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Leave town planning to five-year-olds – social impact is child’s play


The government has published evidence submissions from its ongoing inquiry into the impact of the built environment on children and young people. Following a deep dive into the findings, we discuss how the industry can get ahead of the curve when delivering social impact for children and young people in planning and urban design.

Brace yourself for a journey through the whimsical minds of five-year-olds and their take on building a community – one soft play area at a time.

What’s the problem?

When it comes to town planning, England has somehow missed the memo on creating spaces that nurture children’s growth and wellbeing. From traffic-dominated neighbourhoods to low-quality housing layouts, the woes include badly designed dense urban areas, a scarcity of accessible and open green spaces, and the heart-wrenching absence of places where kids can unleash their playful spirits.

Kids see the world differently

Children, it turns out, see, use and value the built environment in different ways to us. Their walk from school to the town centre means navigating poorly lit shortcuts we don’t know about; their ball games take place in areas simply not designed for play. Yet, they don’t get a seat at the table when it comes to deciding where street lighting and cameras are installed, or when outdoor spaces are being developed.

Why should we care?

Submissions to the inquiry carry the potential to redefine industry standards for planning, with Architecture for Kids citing that “Children and young people’s physical and mental health are in serious, long-term decline, exacerbated by multiple inequalities” in their evidence.

Kids today, walk to school and play on their own street considerably less than they did in the 70s, with less than a quarter of five-to fifteen-year-olds meeting the official one-hour target of physical activity per day.

Unequal access to outdoor play

Children’s opportunities to access green space and suitable outdoor play areas are significantly limited by economic deprivation, racial inequality, and even their gender, with evidence suggesting girls spend less time playing outdoors than boys.

What do children want?

“Children want to be outside and active, playing with friends, walking/cycling to school (and parents want this too)” says Architecture for Kids.

The children have spoken

According to the Children’s Commissioner’s 2021 survey of half a million children, their wishes were simple: spaces to play and have fun, freedom to walk to school safely, and opportunities to pursue the sports they love.
The key factor in enabling this is a good variety of safe, stimulating spaces, on families’ doorsteps and within easy walking distance.

Teenage dreams

It’s disheartening to learn – older kids wish for “spaces to go, because in almost all free public spaces it’s assumed we are causing trouble.” (Child, 14, The Big Ambition). The Children’s Commissioner survey also reveals teens’ desires for more amenities in deprived areas, ranging from affordable transport links to increased green spaces.

The findings shed light on the overlooked need for inclusivity in our built environment. Acknowledging these concerns can bring us closer to creating purpose-fit public spaces for children of all ages.

How can we provide it?

Lessons from ‘Finnishing’ School

The findings from Architecture for Kids draw inspiration from the innovative approach taken by Finland. In 2001, law mandated that all citizens, regardless of age, should actively participate in shaping their future environments. This directive sparked a commendable initiative in Finland, prompting local governments to engage children in participatory design processes. The success of this model showcases the transformative potential of including the youngest members of society in shaping the spaces they inhabit.

Move away from one-size-fits-all

It’s crucial to recognise that planning isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavour. The recognition that boys and girls, as well as different age groups, interact with urban spaces differently, underpins the importance of tailoring solutions to the diverse needs of children, of all ages, races, and genders.

Organisations such as Make Space for Girls assess how we can design spaces that address the bias presented in parks and play equipment, and public spaces designed with a default male perspective.

Early engagement

Planners must take proactive measures to consult with children, ensuring their unique views and priorities are considered in decisions from an early stage. This inclusive approach extends to children with diverse needs, such as those requiring accessible playgrounds and safer school surroundings.

The well-being of all children should be at the forefront of our collective efforts to build a healthier and more inclusive built environment, that delivers social impact for the generations to come.

Our solution – Leave town planning to five-year-olds

Our Managing Director, Nikki Davies spent a day with the real subject experts – a class of reception students planning a community they lovingly named Ladybirds. Soft play areas, a swimming pool, trees, parks, pavements, a doctor’s surgery, and even an optician made the cut.

Nikki’s Take: “It seems that children instinctively know how to create social impact through the places around them. It’s just the adults we have to remind that this is exactly what the built environment is there to do.”

After all, who better to design a playground than those who know how to play?

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