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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 5 - No. 2 - 1999 - Construction and Architecture (HABITAT, 1999, 60 p.)
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View the documentHow Urban Design Can Support Children's Rights
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How Urban Design Can Support Children's Rights

by Sheridan Bartlett

Young children prefer to play close to home.

© Aga Khan Development Network

The Convention on the Rights of the Child1 establishes children's rights to play and recreation, to protection from discrimination and violence, and to the conditions necessary for optimal development. Children have the right, also, to associate freely with others, to participate in local cultural life and to be prepared for a responsible role in a free society.

For urban children, these rights depend to a large degree on the quality of common space and the built environment. Urban neighbourhoods should ideally provide a secure, welcoming transition to the larger world; they should be places where children can play safely, run errands, walk to school, socialize with friends, watch and learn from the activities of others, and begin to accept and enjoy differences - part of their development as tolerant, reponsible citizens.

Too often, though, city neighbourhoods are threatening places, physically and socially. Sometimes this means that children's freedom is limited - girls in particular are often confined to homes that cannot begin to meet the full range of their social and physical needs. More often, though, in the crowded settlements of the South, where domestic life spills out into the public domain, it means that children cope daily with conditions inappropriate for their bodies and minds. They play on dangerous catwalks, among open sewers and piles of debris, and they take their chances with heavy traffic. In areas plagued by tension and violence, they face chronic anxiety, often with long-term effects on their own social development.

Urban design is no substitute for more systemic attention to the social injustice and exclusion that underlie such problems. But it can offer practical measures to alleviate some of the manifestations of poverty and inequity for children and their communities.

· Fear and insecurity is most effectively addressed when local residents feel a sense of control over their neighbourhoods. Street-lighting, sidewalks, inviting common space and locally managed shops and facilities can all contribute to the active community presence that increases informal surveillance, inhibits anti-social behaviour, and makes neighbourhoods safer places for children. This works both ways: the presence of young children in common space stimulates positive interaction among adults. Some communities have found that supporting children's play can be a strategy for dealing with ethnic strife in trouble-torn areas.

· Especially for households on roads with heavy traffic flows, where living space extends of necessity into the street, the dangers to young children are acute. In many cities, traffic accidents are the chief cause of death among children over one year of age. One effective response is to create cul-de-sacs, or to close residential streets to through traffic. Speed bumps and barriers can also slow traffic down or make it possible to claim small areas adjacent to the road. Sidewalks and crossing zones make it easier for children to move safely through the neighbourhood.

· Young children prefer to play close to home. When residents can lay claim to space for common use, the results for children can be dramatic. When new housing is constructed, the arrangement of units around shared space can support play and the cooperative interaction of neighbours. With existing dwellings, common areas can be created by means of fencing or plants. Even the smallest pockets of land can be improved to meet the needs of young children. A low wall can protect children and double as seating for their caregivers; simple, hardy play equipment can be easily made from local materials, and plants and trees can provide diversity within a limited space. Such “play gardens” are also appreciated by the old or infirm.

· Older children need larger spaces for satisfying play. They are generally resourceful and creative in finding recreational activities. They play ball in the streets, jump off construction materials, skip rope on sidewalks and create ingenious games of skill with whatever comes to hand. But when local conditions inhibit safe play, efforts should be made to provide stimulating, diverse areas within the local community which can accommodate a range of activities. Such areas should provide pleasant space for all ages. Plants, seating and tables can broaden their appeal.

· Many poor neighbourhoods are already rich environments for children. Sometimes resisting “improvements” may be the most effective response. In some informal settlements, for instance, residents have refused to have badly rutted streets upgraded, recognizing that an improvement for traffic was not an improvement for children. If children can make safe use of streets and public spaces, exposed to the variety and stimulation of neighbourhood life, the benefits go beyond anything that can be provided by more formal intervention.

· Vandalism, drug use and criminal behaviour by young people are sometimes responses to boredom, frustration and a lack of opportunity. Recreation and team sports can provide stimulating and legitimate alternatives. Studies from around the USA have demonstrated dramatic links between crime rates and investment in recreational facilities; this is confirmed by practical experience in Cali, Colombia, where 1200 gang members gave up their weapons in return for access to city facilities.

· Many working children spend long hours on city streets with no amenities to meet their basic needs. The right to an adequate standard of living, in such cases, must be assumed to extend to the public domain. Toilet facilities, water for washing and drinking, and places where children can rest without fear of being turned away are features of urban public space essential to the realization of a basic right.

· Children and adolescents are the people best qualified to identify their own concerns and to assess solutions. Their involvement should be integral to all responses.

Not all of these measures are a function of formal urban design: the fabric of poor settlements in Southern cities is usually the product of more informal processes. “Design” from this perspective means all those decisions, formal and informal, that shape the character of the built environment. Many modifications to improve the quality of children's lives can be effectively initiated and managed by community members. The role of authorities is to offer material, technical and regulatory support wherever possible.

Sheridan Bartlett is a research associate at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. This article is based on a recently released book by Bartlett and others, which covers these topics in more detail: Cities for Children: Children's Rights, Poverty and Urban Management by Sheridan Bartlett, Roger Hart, David Satterthwaite, Ximena de la Barra and Alfredo Missair, is published by and available from Earthscan Publications, 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JN, UK


1. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989, has been ratified by all but two member countries, Somalia and the United States.