The Blog

Why cities should be designed for children

5 minutes of reading
On the pavements of our neighbourhoods, the cries of children are becoming increasingly rare. They are replaced by the noise of cars and hurried adults who no longer seem to know how to stop, wander or stroll… How is this harmful to the accessibility of our cities? And is this disappearance of children from the public space inevitable?
Une rue aux enfants en ville

Making the city a playground

Play areas in the city play a major role in the development of children and their becoming citizens. In particular, play has an essential function in the physical and psychological development of children. “A child’s nature is to play”, says the philosopher Thierry Paquot, author of the book Pays de l’enfance (2022). It is through play that children learn and acquire the skills that will enable them to navigate the urban world: to identify roads and pavements, to find their way around, to measure the risks, etc. Play also allows them to “learn to anticipate danger, to control it, and to feel (…) climbing, going fast, using dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, fighting, and walking alone, out of the sight of an adult”, explains Ellen Beate, a professor in educational sciences. Unfortunately! Urban facilities and spaces for children are very standardised, leaving little room for discovery and exploration. Activities for the youngest are restricted to dedicated spaces (parks, hopscotches, etc.) or to shops and shopping centres. Conceiving the city as a place of discovery and a playground therefore constitutes a paradigm shift, which requires a major rethink of public spaces. It is a question of taking into account the needs of different populations, in an urban design that encourages exploration, meeting and play.

Time spent outdoors is declining in Western countries

“The place where I like to play the most is my room. That’s where I spend most of my time…” explains a 7-year-old girl from Marseille. That’s right! Children’s outdoor play time has dropped from 3-4 hours per day in the 1960s to an average of 47 minutes today (ProJuventute Foundation, 2019). This has led to a decline in the presence of younger children in public spaces in favour of private and enclosed areas. This can be explained firstly by the hegemonic development of the car in the city, and all the associated developments. This makes the streets dangerous for the inhabitants, especially for children. At the same time, the amount of time spent indoors, particularly on screens (television, computer, tablet, telephones, etc.) has increased. Finally, with the growing danger of the public space mentioned above, cultural changes have seen the emergence of “new norms of parental responsibility”. Henceforth, anyone who is uninterested in the actions of their children in public spaces is defined as a ‘bad’ parent” (Lehman-frisch S, et al. 2016). A paradigm that discourages adults from letting their offspring play outside, unsupervised.
In OECD countries, 85% of 5-6 year olds walked to school in 1980. Today, only 8% do so. Thierry Paquot, philosopher.

For urban planning that listens to children!

In view of these observations, it is urgent to reexamine the players involved in the construction of the city in the light of the expectations of the youngest. Bouygues Construction and its subsidiary Linkcity are contributing to this necessary reflection by proposing to approach the city through the prism of childhood. In March, the Group’s Foresight team published a trend note entitled “Thinking the city through the eyes of children” (french), which lists initiatives around the world aimed at better integrating the needs of children into urban design. In this same perspective of sharing experiences, a conference was organised in Marseille, bringing together partners, researchers, internal experts, elected officials, associations and private players, to discuss various initiatives: Enfants dehors in Montpellier, the Grand Bain in Marseille, Citizen Kid, etc. At the same time, the organisers wanted to hear what children had to say and experience. A workshop was therefore organised by the CitizenCorps association, Bouygues Construction and Linkcity Sud-Est. This enabled pupils from two schools in Marseille to meet and discuss their experience of the city.

Putting citizens back at the heart of urban planning

The stories collected from the children show the needs of urban spaces. These expectations of the youngest, but also of the elderly and vulnerable, are not among the priorities of property developers.
“Children seem to be the forgotten ones in our cities,” laments the philosopher Thierry Paquot. It is important to reverse this dynamic and to create channels for collecting and reporting these needs to the city’s decision-makers.
The prism of childhood is therefore a key to putting the citizen back at the heart of urban planning. It would make it possible to humanise our cities so that they take into account the expectations and needs of all the inhabitants: “The child is the one who brings us back to a sensitive and organic relationship with the city (which) invites us to think about the city of the user”, says Mathilde Chaboche, deputy mayor of Marseille in charge of urban planning and the harmonious development of the city.

The street at the centre of the initiatives

Taking better account of children in the city is also the objective of many projects and initiatives in France and abroad. One example is the adventure playgrounds that allow young people to develop their creative skills, while meeting the need for freedom and exploration necessary for children’s development. On another level, some neighbourhoods have car-free ‘children’s streets’. “In my street, there are lots of cars, and there are also those that don’t run on petrol, so there are charging stations for them,” explains a 7-year-old schoolboy. Children’s streets” first developed in the late 1930s in England under the name of play streets. They allow residents to reinvest in public space, away from the pavements.  

Nature in the city: also an expectation of children

In response to this lack, the “Oasis project” focuses on the greening of schoolyards, with the aim of turning them into public gardens outside school hours. Another interesting initiative: schools are organising outdoor classes that put nature back at the centre of learning for the youngest. The Belgian collective Tous Dehors, for example, supports teachers who choose to move their classes outside the school walls. Thinking about the place of children in the city implies going beyond urban planning that creates dedicated and closed spaces for the youngest. It means reexamining strategies and ways of ‘making the city’ while integrating a diversity of changing factors (sociological, political, economic, cultural, ecological or demographic) linked to local contexts. This means experimenting with a different way of conceiving urban space, by getting public actors, private actors, urban developers and civil society to cooperate around a common objective. In the end, making the city at the level of children generates several benefits which make it possible to design inclusive, hybrid and relational urban spaces. Thus, thinking about the city through the lens of childhood is a first step towards building a city for all, as Mathilde Chaboche points out. “Freeing the streets from cars, yes! but it starts with the children. If we free up a street, children will flourish, but so will parents, the elderly, people with mobility problems, women can feel safe…”.