Beyond the playground: Why children should be involved in urban planning
What can urban and town planners do to secure the health and well-being of children in public spaces, and why does it matter? Children are citizens, too, and have rights just like adults do. In fact, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, government agencies and others who provide public services need to consider the best interests of children and youth in their actions.
The key points in the Convention related to children and their environment – the right to gather in public space and organise their own activities; the right to play, rest, leisure and access cultural life; and the right to participate in all matters affecting them – go far beyond simply adding a playground to a detailed town plan.
Nowadays, more and more young people under 18 are facing mental health issues, obesity challenges, and a lack of opportunity for those in underserved communities. These children need better access to green spaces and activities that promote varied movement, provide a social context, and offer peaceful study environments. These factors are known to raise grades, which in turn puts them on solid footing to raise their level of education and thus improve their future health outcomes.
Playgrounds offer only controlled, restricted recreation potential and do not offer an adequate solution to meet the needs of such a diverse group (0–18 years) with different needs and abilities. On top of this, kids don’t always have access to safe public transport options to reach a playground, further limiting their access. UNICEF warns that one in four deaths in children under the age of five are linked to unhealthy environments.
Taking a first step with child impact assessments
Without specific guidance, it’s hard for planners to know whether and how they can fulfil the legal and moral obligations of providing for children in the built environment.
This is where child impact assessments come in. A child impact assessment is a tool offering data-driven guidance for local governments and built environment stakeholders so they can consider and measure the impact of services and policies on children’s rights.
Sweco has conducted many successful assessments across a variety of infrastructure, building and transport projects.
According to Petra Bäckman, senior consultant and ethnologist for Sweco in Sweden, child impact assessments are part of a broader vision.
“They’re a vital tool for translating the Convention of the Rights of the Child into action in urban planning,” she says. “But they can also be used as a springboard for a more participatory process, where we can include children – who lack voting rights and political representation – in shaping the environments where their physical, emotional and social development all take place.”
Sweco project promotes participation in local democratic processes
One project example is Sundbyberg Municipality, which wanted to create an urban environment that felt safe and attractive despite major ongoing construction projects. Process managers and landscape architects from Sweco planned and implemented a participatory process in which local youth took part in field studies, study visits and creative workshops during their municipal summer jobs to provide input to a programme for safety-enhancing measures. The youth got involved in the democratic decision-making process, learned about urban planning, and helped to develop quality requirements for municipalities and developers.
Why child-responsive environments are better for us all
Sweco also has extensive experience and access to broad and deep expertise around child-responsive urban planning that extends beyond traditional built environment concerns. The company have experts in childhood education, ethnology, gender studies, dialogue processes, social impact analysis and statistics. This way, Sweco helps ensure a holistic approach that benefits a diversity of individuals.
Bäckman continues: “With this broad offering, we hope not only to inspire urban development professionals to work with and for children, but to help them create environments that benefit everyone. When you design with children in mind, you end up benefitting other vulnerable groups too. And you end up helping to create more cycling and walking paths for adults, greater biodiversity and improved access to green spaces. Spaces that work for everyone, now and in the future.”