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Incorporating Children in Neighbourhood Design and Planning By Nikmatul Adha Nordin (email@example.com) & Wan Rafyah Wan Muhd Zin (firstname.lastname@example.org) Urban Studies & Planning Programme, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Malaya, KL
Introduction Kuala Lumpur is a young city. According to Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2020, 27% of its population was children below the age of 15. However, Kuala Lumpur children have little voice in public decision-making. While the KL Structure Plan boasted to be recognized as a world-class city by 2020 by projecting metropolitan image with its “mega” structures, however, its development growing without consciousness to the needs of the most important but marginalized group in our society - the children. Despite growing up in a “city of fame”, they breathe the worst quality of air, travel the most congested streets and suffer from a lack of space to play. Kuala Lumpur can only be an exemplary and sustainable world city if it is also a children-friendly city, in which the rights of its children are both recognized and ensured. This can only happen if the interests of children and young people are incorporated into how our neighbourhoods’ future are planned in transport, housing and in environmental improvements. Conceptualizing Children-Friendly City The term “city for children” or “children-friendly city” is not something unheard of to planners and decision-makers around the world. London City Hall for example, endorsed children’s needs in city design by taking the initiative to come out with strategies and guidelines on creating a “child-friendly London”. Similarly in San Francisco, some sort of recognition on the need to incorporate children in city design have been made by introducing infrastructure that is specially catered to the need of our so-called future leaders. US, through its Kids Friendly Cities Report Card came out with indicators that illustrates the well-being of the children in the country (Cline, 2004).
However, what does it exactly mean by Children-Friendly City? According to UNICEF under its Child Friendly Cities Initiative (CFCI), a children-friendly city is a city that puts “Children First”. It is a city where the voices, needs, priorities and rights of the children are integrated in public policies, programmes and decisions. In a children-friendly city, children should be able to express their opinions on the kind of city that they want and influence decisions about their city. According to Trante and Malone (2003), despite the diversity of the places where they live, children value similar qualities in their urban environments. The list of qualities for good urban environment include provision for basic needs, social integration, safety and free movement, peer gathering places and safe green spaces (Malone, 2001; Chawla, 2002). Quality places for children are also places where they feel protected from criminal threats, pollution and traffic danger. They should be places where children are free to walk freely on their own, meet friends and play in a secure and unpolluted environment. They should be allowed to grow up in a vibrant and stimulative environment that helps to satisfy their inquisitive minds and insatiable desire to explore their surroundings. In a children-friendly city, every child is treated as an equal citizen of which he has access to every service. Children-friendly city should be able to make children feel welcome and valued as part of the society. This is to promote social integration and to avoid children from feeling alienated and marginalised (Malone and Hasluck, 2002). So, why the need to focus on children? The need to focus on children is simply because, no matter how often we say it, it needs repeating : our children ARE the future. They are the next leaders and policy-makers in the next millenium. The dynamism and prosperity of our city is depending on them. In a children-friendly city, children and youth are viewed not as part of the problems, but as part of the solutions. UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) declared that the well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society, good governance and sustainable development (UNICEF, 1997). If the goals of sustainability are not achieved, then it will not only affect children, but also other members of the wider community.
Meeting The Children’s Needs A children-friendly city cannot be created overnight. The starting point in creating a conducive environment for our young children is from the neighbourhood design – the immediate surroundings of our homes. Urban neighbourhoods should ideally provide a secure, welcoming transition to the larger world; they should be places where children can play safely, run errands, walk to school, socialize with friends, watch and learn from the activities of others, and begin to accept and enjoy differences that exist in our multicultural society.
It has been widely acknowledged that physical and social characteristics of the environment play vital roles in influencing children’s development. Neighbourhoods are considered as parts of a child’s microsystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The microsystem for very young children started with his immediate family and becoming more complex as they mature and exposed to the world outside their homes. As such, neighbourhoods become important development contexts for children’s early socialization and adaptation to the community system. A children-friendly neighbourhood is also a healthy neighbourhood. Ho (1997) indicated that a healthy housing should be able to promote a sense of well-being, a sense of security and a sense of place in community. By promoting sense of well-being, it will contribute to the betterment of physical health of the community. In relation to children’s well-being, physical health could be promoted by allowing them to engage in active play. Sense of security could be achieved by eliminating fear factors such as fear of victimization and fear of getting injured. In a healthy neighbourhood, children should be able to explore their neighbourhoods to enjoy what they have to offer. Parents in healthy neighbourhoods should be able to let their children play outside their homes without any worry. This will definitely promote to a sound mental health. Sense of place in community denotes that no one in the community – not even a small child – feel deprived from enjoying every service in the neighbourhood. By feeling included in a neighbourhood activities, it will definitely boost one’s social health. In order to create a perfect place for our children to live and thrive, we must first learn what are children’s needs and rights and examine on how neighbourhood planners could offer practical measures that help to create a better environment for our children. The focus of the paper will concentrate on how our neighbourhoods should satisfy the three most important needs of children: the need to play, the need to independent mobility and the need to feel protected from criminal threats. By satisfying these 3 important needs, it will lead to the promotion of their sense of well-being, sense of security and sense of place in community – vital elements in a healthy human habitat. • The need to play
It is a well-known fact that free-playing outdoor have great benefits for children’s physical and mental growth. The inclusion of “spaces for children to play” begins at planning level. According to planning policies, developers are required to surrender 10% of total development area for open spaces and recreation (including playground). The JPBD planning standards and guidelines also specify that the location of the playground must not be more than 0.5 hectares from users and the recommended size of the site should be 0.2 – 0.6 hectares, depending on the size of the population it serves. This very general guideline however, did not help in securing an appropriate location for our children to play. It is common to find a playground situated by a busy road exposing children to road accidents. Even the design and maintenance of the playground, which supposedly specially designated for our children, neglect some basic safety aspects. There are too many hazards could be found at the playground such the use of open drain, drops in levels or uneven ground that hinder children to run around freely and safely. It
is also common to find a playground which is too secluded and unsafe for the use of the residents, let alone children. When designing a neighbourhood, it is important for the planner to bear in mind that children do not just play at playgrounds but they play everywhere. Children are generally resourceful and creative in finding recreational activities. They play ball in street, jump off construction materials, skip rope on sidewalks and create ingenious games of skill with whatever comes to hand (Bartlett, 1999). Therefore efforts should be made to provide stimulating and diverse areas within the local community which can accommodate a wide range of activities. For example, skateboarding/cycling track can be incorporated with pedestrian walkways with markings in between to separate those activities. Parents usually prefer their young children to play close to home. In designing a new housing scheme, planners should be creative enough to arrange housing units around a shared space that can be used by our small children to play. With our existing dwellings, common areas can be created by means of fencing or plants. Even the smallest pockets of plants can be improved to meet the needs of young children. A low wall (which can also be created by plant hedges) can be created along the perimeter of this area to protect young children from dashing out to streets. In planning recreation area, it is also important for the planner to recognize that children are not homogenous – they belong to different age groups. In this light, the provision of recreational facilities should suit to their development and play needs. Play areas should be designed to recognize and minimize the differences and potential conflicts between interests of different age groups. The conflicts could be reduced by separating play areas for different age groups and this can be achieved either by landscaping, surface treatment, or a change of grade within the common open space. Our neighbourhood should provide a safe and accessible space for the children to play in order not to deprive them from their freedom to play. Inappropriate location and illmaintenance of playgrounds may cause parents to prohibit their children from playing at their nearby playgrounds. As a result, children are kept locked in their own homes and forbidden from enjoyable and healthy outdoor activities. This continuous disassociation from natural environment may result an aversion to nature. They may have less affection to nature and will grow up with less empathy towards the need of conserving natural resources. •
The need for independent mobility
Children and young people should be able to move freely and safely around their local neighbourhoods and the rest of the city. They need to be able to travel to their schools and anywhere else in the city to enjoy what it has to offer. Good mobility means safe and secure transport, where the risks of accidents and crime are minimized. In regards of this, planners should take into consideration the physical and social environment within
which they live and travel for examples the roads they cross, the proximity of their schools and the levels of security from criminal threats in their local area. Children’s independent mobility is low in Kuala Lumpur neighbourhoods. In comparison with children in rural area, children in urban environment have lower levels of freedom to walk to school with their friends, cycle on the roads, visit friends, use public transport, cross main roads and go out after dark. Children today have less freedom to travel on their own compared to children in the last generation. One common characteristic in urban neighbourhoods is heavy traffic. As our roads become dangerous, more parents choose to drive their children or arrange school buses to transport their school-going children. These contribute to increased levels of danger for the remaining pedestrians. On top of that, there are also important environment implications of children’s loss of freedom such as the increasing level of carbon monoxide in the air we breathe. Independent access to local environment is important for children’s personal, intellectual and psychological development (Moore, 1986). By accessing to their local environment by themselves, it helps in creating a sense of belonging to the communities they live. Children love to play. Walking and cycling to schools or to other destinations provide genuine play activities. Cunningham et al. (1996) relate that when children are taken to school by car, “there were no opportunities for kicking rocks or toads, looking for dead birds, making friends with animals, playing, or simply dawdling along with friends – all activities remarkable in adult eyes but part of experience and development of childhood”. Inappropriate provision of land uses also contribute to the loss of independent mobility of children. In urban neighbourhoods, it is common to find schools located by busy roads. Schools in urban area, especially secondary schools, usually serve very wide catchment areas, thus creating an almost impossible situation for children to walk or cycle to school. In planning our neighbourhood, it is wise for us to look back and reflect to early neighbourhood concepts that emphasize schools as the focus of neighbourhoods. Clarence Stein, in his planning of Radburn city (Figure 1), emphasized that primary school should be located within acceptable walking distance from housing units. Steins acknowledged the need of housewives to walk their young children to school without having to leave their homes for too long. Walkways are created from the back of their homes right to the school. Apart from enabling the young school-goers to go to school safely, this also create a platform for the residents in the neighbourhood to socialize as they are sharing common space.
Figure 1: Radburn – an example of a children-friendly neighbourhood In order to create a children-friendly neighbourhood, planners hold the responsibility to make sure that children’s safety is well-taken care of as soon as they step out of their front gates. Sidewalks and bicycle paths should be provided to enable them to explore their neighbourhood. In some higher-end recent housing development, bicycle paths are provided in the neighbourhood. However, the question is – do the paths connect to where they want to go, for examples – to their schools? Efforts to improve children’s independent mobility take more than just providing walkways and bicycle paths. There is a need to ensure that it is really safe for them to walk and cycle. Residential areas should be closed to through traffic. Traffic flow in residential streets need to be slowed down. The speed limit in residential areas should be limited to at least 30 km/h along with traffic calming measures (Figure 2). Residential streets with speed limits of 30 km/h including traffic calming measures are 2-3 times safer than the same streets with speed limits of 50 km/h and no traffic calming. This is due to a shorter brake distance, a wider visual scope of the driver and a minor injury rate in 30 km/h residential zones (O’Brien, 2004).
Figure 2: Examples of traffic calming measures in residential areas
The need to feel protected from crime and violence
A children-friendly neighbourhood should be safe from all threats of criminals. In order to create a livable neighbourhood that is ideal for children development, it is important for the residents particularly the children and their parents to feel free from fear of victimization. Parents should be able to feel at ease letting their children learn and play in stimulating outdoor environment. If the parents feel that their neighbourhoods are not safe enough, it is only natural for them to prohibit their children to play outside their house compound. This may cause children to feel socially deprived and lead to boredom. There may be an important link between traffic and fears of assault and molestation in residential streets (Tranter and Malone, 2003). Urban community is relying on motor vehicles to go anywhere – even to the playground. This will result to less people around on the streets to provide surveillance and support for the children. Eventually, residential streets will be perceived as deserted, lonely and hence dangerous spaces for children. One of a very effective measures on preventing crime is by increasing natural and informal surveillance in a neighbourhood. Natural surveillance is thought to be an ideal form for crime deterrence, not only because residents may see the offender, but more importantly because offenders think they will be seen. Natural surveillance could be promoted by creating a mix of land uses to increase public spaces. This may overcome certain area from becoming “dead” in the evenings, at night or on weekends. In terms of crime prevention through environmental design, landscaping can contribute to the safety of a neighbourhood area by allowing good sightlines in areas that are usually frequent by children. Landscaping at pedestrian walkway should take into consideration on the height of children. Shrubs planted along the walkway should not detract from children’s visibility nor should it create secluded areas. Care should be taken in the selection of all plants, bearing in mind their shapes and sizes as they mature. In designing a neighbourhood, planners should also develop an understanding on how the built environment creates opportunities for crime. Australian Territorial Governmnent (2000), in its crime prevention manual, emphasize that it is important for planners to conduct a risk assessment process prior to developing design strategies. In risk assessment process, a crime analysis should be conducted in order to develop an understanding on the levels of security of the study area. By conducting risk assessment process, areas identified as hotspots could be recognized and this will help planners to come out with policies or strategies on lessening the opportunities for crime to occur. It is helpful to investigate children’s perception on the security level in their neighbourhoods. Nayak (2003) incorporated children’s perspectives on the level of safety in the North East of United Kingdom by surveying children aged 12-15. M.Farver, Ghosh and Gracia (2000) took a more qualitative approach by asking children in the age of 7-11 years old to draw pictures of their neighbourhood (Figure 3). By understanding fear of crime “through children’s eyes”, it provide us rich empirical detail with which to redraw the community from their perspectives (Nayak, 2003)
Figure3: Drawn by children in response to, “Draw what goes on in your neighbourhood?”
Source: Farver, Ghosh and Garcia (2000)
Innovation in Housing Design Discussion in previous paragraphs highlighted that children-friendly neighbourhood could be conceptualized by promoting more people to use the streets and providing opportunities for children to explore and play around their neighbourhood with minimal fear of getting injured by road accident. By encouraging community to use their open area more often, it helps to create a livelier environment, thus alleviating fear of crime among the residents – all these important elements in creating sense of belonging. In Malaysia, terrace housing has become the stereotyped form of housing layout. Apart from highrise flats, terrace housing has long been considered as the densest form of property development. However, these rows of boring units have little impact on promoting community interaction and public security. Mazlin Ghazalli, in his award winning “honeycomb housing”, recognized the importance of promoting social interaction by arranging housing units, not in rows, but in cluster. In the concept, houses are built within hexagonal-shaped land and each hexagon contains eight to 16 units of houses, all looking a communal park in the middle. All these hexagons are combined to form a “honeycomb”, and the township is interconnected with looping roads that are safe for children, pedestrians and cyclists.
Figure 4: The “Honeycomb Housing” concept
Source: Davis, M.P. et al. (2005)
This concept is seen to have incorporated criteria needed to create a children-friendly environment. However, many developers relayed their fear on adopting the concept as they have doubts about obtaining approvals from the local authorities.
Planning with and for Children Experience indicates that the building process of a children-friendly city can start in different ways: from the top down – with governmental resolution that is coordinated among all levels of government. Or bottom-up – from a small neighbourhood initiative (O’Brien, 2004). For the children-friendly city to be conceptualized, it needs combination of both approaches in which both situation involve planners’ roles. Davidoff’s (1965) advocacy planning theory emphasized that planners should become spokesman and spokeswomen for various groups, particularly the most disadvantaged groups. He reiterated that “City planning is a means for determining policy. Appropriate policy in a democracy is determined through political debate. The right course of action is always a matter of choice, never a fact. Planners should engage in the political process as advocates of the interests of government and other groups". In this light, it is important for the planners or decision-makers to provide a platform in which children – as the most disadvantaged group in a society – able to voice out their needs and rights. The UN’s Child Friendly Cities program is promoting the need to include the children’s need in urban planning but also to involve children in the planning process. The rationale for children’s participation in planning is that they have fresh perspectives on the local environment as it pertains to their needs. At present, our planning is done in homogenous manner by focussing on adults, neglecting the fact that our children use the neighbourhood space quite differently from adults. For examples, when we conduct transport and traffic study, do we really take into account the routes that children take to go to school, tuition and playground? Such understanding is critical for improving access to leisure and recreational activities.
Examples from around the world show that there are many ways to involve children in planning process. Greater London Authority ( 2003) in its Towards a child-friendly London suggested the establishment of Young Londoners Forum to act as a platform for their children to participate in planning and decision-making process. The Centre for Sustainable Transportation’s (2004) Kids on the Move project engaged 140 elementary students in a discussion of their neighbourhood, where they like to travel, how they usually travel, and what kind of neighbourhood they would create. In Canada, the Ontario Walkability Study (2001) conducted a comprehensive survey on 6000 elementary school children to understand children’s experiences and hindrances they encountered while walking. Malone and Hasluck (2002) actually followed on foot a group of young people on bicycles to understand their mobility pattern. Cities need to be more responsive to children. Greater inclusion and participation among children and young people is a key driver for improving the quality of their lives. This may include creation of new policies and new practices which engage children. The children’s well-being should be placed at the centre of policy-making. Recently there is a growing awareness on the need of social impact assessment to gauge social consequences of policies, strategies and projects on public as a whole. In creating children-friendly cities, planners or decision-makers should go the extra mile by conducting Children Impact Assesment. This is importan to ensure that there is a systematic process to assess nthe impact of law, policy and practice on children. Children Impact Assessment should be carried out early enough in the process of policy formulation to enable it to influence decision-making. Once new policy or law are implemented, there should be continuing assessment of the actual impact on children. Children’s direct involvement in the process is essentail as children can provide a clearer picture on the impact of law or policy on their lives.
Concluding Thoughts Children are naive and totally dependent on adults. Because they have longer future of any group in society, they are the ones who are more affected than adults by the conditions under which they live, by poverty, by poor housing, environmental pollution, traffic danger and so on. At the same time, as they represent the future, they direct policy making toward long-term planning; the same orientation that sustainable development requires (Chawla, 2001). Past researches dealing with children-friendly cities and neighbourhoods present the case that communities which make special efforts to meet the needs of children will benefit the community as a whole. This is because many of the efforts to improve children’s mobility involve creating more opportunities for active transportation, making neighbourhoods safer for cycling and walking. By creating more opportunities to walk, cycle or skateboard, the communities will have cleaner environment which will be beneficial not only for children, but to all spectrum of the community. By encouraging people to use street more often, it will bring back the livability of the neighbourhood,
promoting natural surveillance and thus minimizing risks associated with violence and crime. Planning for a children-friendly neighbourhood should be done in a holistic approach, incorporating social, physical and community development strategies. Principles on creating children-friendly environment should be embraced right from the first stage of planning, and not just as a checklist within neighbourhood environment.
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Farver, J. A. M., Ghosh, C. and Garcia, C. (2000) Children’s Perceptions of Their Neighbourhoods, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, March-April, pp 139169. Greater London Authority City Hall (2003) Toward a Child Friendly London: The Mayor s Draft Children and Young People Strategy , London: City Hall London Ho, K.M. (1997) The Planning and Administrative Framework for promoting Healthy Housing Development. Conference on Housing and Community in the 21st Century, Penang, 7-18 Nov. Malone, K. (2001) Editorial: Children, Youth and Sustainable Cities. Environment, 6, (1), pp. 5-12. Local
Malone, K. and Hasluck, K. (2002) Australian Youth: aliens in suburban environment, in Chawla, L. (Eds) Growing in an Urbanising World. London: Earthscan/UNESCO, pp. 81-109. Moore, R.C. (1986) Childhood s Domain: Play and Place in Child Development. London: Crook Helm. Nayak, A. (2003) ‘Through children’s eyes,: childhood, place and the fear of crime, Geoforum (34), pp 303-315. O’Brien, C. (2001) Ontario Walkability Study, Trip to School: Children s Experiences and Aspirations. (http://www.saferoutestoschool.ca) O’Brien, C. (2004). Planning Transportation for and with Children: Good news for Pedestrians and Cyclists. NCBW Forum (10). Tranter, Paul J, Malone, Karen. (2003) Out of bounds: Insights from children to support a cultural shift towards sustainable and child-friendly cities. State of Australian Cities National Conference, Sydney. 3-5 Dec. UNICEF (1997) Children s Rights and Habitat: Working Toward Child-Friendly Cities. New York: UNICEF.
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