the city together. The masterplanned scheme, which the EU is supporting financially, includes 30 km of riverside pathways, new greenways and redesigned streets connecting to other green spaces, and 12 new planned river crossings. Almost all of these will be car-free and many will cross from poorer to wealthier neighbourhoods (a controversial idea; one planned crossing has been put on hold after protests from affluent communities worried about security). A couple of small sites have been completed, including the Jardim do Baobá (‘Baobab Garden’, named after the massive tree that is its centrepiece). This is being enjoyed by both lower and higher income people (much like the city’s lively beachfront and its flagship public park, Parque da Jaqueira).
- New outdoor play spaces in municipal housing projects
These are planned as part of a daycare facility construction programme within the municipality’s housing stock. This should see around 20 new facilities over the next year or two.
- Street programming and parties
Various kinds of street programming takes place, including a tourism-oriented ciclovia [pdf link] every Sunday, and community-organised sessions and events in both low and high income neighbourhoods.
A positive impact
The mayor’s early childhood focus is clearly having an impact on the built form of the city. For example, the ‘More Life in the Hills’ initiative has reached over 40 neighbourhoods so far, benefiting an estimated 15,000 homes. It is a low-cost, high-impact scheme, according to planning secretary Jorge Vieira (an early champion of the city’s early childhood focus). Revealingly, urban innovation secretary Tullio Ponzi (who manages the initiative) told me that one trigger for his team’s growing interest in children’s play was their discovery, after one early playground improvement project, that children were travelling between 1 and 2 km simply to play there.
I spoke to residents in several ‘More Life in the Hills’ communities who were clearly overjoyed at the impact of the initiative. Jaciara Alves, a mother and resident of hilly Lagoa Encantada, told me “it’s not safe for the drug dealing to be here any more.” She added, “all the families come out between 4 and 5 and play with their children on the playing verandas. It’s so beautiful I’m almost crying.” (And she was.)
Pointing across the housing visible from where we were standing, 12-year-old Ana Kelly Batista Da Silva said, “I can play all around here.” She explained, “before the improvements, children wouldn’t play here, and as no children were here, I wasn’t allowed to come out. Now I can come and play and I can take pictures.” (Tech is part and parcel of life, even for low income families.)
Resident surveys bear out this picture, with some neighbourhoods showing a complete turnaround in the levels of outdoor play. In Ana Kelly’s neighbourhood, Burity, 76% of children now play out, compared with only 11% before the initiative.
It appears that, after some initial scepticism, communities from across the city are now keen to get involved. I was told that at least 15 neighbourhoods, rather than waiting for municipal action, have run with the ‘More Life in the Hills’ idea themselves.
Voices of frustration
The picture is not entirely positive, and progress can be slow (as with the pilot children’s priority zones). In the low-lying neighbourhood of Arruda, I met activists including young people from a community video project run by the Shine A Light NGO (partly supported by the Bernard van Leer Foundation) who were pushing for environmental improvements and regular road closures. The campaign, called A Rua Também é Nossa (“the street is ours too”) brings together children from both poor and rich communities (the children of the rich are often trapped by society too; one academic I met stated that many were “walled within their apartments”).
The community activists in Arruda are calling for a law which would allow road closures for play, inspired by Jundiaí municipality in São Paulo state (which has already enacted legislation) and have been talking to municipal leaders.
Some progress had been made, including six street parties on the same day, and the group had organised an evening street party that was in full swing when I called by. However, they were frustrated by some of the local politics that in their view were frustrating their efforts.
Lessons and insights
Brazil’s children face many environmental, social and health challenges. Some, including access to education, violence, road danger, environmental hazards, infectious diseases and perinatal risks, are typical of global South contexts – and low-income populations are hardest hit. But the country is also transitioning towards problems that higher income countries also see, including air pollution and growing rates of child obesity.
Recife’s response to these challenges shows that the policy rationale for child-friendly urban planning is in some respects even stronger in low income cities. Improving neighbourhood walkability, for example, can bring all-important health, childcare and education services within reach of more families, as well as opening up spaces for active outdoor play and relieving the pressure on families living in challenging circumstances. Moreover, children’s everyday freedoms are a real concern for families in Recife, just as in high-income cities like Ghent, Rotterdam and Freiburg.
Recife’s early childhood focus, led from the front by the mayor and his secretariat, shows the potential of an energetic combination of sheer municipal willpower, opportunism, piloting and review. Greater engagement with communities could dramatically amplify its impact.
The progress it has made, while modest, is admirable given the unfavourable economic climate, with Brazil still emerging from a 2014 economic crisis. If the city’s ambitious plans – not least the proposals for Parque Capibaribe – are successful, the transformation could bring it global acclaim.
Acknowledgements and references
Thanks to Fernanda Vidigal at Bernard van Leer Foundation and Ana Roberta de Souto from ARIES for their help before and during my visit, and to Bernard van Leer Foundation for its financial support. Thanks also to all the people who gave me such a generous reception, including municipal staff, people from ARIES, Shine a Light and other NGOs, and residents. And thanks to Linda Mandel for sterling work on interpretation.
Unless otherwise stated, facts are taken from the Princeton University report ‘Governing From A Child’s Perspective: Recife, Brazil, Works To Become Family Friendly, 2017–2019’.