Rather than thinking about traffic, trash or telecommunications, children could be the unifying factor that pulls a smart city strategy together.
When couples start a family, it’s a common trend that they move out of big cities and into the suburbs. This can lead to what Maria Vassilakou, Vice Mayor and Vice Governor, City of Vienna, calls the “suburban nightmare” where people then spend hours every day in cars commuting to work and school.
“It’s the exact opposite of the kind of city we should be working at,” Vassilakou said, speaking at the recent RICS World Built Environment Forum (WBEF) Summit in London.
This, she said, highlights why a smart city strategy to improve mobility, for example, shouldn’t start with cars, buses or bike-sharing.
“[Start with] a city that’s good for children,” Vassilakou commented. “Cities that are good for children are good for every generation.”
Over 1 billion children already live in urban settings and by 2030, 60% of all city-dwellers will be aged under 18, according to the United Nations. At the same time, many cities are facing something of an exodus when it comes to families.
The rate of Londoners leaving the capital is over 80% higher than it was five years ago, according to estate agency Savills. People in their thirties are the most likely to leave. Research from Seattle’s Planning Commission concluded that: “Seattle does not have enough housing that is suitably sized and affordable for low and middle-income families.”
Further, the high cost of living in places such as San Francisco, which famously has more dogs than kids, has led some to report the strange phenomenon that seeing children in the city is something of a rarity.
Richard Florida, an expert in urban demographics and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, told the New York Times that this trend in San Francisco made the city “a little bit more of a colder or harder place.”
There are other knock-on effects too. Arup’s Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods report, published last year, said that: “If cities fail to address the needs of children, they risk economic and cultural impacts as families move away.”
Jerome Frost, Global Cities Leader, Arup, notes: “The benefits of a child-friendly city go beyond children to add value to all citizens’ lives. The amount of time children spend playing outdoors, their ability to get around independently, and their level of contact with nature are strong indicators of how a city is performing, and not just for children but for all city dwellers. Perhaps uniquely, a child-friendly approach has the potential to unite a range of progressive agendas – including health and wellbeing, sustainability, resilience and safety – and to act as a catalyst for urban innovation.”
The dominance of cars in cities is considered one of the biggest barriers to child-friendliness, due to risks and fears of traffic accidents and because children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of traffic-related air pollution.
Making streets friendlier to children, through reducing cars, prioritising cycling and walking and introducing more green and play-friendly spaces, could also encourage people to take more exercise – research shows that high-density traffic, low air quality, pollution, lack of parks, sidewalks and sports/recreation facilities all discourage people from being more active outdoors.
While stopping people driving their cars in cities can raise hackles, making cities healthier and safer for children is something almost everyone can get on board with.
There is also evidence that child-friendly spaces could make cities safer. In Merseyside in the UK the introduction of a youth-oriented play space saw a 90% decrease in local anti-social behaviour, from 44 to 4 incidents.
The economy can benefit too. According to a report from University College London, $8 is returned to society for every $1 invested in early play-based education.
Creating child-friendly cities
As urbanisation and its effects intensify, we are starting to see more activity focused on making cities positive places for families and children.
Toronto recently released child-friendly guidelines for high-rise development, and Ghent in Flanders is aiming to be “the most child and youth-friendly city in Flanders”.
Bogota in Colombia and Recife in Brazil are piloting children’s priority zones to incorporate a focus on early childhood development into the design, planning and management of cities.
Arup’s report advises: “The actions that should be taken to achieve child-friendly cities vary across the globe. They depend on the specific local contexts, including climate, urban challenges and a city’s current level of child-friendliness. While some cities will first need to address basic needs such as sanitation or housing, other cities may focus on traffic safety, environmental pollution or child-engagement in the urban agenda.”
Cities are also finding that if you want to create child-friendly cities, you need to involve them in the process.
In Belfast, 7,000 children were asked what they liked and didn’t like about their neighbourhoods and what they would change.
Their insights helped form Children’s Voices – A Charter for Belfast and a report which found that children’s priorities are often the same as those of other groups, such as an accessible environment and rich social life.
As part of its commitment to co-creation, the City of Oulu in Finland asked 1,400 children and young people how they would like their city to be in 2026.
At the Smart to Future Cities event recently Piia Rantala-Korhonen, Director, Advisor to the Mayor of the City of Oulu, shared key takeaways from this research. Safety, cleanliness and “human values” featured highly, Rantala-Korhonen said, including taking good care of elderly citizens. Jobs were also high on the list.
Rantala-Korhonen commented: “Nowadays, youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems. It’s still 17%, one of the highest numbers in our country – maybe because we have so many youngsters in our city. It’s not so easy for them to find jobs… and many of them move to Helsinki. That’s something which we want to prevent in the future.”
Young people in Oulu said they want to live somewhere metropolitan – they envision skyscrapers, flying cars and an amusement park. The latter is “still on the agenda of our city council,” she said.
“Youngsters have a good imagination. They think that everything is possible in the future,” Rantala-Korhonen added. “Because I’m mother and grandmother, I really think that we owe the future to our children and grandchildren. That’s why we have to be very wise when we are making plans and decisions for the future.”
It’s undeniable that some problems driving families out of cities will be very hard to fix, particularly in the short term.
Maria Vassilakou noted that one of the reasons Vienna, which will be host to the Child In the City conference later this year, remains an attractive city is because it prioritises affordability, including social housing and cheap transport – over 60% of the city’s homes are social housing and people can travel around Vienna for a €1 per day, Vassilakou said.
Of course the question on everyone’s lips was: How can the city afford this? “
“Well, because we want to,” Vassilakou said. “Cities have budgets and it’s a matter of setting priorities.”
However, she noted it is also the result of “investment for over a century”, adding that spending on affordable housing is a “very powerful local economic driver.”
If there wasn’t so much affordable housing, the city would have to spend at least €500 per month on housing per family, which would add up to billions, Vassilakou explained: “Billions that are now part of the local economy, that are spent consuming different types of services and goods.”
Daycare and digitalisation
Speaking the RICS WBEF Summit, Ingela Lindh, CEO, City of Stockholm, highlighted that childcare is also a critical factor of child-friendly cities, to enable women to carry on working.
Sweden has a notoriously high tax rate but also a high fertility rate, and Stockholm remains a popular city to bring children up in.
Lindh said: “We need to have a really good daycare system so that women can and will want to go to work, and therefore pay into society, which is really necessary for us.
“A smart city needs digitalisation not just for the technology, but also for this fact. The fact is that the programme for the digitalisation in Stockholm now takes a starting point, not in the technology but in the fact that fewer people have to pay for [many] more people.”