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Young people’s perspectives on “15 minute neighbourhoods”

Child friendly cities include spaces for children to walk about independently, access play spaces and services, and be a part of the city.  In many cities in the United States, the 15-minute neighbourhood is being adopted as a planning strategy to foster increased health and wellness, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and increase the social cohesion of neighbourhoods.  By planning for 15 minute neighbourhoods, cities have the potential also to increase the child-friendliness of city spaces.

Children’s engagement

As an example, the City of Boulder has called for 15 minute neighbourhoods in their Comprehensive Housing Strategy.  Such neighborhoods “foster mixed income, mixed use, highly walkable neighborhoods in amenity rich locations.”  In this context, amenities include access to transit, parks, open space, employment, and retail services.  Given the importance of this planning topic in conceptualizing the city, Growing Up Boulder – a child-friendly city initiative in Boulder, Colorado, USA – began exploring this topic with children and youth from a variety of neighborhoods.  At the outset, we suspected that children might have a different perspective to bring to this planning concept, given that most children have limited independent mobility (the ability to move about in the city on their own, whether by foot or public transportation).  

Over several sessions, Growing Up Boulder has engaged children from a single public housing site and from an intermediate school to explore the 15 minute neighbourhood concept. Children drew pictures of their neighbourhood, walked and photographed areas within 15 minutes of housing or school, and discussed an ideal neighbourhood.  The intermediate students also made recommendations that they presented to municipal transportation and community planning staff.

Restricted mobility

Children from public housing enjoyed exploring their neighbourhood and visiting a park that was within a 15-minute walk.  While the children loved the amenities of the park and enjoyed the walk there, they all stated that they would not be able to visit the park on their own.  As a result, many children focused on improvements that could be made in the playground at the housing site.  These ideas will be included in housing and playground renovations scheduled for this year.  For these children, the 15 minute neighbourhood, as a concept, appears to be too large. 

Marketta Kyttä conceptualizes a range of neighbourhoods based on the extent of independent mobility and the “affordances” – or range of activities – that children can find in a place.  Based on her model, children in the Boulder neighbourhood lived in a “cell:” Due to mobility restrictions, children could not access quality affordances, which were out of reach in the park.  Other amenities were altogether missing from the neighborhood.  Planned renovations will help increase the quality of affordances available to children in this neighbourhood; however, Kyttä’s research also suggests that addressing the barriers to children’s mobility is also important in creating child friendly neighbourhoods that support positive development and reduce parental stress.

Accessing child-friendliness

Young teens, ages 11-14, similarly walked around their school neighborhood and discussed the amenities close to school and home.  For this group of students, the school neighbourhood is a highly walkable neighbourhood with access to many prized amenities.  Among these are “kid friendly” businesses, including ice cream and bagel shops, which welcome teens before and after school.  Teens also have access to a pedestrian mall with cafés, affordable food, and teen-friendly businesses, and many students walk, bike, or use transit to get to school. 

Most of the young teens’ recommendations to improve the neighbourhood were for increased design and safety features that would make them feel more comfortable with their independence.  These included wider sidewalks, better street crossings, and synchronized lights.  These teens also noted that there are few parks that are accessible either from school or from their home neighborhoods.  While the city has many parks, Growing Up Boulder has found that many of the city’s parks do not meet the needs or play desires of young teens, in particular.

While Growing Up Boulder is still working within other neighbourhoods to understand the relationships between the 15-Minute Neighbourhood and children’s assessments of the friendliness of these spaces, the framework has proven useful as a planning tool, to talk about the needs and desires of specific neighbourhoods, and the specific limitations of access – whether it be distance, safety, or comfort.  From our initial work, children have expressed that close-to-home nature, quality play amenities for multiple ages of children, child-friendly businesses, and quality street design all contribute to a child friendly neighbourhood.  Inclusion of these criteria in planning frameworks could strengthen the 15 minute concept.

Like other planning concepts, it is important to groundtruth the applicability of 15 minute neighborhoods with children.  Understanding the opportunities and barriers to this approach will help strengthen its child friendliness and ultimate success as a planning concept.

wide sidewalk for walking with friends

References:

City of Boulder Comprehensive Housing Strategy: https://bouldercolorado.gov/city-council/comprehensive-housing-strategy-housing-boulder

Kyttä, Marketta. 2004. The extent of children’s independent mobility and the number of actualized affordances as criteria for child-friendly environments.  Journal of Environmental Psychology 24, 179-198.

Photo Credits:  Darcy Varney-Kitching (playground) and Boulder Youth (sidewalk)

Author: Victoria Derr

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