London Plan should raise the bar for child-friendly planning

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By promoting a strategic approach to planning for play, banning segregated play space, and requiring development plans to take account of children and young people’s need for greater mobility and access, the revised London Plan is an example of how planning policy should be paying greater attention to children’s rights, writes Adrian Voce.

Last year, I wrote on Apolitical that it is crucial for the child-friendly city movement to be alert to the danger of its agenda being overtaken by gentrification. There is a very real risk that this will lead to discrimination against poorer children, which will, in turn, undermine the very principles of children’s rights from which the concept of the child-friendly city developed.

Since then, the “social apartheid” of segregated play areas in mixed housing developments marketed as “child-friendly”, has received national attention in the UK — and provoked a fair degree of outrage. The concept of “social apartheid” was coined by commentators to describe the exclusion of children from social housing units from communal play areas, something that’s taken place even on the children’s own mixed housing developments.

The, now former, housing minister, James Brokenshire, likened the practice to “poor doors” for children, pledging Government support for “planning and rules that (end)… segregation because of the nature of the home you live in”. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, told the Guardian, “It is disgraceful that children who live in the same development would ever be prevented from playing together (…) new developments should be inclusive to all”.

State of play

The Mayor’s proposed revisions to the London Plan, the city’s strategic urban planning road map, specify there should be no “segregation by tenure”, ie. that children must not be excluded based on their social background — a move welcomed by advocates who have been pushing for a stronger policy on children and young people’s play, recreation, and independent mobility in general.

The plan is already relatively progressive in this area and will now be improved in other ways too: recognising their need for a wider range of spaces and opportunities; calling for play areas to offer real play value, with elements of risk and challenge designed in rather than out; and that local plans afford greater independent mobility for children and young people, to break out of the sedentary, screen-based lifestyles that have become commonplace in the digital era.

The early findings seem to confirm the sense that children are most notable in planning policy across the UK by their absence

The revised London Plan will also retain innovative supplementary planning guidance, first introduced in 2005-6, with its qualitative standards, and minimum spatial requirement of 10 sqm per child for play areas in new developments. Also retained is the recommendation that London boroughs should work across departments to coordinate area-wide play strategies: the approach that was adopted in England, by the UK government, for the world’s first national play strategy (2008).

Those of us who gave evidence at the plan’s examination in public may feel some gratification that our efforts on this occasion have received a positive response, but the real credit for this bold stance by the Mayor should more deservingly go to Louise Whitely, the parent of young children at the Old Baylis School development in south London, who  campaigned alongside her friends and neighbours for two years, to force the estate managers to honour the developers’ description of a “child-friendly” estate. Credit should also go to Harriet Grant, the freelance journalist who brought the story to national attention via the Guardian, when a wall was erected to keep children from the social housing units out of the communal play space.

Why are children absent in policymaking?

Advocating for children’s rights in the built environment is challenging in the UK, where the absence of full adoption into UK law of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) means there is no statutory basis for rights-respecting policy. This is despite the convention being ratified by the government in 1991.

But what does a more in-depth analysis tell us about UK planning policy and children’s rights? New and soon to be published research by Jenny Wood, of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and the Mayor’s design champion, architect Dinah Bornat, is assessing exactly that.

While the full report is not due until the Autumn, the early findings seem to confirm the sense that children are most notable in national planning policy across the UK by their absence.

When mentioning them at all, government planning documents most often refer to children either in the context of a list of protected minorities (usually in advice notes or documents with a lower standing in the hierarchy of planning than main policy documents), or as a kind of appendage to the default adult population, as in “people with children”, as though children do not have their own agency or distinct needs.

Planning policy should also work for children

Under the UNCRC, planning policy should consider children and young people as junior citizens in their own right, with needs for access, mobility and safety within a public realm that takes account of their social and cultural lives, not just their right to be educated.

While the London Plan revisions, and the government’s initial response, give grounds for cautious optimism, the UK clearly has a long way to go to integrate children’s rights as a responsibility of both national and local government, and that the built environment has an important role to play: principles that were underlined by the UN Habitat declarations of the 1990s.

survey of 3,000 homeowners by the UK Green Building Council found that a neighbourhood where children can play outside was a bigger selling point for potential new homeowners than having a south-facing garden, or even the prospect of property value appreciation per se.

Making planning policy work for children and young people — shaping a built environment where they can gather and play equally, move around independently and enjoy the right to roam that older generations took for granted — is not only part of our obligation to uphold children’s rights; it makes sound economic sense too.

Adrian Voce

Image: Jean Gazis

Adrian is the author of Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right (Policy Press, 2015) and will chair Towards the Child Friendly City: children’s rights in the built environment, a major conference in Bristol City Hall, on 27-29 November, 2019. See the full details here.

Jenny Wood and Dinah Bornat’s research, funded by the Royal Town Planning Institute will be published in the Autumn of 2019 and presented by them at the Bristol conference.

(An edited version of this article was first published by Apolitical

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