More than half of the world’s children are growing up in cities. By 2030, up to 60 per cent of the world’s urban population will be under 18 years old. Yet, children and families are often invisible to urban planners, developers, and architects when creating city-wide policies that impact transportation, air and noise pollution, as well as health and well-being.
A seminal report for the Brookings Institute authored by Helen Shwe Hadani, Jennifer S. Vey, Shwetha Parvathy, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek published recently has made an important intervention in prioritising the needs of children in urban planning across the globe.
The need to provide opportunities to children for learning and healthy development both in and out of school is the most vital of the report’s recommendations. As it is, deep inequalities plague the education systems in many countries, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only widened them.
Research in both the USA and India (highlighted in these columns earlier), to take the example of a developed and developing country respectively, has conclusively proven that children from lower-income households lag behind their more affluent peers in language and spatial skills, and that the pandemic has accentuated this trend to devastating effect.
Cities around the world are beginning to invest in Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL) ~ installations and programming that promote children and families’ learning through play in the public realm. The Indian government’s flagship Smart City mission, an urban renewal and retrofitting programme aimed at developing and making cities across the country citizenfriendly and sustainable, needs to incorporate this aspect fully into its objectives.
The global climate for building on the initiative is favourable; in the aftermath of the worst of Covid-19, a growing number of leaders understand the need to rethink neighbourhood investments to enhance health, well-being, and economic opportunity. And, as the report points out, there could be no better time to re-examine old views on how and where children develop the competencies and skills needed to thrive.
As the PLL movement continues to grow globally, it is important to underline that the existing installations have shown that PLL is effective at enhancing STEM and literacy skills and increasing child-caregiver interaction in ways that build social and mental capital.
PLL is, as experts point out, an emerging, interdisciplinary area of study and practice that reimagines the potential of cities as supportive ecosystems for children and families by marrying urban design and placemaking with the science of learning.
The key, however, remains scalability and sustainability. Cities including Chicago, Mumbai, and London among others are embracing PLL to support children’s learning outcomes and promote urban renewal, but many more urban centres need to join the effort to make our cities children-friendly in the deepest sense of the term.