Mobility Car-Free CityChanger Tim Gill: Back to the Future of Child-Friendly Car-Free Cities

CityChanger Tim Gill: Back to the Future of Child-Friendly Car-Free Cities

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.

Tim is an independent scholar, consultant and global advocate for child-friendly cities. He is passionate about making car-dominance a thing of the past and achieving a better balance between the needs of car drivers and everyone else regarding the use of public space, with particular emphasis on children. Tim talks about his philosophy and how he believes that by putting children first, we can build better cities for all.

Image credit: Tim Gill

Tim is a distinguished expert in the field of child-friendly urban design. His work extends to a wide range of topics, including city planning, public policy, childcare, education, and transport through which he has engaged academics, practitioners, policymakers as well as the wider public. 

Having independently written and contributed to several published works, Tim is a global leader in the movement towards more thoughtful approaches to risk in childhood. He is a former UK Government’s adviser on design, a Built Environment Expert for the Design Council, and a current Design Council Ambassador.

His most recent book, Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities, published earlier this month, delves into some of the most pressing issues regarding the effects of car-dominated, noisy and polluted cities on their most vulnerable inhabitants, and how by seeing the city through the eyes of a child we can transform our urban landscapes into more inclusive and sustainable places for everyone.

But what are Tim’s ‘essential ingredients’ for getting over car-dependency, and what is his advice for CityChangers who want to make their cities more child-friendly?

Tim’s Philosophy

Tim’s ideology is a simple one: if you want to make streets more child-friendly, then you have to reduce the dominance of the car. 

The car has been the biggest force behind the drastic decrease in children’s freedoms over the last 4 or 5 decades, and this, Tim says, has resulted in them becoming disconnected from the natural world around them. 

Often, neighbourhoods are ‘carved’ from car-dominated streets, which leads to isolation from parks and play areas. We now must begin redesigning our urban areas to allow children to walk, cycle and play with better access to nature, rectifying the imbalance in the priority given to cars.

“Cars are really an existential threat to children. It’s like an unspoken epidemic — If you look at Sweden, one of the leading causes of death in children is motor traffic, and that’s in a country that is a world leader for child-friendly design and planning measures… clearly, we still haven’t got the balance right.”

‘Lockdown’ Is Not a New Concept, for Children at Least…

Tim said that something which struck him recently is what’s happening in the world with the global pandemic and how we’ve all become so aware of what a ‘lockdown’ looks and feels like. But Tim says this is just an intensified version of what’s been happening in children’s lives for the last 40 years:

“From the late 80s, children have been living what is essentially an ever more stringent lockdown, and there have been various reasons for that — but mostly their freedom to roam has been sacrificed to the needs of car drivers.”

“Children’s captivity has become ‘baked’ into the towns and cities we’re currently building. We know that cars and children are incompatible, and the last 100 years in urban planning have represented a battle between the two that cars have mostly won.”

“In a way, it’s crazy that the first thing we see when we step out of our front door is a great big piece of metal. We have normalised this strange upside-down set of priorities about the use of public space that we all live in.”

But Tim also says that now could be a turning point. 

“As more people become aware of the impacts of car-dominance, there has been an increasing interest in policies, schemes and interventions which aim to achieve a better balance between the needs of the car and everyone else.”

Vauban: A Beacon for What’s Possible

When asked what projects have inspired him, Tim mentioned the Vauban neighbourhood in Freiburg, Germany, which he talks about in his book.

In Vauban, there are very low levels of car ownership, and if someone does own a private vehicle, they must park it in one of the three car parks on the edge of the neighbourhood to free up the space inside it for public use. 

“It’s full of people all day long. Significant numbers of children, especially young children, can roam free without the supervision of their parents. It’s green, it’s sociable, it’s welcoming — there are community gardens and human-scale streets with lots of playable space. For me, this is the lighthouse to show what transformation can look like when cars are taken out of the picture”, Tim said.

But is Vauban an isolated example, or is it replicable in other neighbourhoods worldwide? 

“Yes, Vauban IS radical, and did grow out of progressive politics in Freiburg at the time”, Tim said, “but we can always use it as a source of inspiration.”

“Knowing what makes neighbourhoods happy and healthy gives us a better overall picture of what they actually look like in practice, helping to build a sense of purpose and give us a reason to make a long-term effort to transform our urban areas.”

But Be warned, Children Aren’t the Silver Bullet…

The best way to reverse car dominance is to involve children in design, both in the literal sense of including children’s voices and participation, but also figuratively by thinking from a child’s perspective.

“We need to ask ourselves what our neighbourhoods are like for children. Think through their eyes: Is this what a child would want to see in their street, is it sufficiently designed to allow them access to nature, with enough space for play?”

For all the advantages it brings, Tim also warns that children’s participation is not necessarily enough on its own: 

“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.”

Tim’s Advice to CityChangers

“The first thing I would do is to build a vision. Work with stakeholders, community groups, children and young people. Really ask them to visualise what they want our cities to look like in 2030/40.”

Tim says that once you understand the bigger picture, then you can look towards schemes, pilots and short-term projects. This will then raise questions about other things like public transport, land use and all sorts of big chunky planning issues. 

“When you bring children into the picture, you get a virtuous circle that fuels and enhances the move to a lot of other changes we need to see in cities. People will then be able to see that we have some difficult challenges to face, and that it’s not just about turning streets into playgrounds.”

Tim also said that at the most basic level, people should think about how they vote. “Often, this is an issue of democracy. I’m also a big believer in collective action and positive solidarity — once people find allies and kindred spirits locally, they can find a way to make a difference together.”

“It might be something as simple as setting up a play street or finding a rundown public space that, with a little bit of money and TLC, could be made into a green space that would be of real value to local families.”

In a Nutshell

To sum up, putting children first in urban design makes wider mobility concerns more visible, unifies stakeholders and drives a behavioural change for the future generation.

If we follow in the footsteps of places like Vauban that are pioneering the way for child-friendly neighbourhood development, maybe then we will be able to reverse our built-up environment and realise that by making cities better for young people, we can make them better places for everyone.

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