MobilityCar-FreeCars or Kids, Who's King? How to Put Children Before Cars in...

Cars or Kids, Who’s King? How to Put Children Before Cars in City Planning

Lauren McAskie
Lauren McAskie
I love talking to passionate CityChangers from around the world, hearing their stories and what drives their activism, then writing up guides for others to get inspired by. There's only one thing that could top a car-free city for me, and that's one made out of chocolate... but a girl can only dream. In the meantime, I'll work on making the first come true.

For the last century, there’s been an ongoing battle for city space between cars and children, which, for the most part, has been won by the former. Kids no longer have the right to roam freely in their own neighbourhoods, and we’ve placed the burden on them to learn how to be ‘safe’ on the roads, rather than removing cars to make roads safe for them. So, is it time to take the crown away from cars and start putting children first to make streets more inclusive and liveable places for everyone?

Why Should We Design Cities for Children?

Thinking about how the average toddler, at around 95cm tall, sees the world can give us a better understanding of whether or not our cities are designed sufficiently to meet the needs of children and their caregiver.

Unfortunately, in most modern cities, children’s right to roam and play freely has been severely restricted as a result of the environment that has been build up around them and the subsequent dominance of cars.

When we spoke with Tim Gill, author, consultant and global advocate for more child-friendly cities, he said that we have “normalised an upside-down set of priorities” where cars are kings of the streets and children are left to tiptoe around them, which has led to young people becoming disconnected from the natural world around them. 

By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world’s children will live in cities. Yet, there is currently an inequality in the distribution of urban space between cars and children, and this lack of planning in city design means that children have become more vulnerable, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds being affected the most.

Motor vehicle crashes are also the leading cause of death for young people aged 5-29 globally, and traffic contributes to high levels of pollution responsible for the deaths of around 127,000 children each year under the age of 5.

Therefore, involving children’s needs in conversations about urban design opens the door for addressing a plethora of other pressing issues such as public health, poverty, quality of life, cohesion and inclusive mobility.

When the overriding motivation for improvement is to improve children’s lives, it also becomes much easier to unify stakeholders – making change more likely to be achieved.

Arup coined the term ‘everyday freedoms’ to describe what we want to see children having access to in the near future, meaning making it safe and easy for children to play and get to and from school shouldn’t be something that’s ‘nice’ to have, but rather a necessity.

Think From 95cm

The average 3-year-old child is 95cm. They experience streets different to adults – they are less visible to people driving cars (especially large SUVs), closer than adults to vehicle exhaust, construction work, paving and other details, and experience these things more intimately due to their height. 

By literally thinking about how the street looks from a child’s eye level, it can lead to better informed and more meaningful discussions about what children’s needs are in the street – what is safe for them and what is not, and how roads can be more inclusive of them.

guide produced by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the Global Designing Cities Initiative says that a significant amount of brain development is shaped within the first three years of a child’s life, which is when they grow and learn the fastest.

Therefore, it’s essential to have an environment rich with stimulation, for example, with colours, patterns and textures to help form their cognitive skills – not just grey roads, motor vehicles, exhaust and empty space at a child’s eye level.

Traffic Calming

Another way to make roads inclusive of children is through traffic calming measures. These are designed to make roads safer for vulnerable road users, especially children, and encourage motor vehicles to reduce their speed while driving.

Lowering speed limits through signage is one effective way of doing this. High speed limits on urban streets narrow motorist’s peripheral vision and limit their reaction times. Therefore, decreasing driving speed is essential to making streets safer for children. 

Smaller streets, including shared streets and pedestrian-priority streets, should have maximum speed limits of 10/20km per hour. 

Other design features such as making streets shorter in length, narrowing them and introducing speed humps can really help to slow down vehicles, which is a benefit not only for children but also for pedestrians and cyclists. 

When these measures are combined together, it can help to achieve safer streetscapes overall.

More Spaces for Play and Learning

Having access to nature and play space is key to child-friendly cities. Every family should be able to access a park in 5-10 minutes of walking. To ensure that children’s needs are being met, pedestrianisation projects should try to focus on making children’s access to schools and playgrounds a priority.

This will come with an abundance of physical and mental health benefits for both children and their caregivers. There are several ways to improve access to nature within cities, such as planning a community garden, urban greening or creating a low traffic neighbourhood.

Let Children Be Heard, but Don’t Rely On Them

Tim Gill said that one of the key things to keep in mind, however, is that while children’s voices should play a role in urban planning practices – we should not be relying on them to solve complex design questions.

“We should never expect children to come up with the solutions to our mobility problems or to make our neighbourhoods great. We should listen to what they say and be aware of the impact of planning on their lives, but we also need to do more than just involve them in a process. We need to have a concrete picture of what a child-friendly neighbourhood actually looks like before anything else.”

“We cannot wait for children to raise the issue of car dominance. It must be tackled head-on, and a shift in emphasis is needed from process and participation to outcomes and impact. Helpful though children’s participation is, the best measure of progress is a positive change in the everyday lives of children themselves.”

Sectors Need to Work Together

Tim also says that sectors need to work together to reduce car dominance for children. “No one agency has a monopoly on what makes cities child-friendly. We must break down the professional and organisational silos that so often lead to isolated schemes, missed opportunities and wasted effort.”

“We need to build a vision together. Work with stakeholders, community groups, children and young people. Really ask them to visualise what they want cities to look like in the next 20 years.”

“Then you can look towards engaging municipalities that hold the ability to shape cities through planning, housing, green space and transport to help you carry out schemes, pilots and other projects.”

Make Streets More Connected

A well-connected street network has numerous benefits for urban areas. Children depend a lot on connectivity – as shorter distances mean they are often able to walk more often without obstacles.

A connected street is one that has a lot of short links, intersections and minimal dead ends. Particularly, streets should have walkable access to destinations that children frequently use, such as schools, bus stops and playgrounds.

In a Nutshell

Children are so often overlooked throughout the urban design process or introduction of car-free measures that it can be good to bring things back to basics. When you think from a child’s perspective and really consider the ways in which a child moves and lives in the city, you will be able to visualise safer and more liveable streets for everyone.

For more detailed guides on how to put children before cars, see below:

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