Andrea Cook, co-author of Children and Planning from our Concise Guides to Planning series, considers the post-pandemic situation for children in the built environment and how planners can ensure that children's voices are heard and needs are considered in future planning decisions...
A pre-pandemic potted history of children’s geographies
Childhood is traditionally an exploratory and adventurous time, one when young people learn about the natural and built environment and about others that they share these spaces with. Throughout childhood, children develop spatial skills, develop their environmental preferences and their own sense of ‘sacred’ and ‘hated’ environments and cultivate what are often lifelong relationships to and personal custodianship and responsibility towards nature, community, neighbourhoods and cities.
This ‘ideal’ development of children’s geographies, however, has been challenged over recent decades. Many countries are recording very stark downward trends in children’s ability to access the built and natural world, particularly in unsupervised/independent ways. The licenses that authorities (both parental and institutional) grant children to experience their neighbourhoods without supervision have shrunk and children’s roaming ranges have diminished accordingly. These shifts in children’s geographies are contributing to what many refer to as a ‘nature-deficit disorder’.
Urban planning has really struggled with this phenomenon. Or, more accurately, has not really struggled enough with this phenomenon. Children are rarely identified as stakeholders in planning and design processes, let alone actively engaged in decision making. Environments are created therefore, that ignore children’s needs and experiences and are hostile places for children. Car-centric space is the most glaring example, with road/traffic injury being the leading cause of death for the world’s children and young people, aged 5-29.
Public space that was once accessible to children is now closed to them and their presence in public without adults is increasingly sanctioned and/or problematised by child protection and parent peers. Children who are in public without adults are viewed with worry… or with fear.
The (re)emerging children of the COVID-19 pandemic
One of the noticeable (and positive/hopeful) changes to public life that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic has been a re-emergence of children. They are again playing in the streets and parks and wild spaces. They are moving around on scooters and bicycles and on foot. They are chatting to neighbours and strangers, sending messages of hope to others in the community and generally occupying more room in public life than they did prior to the pandemic. And adults are getting more used to it, too: celebrating and mobilising it, in fact. Children’s role in neighbourhood resilience and connection is being appreciated in a time when the importance of our social fabric is being most keenly felt and appreciated.
The emergence of children’s dens and nature play in Yarra Bend Park,
Melbourne AU. (photo: Andrea Cook)
Play is happy and hopeful and a reminder of the basics of human experiences that people are expressing a longing to see be part of the ‘transformations’ that the pandemic brings to our cities and lives. Adults are reassessing what the pandemic means for their work lives and personal lives, their travel, their ‘work-life balance’ and time with the family and so forth: children’s re-emergence in public has been part of these changing patterns. Nature play has re-emerged as more formal facilities like playgrounds and sports venues have closed. Parents and children (or groups of children on their own) are ‘reclaiming the street’ and enjoying walks or bike rides together as mobilities shrink and travel is more constrained. These are trends that many hope will be a permanent legacy of the pandemic and many local governments across different countries are scrambling to reallocate resources to pedestrians, cyclists and other recreational users of public space.
But, with some cautions…
The intersection of this moment with the #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests underscore that the return of children to the public realm is not always equitable or unproblematic, though. Black, Brown and Indigenous kids playing in a park have a different experience than white kids playing in a park across many countries because of “racist systems of gatekeeping in public spaces”. As Steven Thrasher noted in an op-ed about the violent policing of children at a public pool in McKinney, Texas in 2015, “The video made me cry because it showed me how black children are not allowed to play. How they’re not allowed to just be kids. How their play becomes criminalized…”
In our 2019 book on Children and Planning, our first case study focused on Grenfell Tower (London UK) and the devastating fire that killed 72 people. The ‘blight’ of poorly maintained and ‘neo-liberalised’ public housing is a lived experience for so many children (and, indeed, the cause of death for some like the victims in the Grenfell fire). The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the greater epidemiological/health risks associated with such neglected and crowded housing but also the differentiated policing of pandemic restrictions that can be borne by the poor as opposed to the wealthy.
Children with disabilities also face barriers – social as well as physical – to their emergence in post-pandemic cities. While many cities are rushing to create more bike lanes in response to post-COVID futures, there is little evidence of equivalent energies in addressing legislated universal access and design compliance…
So, it is clear that not all children are enjoying the same experiences of a re-emergence in public space and life as afforded by more secure locations and identities. Nor are all children being considered in the ‘transformed’ imaginaries of the post-pandemic city.
Poor disability access during the COVID-19 pandemic, Melbourne AU.
(photo: Andrea Cook)
A few easy steps to take:
So, what are some ways to ensure we make the most of the child-friendly positives of the pandemic and resist the child-hostile negatives? Here is a quick list of six ideas:
1 Understand that children need urban space for uses and activities (like play, like ‘hanging around’, like being in nature, like hiding…) that many adults don’t necessarily have a connection to any longer. These uses and activities are important to childhood development and are therefore important to include in our post-pandemic ‘transformations’ of cities.
2 Familiarise yourself with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to better situate your obligations towards children’s protection, participation and other rights.
3 Pull a chair out for children and young people as urban planning and design stakeholders. Recognise that children are citizens now, not future citizens or citizens ‘in waiting’ and, as such, are important constituents.
4 Respect children’s own voices and agency and speak to them directly, not simply via the voices and agency of their parents, teachers, etc. Find new ways to engage with children (hint: our book, Children and Planning, has lots of examples!)
5 Recognise that children’s interests in cities don’t stop at the school yard fence or playground. All planning, from housing to transport, impacts on children’s lives and therefore needs to consider children’s (often unique) needs.
- 6 Acknowledge the ways that racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, ableism, etc. impact in and through the lives of children and that planning is part of the ‘system’ that (re)produced inequity. Work actively to redress these inequities.
Finally, hold the ‘transformed’ city of the post-pandemic future a bit lightly and joyfully. The opportunities for a more playful and fun urban life are there but we’ll need to see beyond the technical, ‘smart’, transport mode, land use, efficiencies and cost-benefits to the sorts of experiences a good city can provide to an imaginative child…
-- Andrea Cook, 2020
Children and Planning by Claire Freeman and Andrea Cook is available to buy from our website HERE. It is also available in eBook format.
Hardback • 176 Pages • Size: 200 × 130 mm
45 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223141 • Publication: November 15, 2019
Series: Concise Guides to Planning