Cities can be wonderful places to grow up, but they can also pose serious challenges for healthy child development. The Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative seeks to make lasting change in the city landscapes and in the opportunities that shape the crucial first five years of children’s lives. Urban95 works with urban leaders, planners, designers and managers to ask: ‘If you could experience the city from an elevation of 95 cm – the height of a 3 year old – what would you do differently?’
Key to Urban95 are:
With Urban95, we work with cities and urban entrepreneurs to identify and scale ideas to change the way families with young children live, play, interact and move through cities. We also work with media partners and influencers to raise awareness among urban decision-makers of what urban babies, toddlers and caregivers need, and with urban design and planning firms to develop training classes and tools for practitioners.
At the heart of Urban95 are partnerships with cities committed to taking promising practices from pilot to scale. Among the first city partnerships was with Tel Aviv, Israel.
Urban95 seeks to improve two critical factors in early childhood development – the quality and frequency of interactions between young children and their caregivers, and the well-being of these caregivers – through the provision of early childhood services, public space, transport, planning, land use and data management in cities.
When we talk with urban designers and planners – who think in tangible, spatial specifics – we emphasise that, for their healthy development, babies and toddlers living in cities:
This means walkable neighbourhoods that cater for the basics a young family needs, public spaces close to home that attract all generations while allowing small children to explore safely, and reliable transport that makes it easy, affordable and enjoyable for families with young children to travel where they need to go.
Through our city partnerships and the Urban95 Challenge, our small innovation grants programme, we are finding many promising ideas at both pilot and city- wide scale. Some examples are described below. We expect many more as our partners progress with their work.
We are learning much so far. Most importantly, we have learned to talk about the specific needs of young children and caregivers. We initially worried that city leaders would feel as if we were adding yet another ‘to do’ to their task list, so we talked instead about how Urban95 initiatives benefit the whole city – for example, widening footpaths and adding dropped kerbs help both adults with pushchairs and adults in wheelchairs. But we were soon told by city leaders that early childhood initiatives get broad political support, and better understanding the needs of young children creates a sense of purpose.
We have learned that addressing young children’s needs requires effective collaboration across city agencies – such as planning, health, education, social welfare, parks and recreation, and transport – and that this requires a mandate from top leadership, dedicated staff and shared data. It helps with political buy-in to position initiatives as benefiting all families, not just specific vulnerable groups. This also avoids stigma in taking up services. Engaging the community is necessary to gain public support and encourage greater use and maintenance of public space.
It helps to ‘think small’: inexpensive, quick and temporary projects, like painting coloured patterns and lines on roads to encourage cars to slow down, can demonstrate success and build support.
And it helps to ‘think different’, looking for opportunities to influence existing budgets before asking for new funds. But ultimately we need to ‘think big’, aiming for toddler-scale and even car-free neighbourhoods where all children have what they need both to survive and to thrive. A recent blog by Project for Public Spaces (2018) quotes Lewis Mumford: ‘Let’s forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.’ We’d add only: ‘and babies and their parents’.
For more information
More information on our Urban95 work and partners can be found at: www.bernardvanleer.org/urban95. For readers interested in learning more about different organisations’ and researchers’ approaches to these issues, here are some suggested further readings. We’d love to hear of others, particularly from other parts of the world.
Last but not least, for a beautiful essay on urban planning from the perspective of a toddler, see Eric Feldman’s ‘Child-friendly cities: what my toddler taught me about city design’ (2015).
References can be found in the PDF version of the article.
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