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We must design child-friendly cities in the Arab world

Children ride scooters through a newly opened ‘superblock’ area, where traffic flow is restricted, in the Sant Antoni district of Barcelona. (Reuters)
Children ride scooters through a newly opened ‘superblock’ area, where traffic flow is restricted, in the Sant Antoni district of Barcelona. (Reuters)
30 Nov 2019 05:11:21 GMT9
30 Nov 2019 05:11:21 GMT9

Winter weekends are what you make of them and “La Mer Dubai” is a delightful beachfront haven for the whole family to enjoy. It was late afternoon and the peach sky was smudged with cotton-candy clouds, dreamily floating over us. The fairy lights and lightbulbs emitted a warm glow, cascading between the artisan cafes and glitzy restaurants, and creating a carnivalesque ambience along the shoreline. To add to this festivity were the merry-go-rounds, fun-fair stalls, and playgrounds for children to enjoy. Not only that, but this exciting enclave is adorned with artist-commissioned graffiti murals on the walls of buildings, so that when you amble along, you may see painted nymphs covered in butterflies and flowers, or a young child wearing rainbow-colored sunglasses with a caption “stay cool,” or fiery wings on which you can pose like a free soul. By the end of our excursion, I was amazed by the thoughtful design details that left us all beaming with beautiful memories, especially the children.

We live in exciting times when cities are shaping their identities and urban development projects based on their own inspiring narratives that range from glitzy lifestyle destinations to hubs of innovation, intellect, and research. But perhaps the most promising vision to uphold is to design cities having a child-centric view. A city that is child-friendly means that it is designed to enable children to thrive through the deliberate planning and provision of infrastructure and services that cater to their everyday needs. In addition to that, such cities invest in important projects and support services targeted at parents — such as child-friendly housing or daycare centers — so that families are able to live happy, healthy, and productive lives.

With more children living in cities than ever before, it is important for policymakers to understand the everyday needs of this important segment and reflect them in their policies, programs, and services.

Demographers forecast that 70 percent of the world’s children will be living in cities by 2050. As such, policymakers and urban designers have the power to shape a child’s life outcomes positively, depending on the type of environment and amenities they provide for a happy, productive childhood experience.

The UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative explains that cities can be more child-friendly by securing basic rights and services for children, which include the provision of health and care services, social services, schooling, play areas, green spaces, cultural activities, community engagement, safety and protection, and the ability to participate actively in family life.

In its groundbreaking report, “Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods,” the global design, engineering, and planning firm Arup explores the value of designing cities with a child-friendly approach in order to address the critical challenges that modern cities face, which include traffic and pollution, high-rise living and urban sprawl, crime, social fears, inadequate and unequal access to public spaces, and isolation.

Governments that have succeeded in creating child-friendly cities have reaped benefits that cross multiple sectors. These achievements include improved physical and mental well-being among its communities, retention of families and skilled workforces, stronger communities, climate resilience, equality, and more robust economies. Inclusive cities that offer attractive, diverse, and accessible infrastructure, mixed-use public spaces, and services are more livable and are more attractive for families to settle and work in.

Cities such as London, Toronto and Rotterdam have upgraded their planning models to make their cities more livable for families and children. Design elements, such as child-friendly housing, childcare centers, safe roads, play areas, and schools are being integrated to make cities more inclusive. Two years ago, the Toronto City Council developed a set of guidelines for building more family and child-friendly apartments. One of its winning examples is that of the St. Lawrence neighborhood, a concept of a complete community which combines residential buildings co-located with two schools, a park, stores, restaurants, and a recreational facility. During off-hours, the larger community may also access the school playground.

Governments that have succeeded in creating child-friendly cities have reaped benefits that cross multiple sectors.

Sara Al-Mulla

We can also see how city planning affects the health and well-being of residents by incorporating important design elements that promote healthy behaviors and outcomes, such as sociability, fitness, play, and road safety. For example, the Belfast Healthy Cities partnership worked with over 7,000 children and families to prioritize and visualize their ideal neighborhoods, complete with a list of necessary interventions to make it a healthy city. The results of the Shaping Healthier Neighborhoods for Children charter were presented by the children to senior policymakers and local government decision-makers; they emphasized the need for integrating green spaces within residential areas, allowing for walkability and cycling routes to promote physical activity, opting for traffic calming, and providing key local amenities, such as youth clubs and play areas.

Designing child-friendly cities is an important factor in shaping children’s well-being and success in adulthood. Multi-disciplinary ideas can add up to create high impact and value for cities. Interventions such as family-friendly housing, childcare centers, green spaces, cultural and heritage spaces, road safety, quality health and social services all add up to create a fantastic vision for a child-friendly city.

After all, the more positive the childhood experience, the greater the rewards for us all.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.
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