Six features of family-friendly planning

In this second part of her synopsis of one of the key themes of the recent Child in the City seminar in Rotterdam, Lia Karsten identifies that the key features of successful urban planning for families are quite straightforward. The challenge, she says, is to embed them as principles within the planning process – and to ensure that children are recognised and supported as full stakeholders.

Having established that the modern city must respond to the needs of diverse communities, including especially children and families, the next question, of course, is: how do we build this principle into the established features of modern urban planning? The Child in the City international seminar in Rotterdam in June – looking at the lived experience of the city’s own urban renaissance programme ­– identified six important factors in designing and planning the child and family friendly city.

1 Housing

Cities should not only build 25 square meter studios, but housing with at least two, ideally three bedrooms. There should be plenty of storage space, balconies and some form of communal outdoor space such as a community garden or play area. As Marielle Heijmimk of Rotterdam explained, these features should be present in both the rented and the owner-occupied sector. They were evident in the highly desirable new housing development on the sight of a former prison in the north of the city, the site for one of our field trips.

Suitable housing is the first and most important factor in attracting and maintaining families in the city. Should it all be for single people? Clearly not. This is about urban family housing. In the Dutch context, there are probably not many families interested in high-rise living, but that may depend on how those apartments are designed. There needs to be a lot more research on what family apartment housing is about (see also Karsten, 2015). Rotterdam has started with a design competition for family friendly apartment building. Let’s learn from that experiment!

2 Spaces and places for children

Children need special places to grow up. Schools are of course a priority, but to retain families in the city, good quality childcare is just as important, and usually comes first. My research shows that the networks formed through
childcare help families to settle and remain in an area. And of course playgrounds –green, adventurous and engaging – are vital. So too are sports pitches or multi-use games areas (MUGAs). Kids need somewhere to kick balls around, and throw hoops.

Many Dutch cities make good use of their schoolyards for wider community use, rendering a valuable public asset more flexible and responsive to local families and their children. These spaces need to be of a high quality. The seminar heard from Jasper Schipperijn about how to design healthy outdoor space within school grounds; places that invite children to exercise. And Niels Meijer explained how to improve the quality of schoolyards through the Johan Cruyff programme, so that more children can benefit from new, well-designed playgrounds.

3 Inclusive, high quality public space

We must not forget that families are citizens, residents like all others. Children and adults are equal in their search for an urban quality of life. This is about more than play! It is also about urban space that invites encounters: enabling children and older people, families with and without children, different classes and ethnicities, to meet and interact. Cities need public space that engenders diverse, inclusive, intergenerational activity. Social cohesion and space that is safe for everyone will be the result.

Urban planning should aim to promote encounters; residents of all ages and backgrounds sharing time and space with each other.

Urban planning should aim to promote such encounters; residents of all ages and backgrounds sharing time and space with each other. Naomi Felder indicated how to design family inclusive public space, streets and squares. Families who like cities want to meet ‘the other’ citizens. They do not like the homogeneity of the suburbs, but rather choose ‘the urban haven’, as I have called it in my research.

4 Greening the city

This means, among other things: green streets, traffic calmed areas, attractive squares, safe, slow traffic routes, good places to sit, urban parks, broad sidewalks. This fourth point is about high quality urban space for all citizens. Natural, sustainable environments are a very important dimension of the new urbanism, as we heard from Annemieke Fontein. This is particularly so for a city like Rotterdam, with its industrial history. Families have often been heard to complain about the hard surfaces of the city, the scarcity of parks and green spaces. The urban renaissance happening here is characterized very much by the city’s determination to become greener.

5 Knowledge-based urban planning.

Instead of the trial and error that seems to often guide the planning process, much more research should be done to provide a strong evidence base for urban interventions. I would like to make a plea – and many of the workshop participants agreed – to do more evaluative research before and after interventions.

Each of these five points is easy to communicate. This is important because, as we saw during the seminar, there are many different stakeholders working together to construct the city of the future. It is not any longer simply the local government alone who takes the initiative for interventions, or takes responsibility for new developments.

6 Children as stakeholders

My final plea is that within the wealth of ideas and creativity, generating all kinds of initiatives in our new ‘urban laboratories’, children become more recognised as a stakeholder group, their voices stronger and better supported in the planning process. This is their city too. Indeed, they will live here longer than any of us.

Photo: The Noordsingel complex in Rotterdam, on the site of a former prison. Cepezed

Read the first part of this article here

Author: Lia Karsten

Lia Karsten (MSc/ Ph.D.) is President of the Child in the City Scientific Committee and an associate professor of Urban Geographies at the University of Amsterdam. She is an internationally recognized expert in the field of urban childhood, changing family life and the use of urban public space. She has published several books and many papers in high standard scientific journals. Lia is the author of the most cited paper in Children’s Geographies (Karsten, 2005). In 2013 she received an honorary doctorate from the Uppsala University, Sweden. She was a visiting professor in Hong Kong and New York.

1 comment op “Six features of family-friendly planning”

Tommy Ogren|14.09.17|18:38

All of this makes great sense. I would add just one thing: while children in the city do need more green space, more trees, more places to run and play….all “green” is not equal. To be family-friendly these public green areas should also, all of them, be planted to be allergy-friendly, asthma-friendly.

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