Why cities that work for young children work for all

by Team Conscious Carma

Rushda Majeed

The first 1,000 days of life are the most critical for the holistic well-being of children. The brain develops the quickest in these years – one million new neural connections form per second – and its healthy development requires that children have adequate nutrition, opportunities to learn, nurturing care, and safety. The physical environment plays a vital role, which is why it’s important that cities are child- and family-friendly.  

Babies and toddlers need secure, healthy environments, warm and responsive interactions with loving adults, and safe, stimulating physical environments. Their caregivers—often including not only parents, but also grandparents and elder siblings— need crucial services to be easily accessible, among other things.

However, family-centred urban design is more than building playgrounds. Cities must keep in mind:

Design for caregiving: Children do not wander through cities by themselves; those looking after them decide where to go and how long to stay. These caregivers need to feel safe and comfortable.

Proximity matters: Good public transport is important, as is being able to walk safely, comfortably and quickly to your destination. Cities need walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods that cater to a young family’s needs within 15 minutes on foot.

‘Think babies’ as a universal design principle: From a design perspective, babies and their caregivers’ vulnerability and drive to explore and play mean that if a space is safe, clean and interesting enough for them, it’s likely to work for everyone.

Children aged zero to four make up nearly 10% of India’s population (2011 Census). Many of them are or will be living in cities over the next decade. Our cities are therefore ripe for design interventions that benefit infants, toddlers, and their families.

Image Courtesy Bernard van Leer Foundation

Two of Bernard van Leer Foundation’s (BvLF’s) recent partnerships are great examples of such cities taking on relevant interventions, with the aim of scaling them up across the city.

Last December, one of our partners, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) worked with technical partners Taru and Ecofirst and architecture students from the Allana College of Architecture to make a busy city junction child- and family-friendly. The PMC chose the crossing in Wanawadi locality thanks to its proximity to a local garden, accessed regularly by young children and their families. Painting the pavements and zebra crossing in bright colours caught the attention of motorists, who began to transit more carefully through the area. On one side, the width of the footpath was taken up by a large transformer, forcing pedestrians to use the road. This patch was given a colourful buffer zone of over 100 metres so that vehicles stayed away from the footpath and walkers remained safe.

In Udaipur, the Udaipur Municipal Corporation along with technical partner ICLEI-SA worked on transforming a prominent community space in an old city neighbourhood. The space, which was crowded with vehicles and unclean, became a clean, colourful, and playful space for use by children and families living around it.

Such seemingly small, yet critical interventions can have a transformative impact on the lives of young children and families. Access to open spaces, greenery, parks and playgrounds, safe crossings, and places to rest and play in neighbourhoods can benefit their health and well-being. Ultimately, keeping the needs of the youngest in mind contribute to creating cities that work, not just for young children, but for all.

Rushda Majeed, India Representative, Bernard van Leer Foundation

Rushda is responsible for the Foundation’s work in India. Previously, she helped manage Bloomberg Philanthropies’ India Smart Cities Challenge, a competition to select 100 cities for central government funding as part of the country’s Smart Cities Mission. Rushda has led research in 11 countries for Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies to analyze reforms that improve government performance and accountability. She has also served as a core team member on the re-election campaign of a two-term Member of Parliament, advised a World Bank team on case study research, and managed a global leadership program for a New York-city based non-profit.

Rushda has written numerous case studies on institutional reforms, and her writings on the subject have appeared in Foreign Policy magazine’s Democracy Lab. She has a master’s degree in international affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Eastern Kentucky University.

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