Bristol is currently hosting an international conference Towards the Child Friendly City. They took the opportunity to create a pre-conference Bristol only workshop to highlight the progress and areas for progress to both conference goers and community members. And I took the opportunity to attend.
So what are child friendly cities? There is more than one view. UNICEF has an international network of child friendly cities, but many of its aims are focused on things like clean water, freedom from violence and access to schooling. All laudable, but more focused on the developing world than OECD nations (though there are places like Flint, Michigan in the US). And it also focuses on the idea of children’s voices being heard in decision making processes.
Others in the child friendly movement focus less on children being heard than in actually acting on what children have consistently told us, well – since we were kids. Things like access to fun things to do, the ability to play and play outside and move around independently. And also things like clean air to breathe and a sustainable future.
Bristol has developed their own children’s charter alongside civic partners in its aim to become a child friendly city. It incorporates the ‘basics’ as well as the aspirational. You can read the whole thing here, but essentially it boils down to this. Bristol is an amazing city with so many great things going on in it or near it, and all the children of Bristol should be able to take advantage of those cultural, social, economic and educational opportunities that living in Bristol should afford them.
Cllr Helen Godwin, Cabinet Member for Women, Children and Families who was instrumental to developing the charter, spoke at the conference and explained about the work that’s been done so far and what more they want to do. She spoke about how important it was to keep children in mind across all decision making and planning.
Tim Gill, from Rethinking Childhood, made the case that cities designed with children in mind are also sustainable cities. And that ensuring children can roam, meaning accessible transport and pathways to play and educational opportunities not overrun by traffic and congestion mean that cities are walkable, cycle friendly and liveable for the rest of us. A case could also be made that places that are child friendly can also derive economic benefit from town centres and neighbourhood high streets that provide more than a retail experience.
The entire half day was really featured the importance of ‘playing out’ and that urban planning needs to focus on developing neighbourhoods and commercial centres that allow children to have some measure of independent play. The Playing Out movement started in Bristol and has led to changes in Bristol City Council policy which has led to changes in central government policy and new guidance to councils on supporting temporary play streets. Basically stopping traffic and letting children play on the streets where they live.
Some of the most compelling arguments were about changing our attitudes to play and risk. As a parent, I have mixed feelings. I agree that childhood seems damagingly confined these days. Kids don’t have the ability to roam that they once did. And although I was happy to let my son walk the super short distance to his dad’s home on his own from school as soon as the school would let him (my house was a little further away), I was directly confronted by other mums alarmed that they saw my child walking on his own. I knew he could manage it, but I also worried that if he was the only 9 yr old on the street, that would make him a bit of a target. It’s one thing to encourage a greater risk appetite for other people’s children and another to consider the risks you’ll take with your own kids. (I did continue to let my son walk to his dad’s and eventually to mine.)
Perhaps most compelling speakers of the day were the children of Room 13 Hareclive. Room 13 is an independent artist’s studio co-run by children and adults working together in one of the most deprived communities in England. They have developed a video making the case for safer streets – watch ‘The Sad Reality’ from Playing Out on Vimeo. (Go and watch it, it’s only 7 minutes and really fun!) And as part of the conference they’re making a giant card for Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, on what needs to change in Bristol. They were passionate and articulate, and I think we all should listen.
LGiU’s project Children’s Life Chances in exploring some of these issues. If you’re making the neighbourhoods in your local authority more child friendly we want to hear from you. Our work on the return of place shaping is also looking for stories about how people are changing the places where they live for the better. Tell us what you’re doing by dropping a line to firstname.lastname@example.org