Fri, Jun 01, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Cities around the world go wild with child-friendly design

By Sophie Davies  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BARCELONA, Spain

In a part of Barcelona best known as a concrete transport hub, just a stone’s throw from the bustling Sants railway station, a square has been transformed into an idyllic play area.

Sitting on a sea of bright ethnic cushions and rugs, under canopies shading them from the sun, children tinker with nature-inspired toys, including bits of wood in all shapes and sizes, as their parents look on.

The pop-up play area is part of an “Urban Forest” initiative organized by Tata Inti, a local nonprofit founded in 2014 that provides education to children under six.

The government-funded organization aims to “democratize the care of young children, make it visible, and at the same time recover public space as a meeting place,” Tata Inti cofounder Merce Aranda said.

The Urban Forest project, which is to hold sessions in eight areas of Barcelona over the next few months, offers free play to lower-income families, Aranda said.

It comes at a time when city authorities are pushing forward with a 20.7 million euro (US$23.9 million) initiative, started in 2015, to make Barcelona a more child-friendly city.

Under the plan, 89 new play spaces will be built and 150 existing ones renovated by the end of next year, to make them more accessible and inclusive for children of different ages, as well as those with disabilities.

Underpinning the ambitious scheme is a desire to develop areas outside of the traditional playground model, providing more spontaneous opportunities for play and physical activity.

Globally, fast-growing cities are under pressure to protect children from urban pressures, including crime, traffic, pollution, cramped living conditions and social isolation.

Of the 4 billion people living in the world’s urban areas, nearly a third are children, according to the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s children will live in urban areas, it estimates.

Healthy development of children is crucial to the wellbeing of any society and the costs of failing are huge, as children’s early experiences shape their future achievements, according to UNICEF, which runs the global Child Friendly Cities Initiative.

Weaker social cohesion and higher crime rates in dense urban areas increase psychotic symptoms in children, including hearing or seeing things that others do not, a 2016 study published by Duke University in North Carolina found.

Urban planners have begun looking for ways to make cities better for children in an everyday sense by enabling them to get around independently and increasing the amount of time they spend outdoors and in contact with nature.

Independent mobility — when a child can move around a city without being accompanied by an adult — depends on road crossings, perceptions of safety, and the proximity and availability of things to do, global engineering firm Arup said in a report earlier this year on design for urban childhoods.

Cities that can offer children a network of routes and activities that they enjoy using and are good for them means thinking beyond fenced-off playgrounds, said Tim Gill, a UK-based researcher and author who has advised London’s mayor on child-friendly city planning in the past.

Children will play in many different types of spaces, he said.

“So let’s think more creatively about how we can design public spaces where play is a function ... but may not be the only function,” he said.

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