As the European Network for Child Friendly Cities opens a new chapter, its current president, Adrian Voce, offers this personal perspective on why the child-friendly city movement is important, and how he sees some of the challenges ahead.
The launch of this platform and the announcement of a new conference mark the beginning of a new chapter for the European Network for Child Friendly Cities, the advocacy network founded by my good friend, and erstwhile colleague, Jan Van Gils in 2001. We hope it will also signal the beginning of new impetus, reach and impact for the movement of which are are a part.
My background is in playwork: an approach to working with children and space that offers an alternative approach to the dominant, developmental discourse of mainstream child policy. Playwork resists the tendency to prioritise future-oriented outcomes over the needs and aspirations of children now, countering the idea that measurable improvements in a child’s predicted life-chances are more important than his or her happiness and fulfillment as a child today. Indeed it makes the case that such a choice is misguided and not justified by scientific evidence about how children thrive.
Making this argument in policy circles purely from a playwork perspective can be a thankless task. From a playwork perspective, it sometimes seems that the entire public policy establishment – and the research field that surrounds it – is unshakeable in its belief that no intervention for children can be justified unless able to demonstrate a quantifiable impact on academic attainment, physical fitness or manageable behaviour.
This is frustrating, not just because it makes it hard to put the case for investment in adventure playgrounds, the quintessential playwork setting, and other play services, but because, as advocates, we know that children’s right to play – and mobility to enjoy their own social and cultural lives – needs a response from the whole of civil society.
A growing movement
What many of us have come to realise, however, is that there is a growing movement of planners, geographers, architects, landscape architects, and other professionals and researchers, who recognise children’s right to play as much as we do. This cohort of the built environment sector is working towards liveable, child-friendly environments – physical, social and cultural – that respect them as stakeholders in a shared public realm in which fenced, dedicated play space will become less necessary.
There is a long way to go. For many children in urban settings, the need for dedicated play space will remain vital for many years to come, and adventure playgrounds, staffed by skilled playworkers, are the best solution. But playwork – with its distinctive approach to working with children, and its insights into the nature of play, and playable space, developed over more than 70 years – has much to offer this wider movement.
Play professionals and children’s rights advocates, working with built environment practitioners and researchers in each of the relevant fields, is a potentially powerful alliance for change. Here are some of the challenges that we face together.
We have to try and reframe the debates about children and childhood –from one which either problematises them almost as a sub-species or a minority community that we don’t quite know how to deal with, or one which can only conceive of them as (employable) adults-in-the-making. The new social studies of childhood have helped to challenge the traditional (and not so traditional) constructs and helped to cultivate a wider understanding that children are not ‘the future’. They are here among us, with needs, aspirations, and rights as people now. Neither are they, in any definitive sense, separate and distinct from adults. Children are all of us, only younger. Once society better appreciates the simple truth that children’s needs and rights are everybody’s needs and rights at a certain period in life, the better it will be able to respond to them.
We have to effectively engage politicians at different levels of government and influence their decisions on investment in public infrastructure and the vital role of the state in protecting the common spaces and shared places that are so important to a child-friendly public realm. Under austerity economics, this is especially tough and I think we must, therefore, align ourselves with the broader advocacy networks making the arguments for policies, strategies, and plans for towns and cities that consciously promote community cohesion through accessible, shared spaces.
In particular, this means becoming ever more aligned with pedestrian, cycling and green space campaigns, whilst also retaining our distinct and specific responsibility to be advocates for children, who are not automatically considered within any of these movements unless we make it so.
I think we have to find a better balance between advocating for children’s active participation within the planning system, and other policymaking processes on the one hand, and making the case, with or without their involvement, for the kind of changes to the public realm that we know can lead to improvements in their lives on the other. Our responsibility is to work for the greater recognition of all children’s rights within public policy, not just their right to have a voice in it.
Adult models of participatory democracy, adopted for children’s participation are not always effective, or meaningful. Children should have opportunities for fully participating in their communities in their own way; which for young children means more freedom to play and explore, and, for young people, equivalent opportunities to follow their own interests and enjoy their own culture within an environment that respects and enables them. On the other hand, children and young people’s own direct activism is on the rise and our movement must support and champion children’s voices wherever they are raised in defence of their rights
We need to recognise that children’s rights in the built environment are not separate from their other rights. Health, care, economic security, and education are each as vital to children as their right to play and associate. The UNCRC is clear that children’s rights are indivisible and interdependent. This places responsibilities on our movement; to not, for example, champion child-friendly designs in urban developments where they exclude poorer families. It also means that we should welcome, support and seek to cooperate with the UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Initiative, the mandated programme to work directly with municipalities to adopt and implement the full spectrum of the UNCRC into their policies and plans for communities.
Finally, and most practically, I think we must endeavour to build the kind of crosscutting, collaborative alliances and partnerships that are so in evidence at our conferences, within the professional and policymaking spheres that govern and shape our public realm. Simple, common understandings about how the world looks and feels to a 3, 8 and 13-year-old, for example, translated into tenets of good practice within the key professions, and into first principles of public policy, would change the world.
This remains our mission. It is the mission that motivated Jan in 2001, and which should motivate us all as we begin this new chapter. Whether or not you can be with us in Bristol in November, I hope that you will join us in this endeavour.
Adrian Voce OBE
President, European Network for Child Friendly Cities
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