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How a children’s lens in planning shows the way to create better places for everyone

5 Mar 2024
By Tim Gill

In 2023 the Built Environment Trust (BET) had the pleasure of working with Tim Gill, independent researcher, writer and advocate for children’s play and mobility. Our work cumulated in a conference held at the Building Centre in November 2023. Towards a child-friendly London, the people making it happen heard from architects, politicians, journalists, developers and community activists about how great work is making changes to our capital and its children and young people.

This article has been written by Tim following the conference and as part of his and our continued work on raising the profile of children’s needs. The BET is committed to improving the built environment for all, in particular children who are often the most effected by poor planning.

It may not make the front pages, but an ongoing parliamentary inquiry could be big news for anyone who want to improve the health and wellbeing of the nation’s children - and to fix England’s broken planning system. The LUHC Select Committee inquiry into children and the built environment is a timely opportunity to take a close look at how the planning system treats children and young people. (For more on the inquiry, check out this article by architect and advocate Dinah Bornat; she and I gave oral evidence at the second session on 26th Feb 2024 alongside other built environment experts.)

The shadow cast by poor planning

At the first session of the inquiry, MPs heard a dismal assessment from health experts and campaigners. Too many neighbourhoods are poorly designed and planned, leading to chronic ill-health, sedentary lifestyles and social isolation for generations to come, thanks to traffic danger, polluted air and a lack of accessible green space for play and recreation. Outcomes are significantly worse for children living in poorer areas, ramping up health inequalities.

Despite making up almost 1 in 4 of our population, children are routinely ignored in planning decisions. A cursory look at the government’s National Planning Policy Framework – the foundation for the whole system in England – highlights the problem. Search for the word ‘child’ and you will find just one result, in connection with assessing housing needs. At the LUHC Select Committee inquiry MPs were told that lorry parking gets more attention.

One puzzle is that children, families, and public health were once central to planning, going back to the ideals of Victorian campaigners like Octavia Hill and Ebenezer Howard, and through to the radical, post-war modernist designs of urban housing estates in London, Newcastle and elsewhere. Yet over the last fifty years, the focus has gradually shifted away from designing for healthy, active communities.

What’s needed: people, processes and programmes

So what can we do about it? Having visited and studied over a dozen cities in Europe and beyond that have made real progress in becoming more child-friendly, I believe that change is in the air. Awareness is growing of the value of outdoor play, nearby nature, and walking and cycling (and scooting). And links are beginning to be made between children’s spatial lives and wider environmental issues such as air pollution and climate change (I argue in my book Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities).

Look hard enough, and you will find a handful of innovative, child-friendly schemes in England. At the BET event last November, the audience heard about Chobham Manor in London’s Olympic Park. It was designed from the outset to be child-friendly, sustainable and inclusive, and a 2022 post-occupancy evaluation found that families were happy and proud to live there, valued the sense of community, and wanted to stay. Crucially, The Green - a central, multi-functional public space - had become Chobham Manor’s “beating heart… whose social value was immense.”

Schemes like Chobham Manor show how a ‘children’s lens’ can tackle wider problems in housing planning and design. Solutions are badly needed; one of the few things in housing that everyone agrees on is that the current system is totally failing to create good human habitats.

Action is needed under three broad headings: people, processes, and programmes. First and foremost, we need people who can lead, get things done, and learn from the results. After its first hearing, LUHC Select Committee member Ian Byrne MP rightly called for political leadership from the Cabinet. But we also need – at national level – civil servants within the key Departments of LUHC and Transport, and – at local level – officials, politicians and community champions who can act as focal points and catalysts for change.

Second, we need processes: in other words, policies, guidance, indicators, participation methods and other tools that ensure children’s needs and views are not forgotten, and that hold decision makers to account. We in England can learn from tools like the Welsh government’s play sufficiency assessment (which Leeds City Council is using) and the Scottish Government’s child-oriented ‘Place Standard’ evaluation tool.

International experience can help too. In Germany, youth participation is well supported, while in Norway, local planning authorities are required by law to have an explicit focus on children. Similar laws were introduced in Sweden in 2020, and as a result Stockholm and Gothenburg, amongst other Swedish cities, are developing child impact assessment tools.

Third, we need programmes: well-defined strands of work with identified goals, timeframes, and resources, squarely aimed at making a difference to the everyday lives of children – and properly evaluated so we can learn from the results. Rotterdam provides an inspiring, insightful municipal case study (which is why I devote a whole chapter of Urban Playground to it).

Of course, programmes need funding. But the sums involved are small compared to the huge overall budgets spent on housing, planning and transport – and partnerships with the community/not-for-profit and private sectors can help unlock assets. What is more, the cost of doing nothing is immense, in terms of a lifelong burden of ill health.

Kids or cars?

Planning is a complex and politically charged activity, and will only become more fraught as we face up to climate change. Yet amongst all this complexity, one moral is clear: the more planning focuses on the car, the worse the results for children. Car-centric planning has led to many decades of sprawling, unsustainable housing patterns across much of suburban and rural England, while most larger English towns and cities have a legacy of poorly designed – and badly located - post-war urban housing estates.

This point should not be politically controversial. It was made forcefully in the inquiry submission from the think tank Create Streets (whose founder Nicholas Boys Smith heads up the government’s Office for Place). It also holds the key to why child-friendly planning should be embraced as a strategic opportunity, not side-lined as special-interest pleading. To quote Chris Boardman, former Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist and Commissioner for Active Travel England, children are “the emotional link for all of us.”

We have an urgent need for a strong, long-term consensus about what great places look and feel like. In her piece, Dinah Bornat calls for “a vision that looks beyond economic growth and home ownership and paints a picture of how to make healthy, happy, liveable places.” What better way to build this vision than to focus on the young of our species?

About the author

Tim Gill is an independent researcher, writer and consultant, and an advocate for children’s play and mobility. Find out more about his work on his website.