Tim Gill and Ankita Chachra Discuss How and Why Cities of the Future Can Work Better for Children - Early Learning Nation

Tim Gill and Ankita Chachra Discuss How and Why Cities of the Future Can Work Better for Children

Part 5 of “Seasons of Play” Series

Photo courtesy Global Designing Cities Initiative

Tim Gill’s book Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities is a timely and engaging manifesto, full of maps and charts, pointing to future cities where play happens in streets, squares and green spaces, not just playgrounds. Further, he celebrates public spaces that “nurture contact between families in different social groups.”

Ankita Chachra, senior fellow at Capita, recently posted an essay, “Connecting Cities, Young Children and Climate Action,” describing how her dual journeys as an urban planner and a new mother reinforce each other: “With an urgent, selfish and personal interest in securing a safe future for my child and his future friends, I decided to commit myself to climate action at the intersection of early years and the built environment.”

Early Learning Nation magazine spoke to Gill and Chachra about the potential they see for playful cities.

Mark Swartz: We’re going to talk about playgrounds, of course, but for both of you, there’s so much more to making our cities better for young children. What’s the best way for urban planners to tune into what their youngest residents need?

Tim Gill: The way I’m going to take that question is: How do we get urban planners and senior decision makers to care about children? I think it’s a moral issue. As Gil Penalosa says, we have to stop designing cities for people who are 30 years old and athletic and male. Caring about children helps us tackle cities’ long-term future, economic as well as environmental. If your city is not attracting and retaining families with children, then its long-term economic future is pretty bleak, because the demographics are against you.

Ankita Chachra: A city that works well for young children and families inherently works well for everyone. There needs to be a shift in perspective on who and what the city is for. What if we centered designing cities around care and caregiving? What if cities prioritized intergenerational social connections where young children and families can flourish?

Planners and city shapers must also recognize that children, caregivers and families navigate and use the city differently than a typical office-commuting-able-male adult. Proximity to services, ease of mobility (walking, biking, transit), and access to green and public spaces are foundational for building child-friendly cities. And lastly, it is essential to involve children and families in the decision-making to understand their needs better.

In the context of the United States, urban planning has had a history of segregation and redlining; thus, as practitioners move forward with working in communities where their needs haven’t been met for so many years, they must always seek to do with, not merely do for.

Gill: I’m a big fan of the bottom-up schemes that reclaim streets. Here in the UK, Playing Out promotes resident-led, short-term road closures to let the kids come out and play. The model is regular, fairly unstructured block parties, and people experience what the street is like without traffic.

Chachra: That reminds me of a project I worked on in Istanbul where there was a small parking lot with garbage bins. We turned it into a plaza, painting the streets and adding some fake grass, and the children started playing there right away. I remember one little boy just running around, shouting, “Playground, playground.” And it wasn’t even close to a playground, but the families had such joy in realizing their children could actually play right in front of their eyes.

👉 Discover the Bernard Van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative

Gill: In my book, I talk about how Growing Up Boulder, in Colorado, brought young people’s voices into a debate about a downtown public space and counteracted the commercial interests that were pushing in other directions. That helped the city to build a more progressive and better collective solution.

Chachra: Growing Up Boulder’s Mara Mintzer has done some exceptional work, mapping the city’s amenities for young children and including them in some of the planning decisions and having them go to the planning offices and work with the planners. That’s community engagement done the right way. It’s not tokenism.

Swartz: By spreading the word about these approaches, Urban Playground is influencing a new generation of urban planners, Tim.

Gill: It’s been encouraging to see city leaders joining the dots between children and the climate. Two of the most inspiring examples are Tirana, Albania; and Bratislava, Slovakia.

👉 Discover Qendra Marrëdhënie in Tirana

Chachra: Another question we need to ask is: How are we creating spaces for unexpected interactions between neighbors to happen? Jan Gehl has looked at the street dimensions, the distance between the two streets and the number of interactions that happen between neighbors. A lot of it comes down to not driving. You’re very isolated when you’re just driving. Historically, playgrounds or dedicated places to play for children only emerged after we started prioritizing streets for cars over people and public life.

Swartz: I knew we’d get to playgrounds eventually. Now that you live in Brooklyn and have a baby of your own, Ankita, what issues are coming to the fore for you?

Chachra: I wish we were doing better from a physical infrastructure and access to green space perspective. There are a few destination parks and places like the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which offer some incredible opportunities for children and families to play and enjoy public life but those are limited and unique. In general, where families have access to parks, it’s mostly asphalt and concrete, with very few natural softscapes with grass or turf. In most playgrounds, it’s the same cookie-cutter infrastructure instead of a variety of play equipment that encourages imagination, learning and positive risk taking. That equipment is often designed for two years and older, so there’s also that missing amenity for really young children just starting to crawl and learning to engage with their environment.

Gill: The American Journal of Preventive Medicine just published a study by Meghan Talarowski and others on Playground Design and Physical Activity. They found that location is critical. If you’ve got a playground in the right place with a good local catchment (a local population that surrounds a service like a school or park), you can have six times as many users as a playground that isn’t in a dense area with a good catchment within half a mile. The second thing is trees and greenery, which is a factor that doubles the levels of use.

Chachra: Access to green space is a big question. Of course, the catchment area is extremely important, but also, where does it sit within the city? For example, three playgrounds within walking distance of where I am right now are adjacent to highways. If we’re talking about children’s health and reducing exposure to bad air, especially in this era of changing climate with recurring days with hazardous air quality, the location of playgrounds near highways, that increase children’s daily exposure to poor air should be a non-starter.

Swartz: What else are you noticing about New York City?

Chachra: I won’t go into social programs and policy but will speak purely from the infrastructure perspective. While New York is walkable and has relatively good public infrastructure, it can still feel harsh and uninviting for young children. There’s been progress, but there’s a long way to go in making our streets and intersections safe and more child friendly. Streets where you can let your children play as if it were your front yard, or let your newly walking toddler roam free and know that your child is safe riding their bike from home to a neighboring park.

Sidewalks in many neighborhoods still lack shade and seating or in general, opportunities to pause and rest, which is essential when you are moving around with young children or the elderly. If streets are not safe and comfortable for everyone, and if they don’t feel inviting, then we are losing that opportunity to create a truly child-friendly city.

👉 Discover Streets for Kids

Swartz: What larger trends do you see affecting the way we live in cities?

Gill: One change we have definitely seen here in the UK—and I think it’s true in many other countries—is a decrease in workers going into city centers to work. So they’re working from home more or their jobs have shifted. And so that’s led to a kind of drop in demand and economic activity of various kinds in city centers.

This has led to a rise in economic activities in more peripheral areas, which, for me, relates to the idea of 15-minute neighborhoods. Simply living locally, traveling more locally, focusing on local amenities and green space, reducing the dependence on the car—all those things help make neighborhoods better for children.


Read more in the “Seasons of Play” series.

Part 1: A Day Trip to Philadelphia Shows What Playful Learning Is—and Isn’t

Part 2: Getting Messy in Madison: The 6 Sides of the Upcoming Play Make Learn 2023 Conference

Part 3: The Children’s School in Pittsburgh: Where it’s Hard to Tell Play, Learning and Work Apart

Part 4: Can Play ‘Level the Playing Field’ in Chicago? How VOCEL Is Shifting Strategy to Magnify Impact

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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