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May 22, 2013 / Leo Hollis

A city built for children

In a report recently produced in Denmark that looked at how 20,000 children between the age of 5 and 19 travelled to school, the results showed that those who walked or bicycled performed measurably better in classroom tasks that involved concentration, and that this effect lasted all the way through the morning sessions. If this report is right, it makes sense to create a whole roster of campaigns and schemes to get our children out of the back seat and into the saddle. This is just the kind of campaign that the coalition’s ‘nudge unit’ could get their teeth into.You can almost imagine the smiling, sunny posters already.

Urban planners have long considered the impact of the environment upon behaviour. Place-making is the intimate practise of designing public spaces that combine architecture and psychological priming. With its origins in such projects as the broken window theory, tested in 1980s New York, it has often looked at ways to reduce danger within the urban realm. In subsequent studies it has been shown that design can be used to make people walk faster, feel safer, spend more money. But can we get children out of cars and to start walking to school? What kind of places do we need to make in order to make this something people might want to do?

Some lessons can be learnt from Copenhagen where architect Jan Gehl developed the Stroget Car Free Zone, a 100,000 sq m pedestrianised section of the city centre. To begin with, the locals were disbelieving, shopkeepers complaining ‘We’re Danes, not Italians’. But the results were unexpected, and hugely popular. The city had been given back to the pedestrian so that the streets once again because a place for people rather than a car park. In 2010 Mayor Bloomberg in New York promoted his Active Design Guidelines, that encouraged businesses to make the exteriors more interesting to encourage walking in the city.

Other examples can be found.

Returning to Copenhagen, BIG’s Superkilen: or is a whole zone of the city given over to children and really embraces the idea of creating a space that allows exploration and adventure.

In Bogota the mayor in the early 2000s, Enrique Penalosa saw thinking about the city  as a place for children as a radical political act. He said: ‘Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people’. To start he developed a strong education platform. He created 100 nurseries for children under five,  built 52 new schools, refurbished 150 others, and increased student enrollment by 34 percent. He established or refurbished 1200 parks and playgrounds throughout the city. He built libraries.

Perhaps even more radically he saw the relationship between children and the street. Where only the top 20% of the citizens owned cars, he asked why they were given control of every street. Should this not be better used as a play area? As he noted: “If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.” And: “A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen on a $30,000 car.”

In the end, it was about reducing the dominance of the car, and getting people out walking, because everyone was equal on the street: We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.”

The impact of making a place walkable (and bike-able) has also been studied in the UK. A shopping street without cars can attract 30% more business. For example, the ‘shared space’ scheme on New Road, Brighton, received a a 92% approval rating, with an increased sense of empowerment and ownership, with 80% of the shops reporting increased sales. In addition, a neighbourhood that is attractive for strollers can demand higher house prices.

Yet this seems to be a lesson that has only been learnt on the high street and the quietly expensive urban enclaves. But what of the rest of the city? Clearly making all parts of the city better for walkers have health benefits, encourages social capital as well improve the economy. Should this be solely the right of the rich and the lucky? if we are going to nudge our cities into being better, happier places, we have to think seriously about place making for all.

There are many examples of temporary place-making, where the transformation of an environment – even for a short time – can have a powerful effect. ‘Playing Out’ is a Bristol based scheme that offers information and advice on how to turn a normal busy street into a ‘child-led free play’ area by making it car-free and safe. This not only offers space for children but also enhances community and takes the city back from the dominance of the car.

One can find more permanent attempts at trying to nurture civic behaviour through good design in unexpected places. In 2010 the east end based architecture collective MUF were named as the British representatives at the Venice Biennale. Their brand of designing sensitive and inclusive public spaces in some of the poorest areas of the capital – Dalston, Whitechapel, Newham. They have also done many projects focussed on children in the city. Since 2011 they have also been central to the transformation of the Aldgate neighbourhood, using design to help people navigate the bustling region, encouraging them to walk or bicycle.

However, large schemes can only be developed in collaboration between the designer and City Hall. The arrival of independent George Ferguson, former head of the Royal Institute of Architect,  as the new mayor of Bristol has been met with some interest. Already he has revealed exciting plans for transforming the place, which has always suffered from a city centre designed too quickly after the Second World War dominated by the car. Ferguson wants to give the centre back to the pedestrian and is already in talks with Jan Gehl. It is early days but Ferguson must remember that place making is not just about enhancing the smarter neighbourhoods and enriching the High Street but making access to the city for all.


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