Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cities for Children

Wandering around various cities in northern Spain, I have been struck by the integration of children’s playgrounds into public spaces in very central and attractive areas, for example in Santander above, or below in Bilbao, right next to the Guggenheim. Yet in the larger urban context, these kinds of safe, accessible spaces tend to be only a marginal part of the city, where the majority is dominated by cars, roads, housing and businesses – and all is obviously designed and planned by adults.

The project called the City of Children, housed within the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the National Council of Research in Rome with partners in cities across Italy, Spain and Argentina, seeks however to challenge and change this dynamic. Not wanting to be strictly educational or simply a support for children, the project was initiated with a political motivation: to work toward a new governmental philosophy of the city, engaging children as parameters and as guarantors of the needs of all citizens.

As its main objectives, the project seeks autonomy, participation, safety and mobility for children in the city, to make it possible for them to leave their home without being accompanied by an adult so that they can meet friends and play in public spaces of the city: from courtyards to sidewalks, from public squares to parks. Through children's proposals and ideas, participation in decision-making and realisation of their projects, the project aims at building a children's culture in the minds of adults and especially in administrators so that they know how to make their decisions, having interiorised children's thoughts and needs. The project believes that only when adults understand that spending for the good of children is not a cost but an investment that will bring returns many times over will it be possible to think seriously of the future of our cities.

Nestled in a structure of open “City of Children Laboratories” in each municipality – made up of city administration that elaborates the project keeping in mind the local needs and resources, plans activities, follows their development, and evaluates them – partners can use various techniques such as engaging a Children’s Council in local governance structures or directly involving children in planning.

While there is significant theoretical development of the importance of these issues, what is not clear (from the information on-line at least) is what changes have actually resulted in practice from this initiative’s work, at an institutional level or spatially in the planning and design of cities. I personally add the meaningful integration of children into a city’s institutional planning practices to the long list of serious challenges towards more sustainable and socially just cities.