One of the projects that sparked this website and blog was the Playstreets project in Ahmedabad in India (see under 'Projects'). The concept of opening up more of the public spaces for children (and everyone else, really!) by temporarily closing streets to traffic is so simple, yet so effective.
Researching this concept a bit more, I recently came across a great initiative from England called Playing Out. They have a fun website and video clip that shows what the group is up to: http://playingout.net/ The positive energy this clip radiates really is contagious. Doesn’t watching it just make you wonder where, when and how you could put this idea into action yourself?
Similar initiatives abound in other places. In New York City, for example, Transportation Alternatives (an advocacy group for bicycling, walking, and public transit) helps neighbors to close streets for a day in order to have Playstreets (http://transalt.org/issues/pedestrian/playstreets).
In the Jackson Heights area of Queens, NYC, residents began in 2008 to organize regular car-free Sundays on 78th Street. These days were so popular that residents successfully lobbied to have the street closed down for an entire summer in 2010 – and were then later successful in getting the city’s transportation department to close the street for traffic altogether. This video ‘A Car-free Street grows in Queens’ tells the story and captures the positive energy that has been generated by the Playstreet: http://www.streetfilms.org/a-car-free-street-grows-in-queens. A new non-profit organization, the Jackson Heights Green Alliance, has grown out of these efforts and is lobbying for further green public spaces in the neighborhood (http://www.jhgreen.org/).
Judging from these examples, I would say that Playstrees are an idea whose time has come! Urban spaces that are car-free allow children to play more independently and creatively, and they give all other neighbors a chance to meet and socialize, too. It really is a way of reclaiming public space for the entire neighborhood.
Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl is well-known in the field for his common-sense approach. His interventions in urban centers such as New York City’s Times Square, Melbourne's downtown, as well as projects in Mexico and China all focus on the concept of putting people first: not cars, not delivery trucks, not taxis, not traffic in general - but people. Gehl famously puts pedestrians and cyclists first, and both his book and blog ‘Making Cities for People’ argue how such a people-centered approach makes for much more enjoyable, livable places. The Human Scale is a documentary film about the work Gehl and his colleagues do around the world. Here is a brief introdcution from the film’s director Andreas Daalsgard:
“Architectural films usually focus on the bricks and mortar. They are beautifull and aesthetic depictions of the work of great architects. But they are also dead. I wanted this film to make the human being visible, as a creature within it’s habitat. Within bricks and mortar. I wanted to create a caleidoscopic image and sound scape, where the audience can participate in a sort of meditation on modern life. The urban planners, thinkers and architects in the film make observations, ask questions about our lifestyle, and provide some possible solutions. But most of the answers are left to the audience. Who are we, how do we live, and where are we going as a species? And can we even do a damn thing about it?”
One interesting chapter of the film focuses on post-earthquake planning in Christchurch, New Zealand. As is quite common after such devastating disasters, the community is shocked to the point of needing ‘community therapy’, and planning for either reconstruction or new projects frequently gets caught up in that need. The film includes interesting comments from David Sim, Partner at Gehl Architects and planner for the Christchurch Recovery Plan, about this monumental task and its challenges. It also briefly shows how Sims and his colleagues are working with children and are using LEGO blocks in visioning excersises with them. As Sims explains: working with LEGO can be fun and creative, and very accessible for people of all ages, but it also poses the risk of people acting in this “God-like” manner, floating high above the ground and creating some sort of all-encompassing “Masterplan”. This of course, not being very conducive to the people-centered, bottom-up planning approach that Gehl Architects usually stands for at all.
Another fascinating episode of The Human Scale deals with Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Dhaka is suffering from increasingly terrible traffic jams. Unfortunately all the large-scale projects approved and financed by the International Development Bank (IDB) and World Bank consist of car-focused measures, such as adding lanes to highways, widening roads, and constructing overpasses for pedestrians, thereby making the city more and more difficult for pedestrians to navigate. In the film local city planners criticise this pattern, pointing out how few people in Dhaka actually can afford a car. Essentially these internationally-funded projects only serve the very wealthy people and the upper middle class. One of the planners says: “(We are) heading into a chaos, that we have created ourselves.” Several people in Dhaka started protesting against such planning projects and one young community activist actually translated Gehl’s book ‘Cities for People’ into Bengali in order to advocate for a more people-focused planning approach. My impression is that these developments which could lead to improvements are still in the early stages, and much still needs to happen in Dhaka for the city to become more livable. However, the city (as so many others portraied in the film) is at a crossroads and it is fascinating to observe these dynamics.
Very interesting to me is also the much more general question the film poses (for example when it focuses on the fast-paced growth of many Chinese cities): do ‘western’ planners have a responsibility to intervene and to advocate for better planning approaches? Can cities in developing countries avoid making the same mistakes that our cities made in the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Can better solutions be found locally? A friend of mine, who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, pointed out how arrogant it often comes across when Western experts, such as Gehl’s associates arrive in far-flung places and talk about ‘fixing’ the existing problems. I’m torn myself on the topic. Do we really know better, and is it our responsibility to advise and assist? Or do we need to step back and let local community activists take over and fight their own battles and do things their own way?
Also: an important point for further research: what is the current planning philosophy of the World Bank and the IDB? Are they really still stuck entirely in this very ‘modernist’ thinking of: the more roads and other large infrastructure projects we build, the better’? Maybe our role as planners should be to serve as advocates, to put pressure on these organisations and to lobby for a general reconsideration and overhaul of such principles.
More information about the film is available at www.thehumanscale.dk
A clip about Christchurch is at: http://thehumanscale.dk/christchurch-new-zealand/
A few days ago I finished a wonderful book – definitely one of my favorite books this past year: it's titled ‘On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes’. The author, Alexandra Horowitz is a behavioural psychologist and essentially explores her own neighborhood on the Upper West Side in NYC with ‘expert eyes’ in tow. She walks with experts, such as an urban planner(!), a doctor, an insect specialist, a geologist, an artist, a sound engineer - all of whom show her details of her so-familiar surroundings. In many different ways they all teach her how to ‘look differently’ and thereby see and notice so much more and Horowitz does a fantastic job passing on some of the knowledge these experts shared with her.
Fred Kent, President of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is the urban planner she walks with. PPS is “a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities” – see: www.pps.org. Kent talks to Horowitz about pedestrian flow patterns, urban pedestraian behaviour, and about the types of facades and streetfronts that encourage social interaction. The chapter made me want to take a walk with him, too!
I especially appreciated that Horowitz not only walked with ‘professional experts’, but also with companions such as a blind woman (expert in ‘seeing without eyesight’), a dog (expert in smelling!), and Horowitz’s own toddler son (expert in finding things orange!). Turns out her son is interested in taking entirely different walks and has much to share. His walk does not connect A and B in a straight line, he does not leave the house with a destination in mind, or even the goal of wanting to ‘walk around the block’. Instead he wanders around, stops a lot, backtracks, all the while exploring details such as steps, a standpipe, and seeds that have fallen off a tree.
As Horowitz explains in an interview she is generally less drawn to ‘the exotic’ than to ‘finding the unique and interesting in the ordinary’ (the interview with Harry Kreisler for University of California TV is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyclcBoTe7k). I find her approach fascinating and highly recommend her book – it may help you to see your surroundings in a whole new way! And if she decides to write an sequel, I hope she will also be taking walks with an architect, a traffic engineer, and also with a teenager and maybe a homeless person – all would have much to add, I think.
There is a short video of Horowitz showing off some of the discoveries she made on her walks at: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/onlooking
It’s true - kids travel free on London public transport! According to visitlondon.com, the official visitors guide, kids under ten travel free, and under 16 at reduced prices. Very nice!
But of course price isn’t the only issue that determines whether buses are child friendly or not. My stories above already point at some other issues: accessibility, i.e. is it possible to get onto and off the bus with a stroller? Does one then necessarily block the door, or is there enough space to maneuver a bit? How high is the step, how wide is the door. And for older kids: is it easy to sit or hold on to a bar at their height?
Other issues are: how long is the wait between buses? How convenient are the routes? How far apart are the bus stops located? (a radius of about a 10 minute walk to the stop is usually considered ‘walkable’ in an urban setting).
As I’m listing these issues, it’s becoming obvious: whatever would be considered child-friendly, really is just ‘human-friendly. Lots of other citizens would appreciate wha would pass as child-friendly public transportation. And finally, if the bus stop looks like the one with the swings in Toronto… even better!
Here are some other fun ideas...
This photo reached me via facebook and made me wonder: wouldn’t it be great to make public transportation more fun? Waiting at this bus stop in Montreal would be so much more enjoyable… not just for kids, but for everyone!
Public transportation is, of course, a huge factor determining a city’s child-friendliness, or rather citizen-friendliness. I was struck by the vast differences that exist. Here are two personal experiences to illustrate:
Some years ago while visiting New York City, my husband and I were struggling to figure out how to best get across Brooklyn with our newly purchased double-decker stroller and two sleeping kids inside. We found a bus stop, waited, the bus pulled up - and then we were in no uncertain terms told by the bus driver that “Strollers are not allowed on the bus”. What??? We could hardly believe this! The driver clarified: “You have to fold it up, to get on”. Hmm… Any parent would start either laughing or crying at this point. After all: two SLEEPING kids in the stroller are basically any parent’s jackpot. One does not mess with them – ever! And to take them out, AND to take all the stuff out of the stroller, to fold it up, and get on the bus… this would take a team of four people and about ten minutes. Not fun! Today I can’t even recall anymore what we did that day: maybe we ended up walking far, or we changed our plans… ? But the bottom line was: buses in NYC are NOT child-friendly, and therefore NOT parent-friendly!
A year or so later, our family was on vacation in Stockholm. Similar scenario: two kids asleep in double stroller, found bus stop, waited, bus pulls up, and: the bus is easy to get on to thanks to a lowered step and exta wide doors. We get on and I go to the front to buy tickets from the driver. And guess what he tells me, as if it’s the most basic idea in the world?! “You don’t need to buy a ticket if you get on with a stroller. People with kids go free!” What??? Needless to say, we were giddy for hours. What a civilized place! Such wonderful people! And such great buses... Incredible!
So, Stockholm takes today's award for child-(and parent-)friendly city!
I recently read that kids go free on London public transportation. Will do some research on that soon, so stay tuned!
"If we can build a successful city for children we will have a successful city for all people" - Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia
- What makes a citiy child-friendly?
- Which cities are child-friendly? Which ones aren't? Any why?
- How can architects, urban planners, designers, but also parents, teachers, and kids themselves contribute to cities that are more child-friendly?
Those are the questions this website will address. I will pick up stories that I read or hear about, feature projects that I come across, and basically want to learn as I go along. I look forward to the journey and would love to receive comments!