2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID-19 Pandemic

Right to the city for children: from value driven discourse to transformative actions

Thursday 10 September 2020  /  Series 5 (September) - Webinar 2

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The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture / The Journal of Public Space), Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Gregor Mews, (Urban Synergies Group / Queensland University of Technology, Australia). This webinar is part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. This webinar zoomed into the topic of the right to the city from the perspective of children, particularly during the pandemic, drawing insights from experts and practitioners in United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and the United States.


Introductory note

Gregor Mews, Urban Synergies Group / Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Gregor opened the webinar by sharing Urban Synergies Group’s perspective statement on Right to the city with the co-created principles, referencing Henri Lefebvre’s perspective of viewing the city as a collective, and the right to the city as a “meaningful way of participating and co-creating the city”. Following this line of thought, Gregor made several statements regarding the city: the city can be conceived as a piece of art, spaces where people can meet, socialize, play together and choose their forms of social connections. Culturally diverse and inclusive for all, we should also respect each other and everything around us. Via several co-design exercises in Canberra, the team further expanded on the notion of the right to the city and came up with few principles: ‘right to public spaces and places’, ‘right to playful quality experiences’, ‘right to diversity and trust’, ‘right to time’, ‘right of movement’, and ‘right to a healthy and safe environment’.  


Insight from Speakers

Tim Gill, independent researcher, United Kingdom

Drawing on his book “Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities”, Tim focused the discussion on progressing from values to action on child-friendly planning. First, the two dimensions to define child-friendly places are plentiful things to do and high levels of children’s mobility, shifting the emphasis from formal participation to actual children’s lived experiences in the city. Tim then drew on the insights from examining a dozen cities and their efforts on creating child-friendly cities. The rationale behind pushing child-friendly cities clustered around three aspects: children’s rights, health and well-being, sustainability and community, and economy and demography. Interestingly, most cities were able to create win-win situations by understanding the wider benefits and making the case for better children’s experiences. Tim felt that the strongest driver among all is making a moral case for progressive planning, as putting up the children’s lens to help decision-makers of cities focus more on long-term and collective wellbeing angles. 

Tirana in Albania, over the last five years, has taken proactive steps to make the built fabric more child-friendly and have placed children as a moral compass to rebuild the city in all aspects, namely social, cultural, economic, and environmental. Tim felt that this is specifically interesting as the city and the country have suffered greatly under communism and through the transition to capitalism. Initiatives like pop-up bike lanes and new public spaces have seriously taken children’s experiences into the picture to build consensus. Tim concluded a synthesis of these cities with 1) four building blocks - including streets, walking and cycling networks, public space, housing, with streets being the most important, 2) a list of principles - highlighting “count what counts”, emphasizing the need of measurement and evaluation, and to gather more data to support this agenda, 3) and an implementation model aimed at municipality bureaucracy that has the greatest scope of action, with one or a few politicians being the driver at the center. Finally, Tim shared 10 strategic indicators for assessing a child-friendly neighbourhood, so as to better drive actions and measure changes.


Robyn Monro-Miller, President, International Play Association on Right to Play (UN-Convention of the Rights of the Child), United Kingdom

IPA’s goal is to protect, preserve, and promote the child’s right to play as a fundamental human right, basing on the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Play is fundamental to children, intrinsic, and motivated from within, even in environments they are not allowed, children are able to create play opportunities and act as co-creators in the space. Instead of looking at play as an indulgence to children, it is actually fundamental to all living creatures with complex social relationships. Robyn advocated that ensuring that our youngest can play is a biological imperative so that we do not interfere with our own evolution and how we function as a society. Quoting Lester and Russell 2010 -  “In supporting children’s right to play attention must be paid not simply to the external expressions of play, but to the conditions in which “playfulness” thrives.” - Robyn reminded all that we are not to provide play, but the conditions that let it thrive.

UNCRC General Comment No 17 (2013) is an important document that is often overlooked, yet in addition to state actors, it targets private sectors and NGOs, even provides guidance to parents and those working with children on how to support and facilitate the right to play. In addition, it provides the legal analysis and links Article 31 on the child’s right to play to other principles and articles in UNCRC, creating a context for implementation. Although the document was written in 2013, the barriers to play highlighted - namely lack of recognition of the importance of play, unsafe and hazardous environments, resistance to children’s use of public spaces, balancing risk and safety - are not out of date. Right now play equipment serve as the sign of where children can go and play, it is important to look at how we can make other spaces more accessible and let children understand that they are allowed and safe to use. Bringing up the idea of ‘permission to play’, Robyn agreed that there is a trend of people returning to the streets and closing off roads for play, involving children not just as part of the play process but the interaction of the community, with great examples from Japan, England, and the recent government initiative of creating 1000 safe play streets in Australia. 

IPA’s website (www.IPAworld.org) provides a wealth of free resources for implementing play, in particular, the current focus of parents and carers is how to offer play in a crisis like COVID-19, where play environment is more restricted and perhaps have to take place indoors.


Paul Tranter, School of Science, University of South Wales in Canberra, Australia

Paul took us back to the start of the 20th century when streets were actually public spaces for all. It was until the 1920s when public spaces became poorer as cities’ transport policies focused on increasing speed on faster roads, people lost their right to the city and even the permission to cross the streets. With such context, Paul suggested a powerful notion: “Much of what is wrong with public and transport in cities can be greatly alleviated if we can find ways just to slow down.” In his book “Slow Cities: Conquering our Speed Addiction for Health and Sustainability” co-authored with Rodney Tolley, Paul suggested that slow cities are more liveable, sustainable, healthier, and more child-friendly. There are in general two synergistic strategies to create slow cities, 1) reduce the speed of motorised travel, 2) encourage greater use of the slow modes including walking, cycling and public transport. At the same time, there are two crucial elements of a child-friendly city: children’s freedom to safely, independently and playfully explore their neighbourhoods, and their sense of connection to the local environment and community. Speed affects children more than adults and Paul suggested car speeds be kept at 30km/h to reduce road danger. Increased speed has also led to urban sprawl, and the closing of local shops, schools, and hospitals made slower modes of transport (which are also the child-friendly modes) less viable. Children prefer to walk and cycle as it is a playful experience. Active transport is healthy for child development and can lead to a reduced risk of depression, hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Slower modes allow more “eyes on the streets” to look after children, and active modes provide children with independent mobility at their own pace.

Paul felt that COVID-19 is the necessary catalyst for change as it shows that we can reclaim public space, including streets, quickly. Under lockdowns, streets have become a playful environment with children walking and decorating the places. Many people were able to experience elements of slow cities during the pandemic. The crisis also exposed the inequitable distribution of public space, with a lot of sidewalks and bike lanes being too narrow to maintain 2-metre bubbles. The opening up of streets was made possible only by the decline of motorised traffic, allowing new and widened bike lanes and sidewalks. Even then, people still think that speeding up saves time and the economy. Paul argued that speed instead steals our time, money, health and public space, and believed that “child-friendly cities must be slower cities, and slow cities are child-friendly cities, and both are healthier for us all.”


Joshua Lam, Hong Kong Public Space Initiative (HKPSI), Hong Kong

HKPSI is a charity that promotes a better quality of public spaces in Hong Kong. It advocates play as a way of tactical urbanism to promote interaction and provoke imaginations in public space. The impetus to activate underutilized public spaces led the team to create projects utilizing popular local games such as giant Jenga to engage the public. Play successfully served as a seed to induce joyful interactions not only for children but for the wider community - the ring of spectators who stopped and watched the game. The influences of play spilt over to more. 

HKPSI conducted 25 rounds of play experiment over the past five years at underutilized spaces of different typologies such as introducing play on streets, experimenting private street as community living rooms, leveraging off-hour school premise for communal use, and exploring the possibility of friendlier management and reduced interference in privately owned public spaces. Joshua cited an example in 2016 when the team brought play elements to a temporarily pedestrianized street over the weekend, visualizing the possibility of long-term pedestrianization of this road that’s otherwise filled with vehicular traffic in the Central Business District. Play worked as a streamlined engagement of people of different ages, facilitating them to voice out opinions.

Consolidating the team’s experiences with the Jenga, Joshua shared insights into how play can change a place. Every time “a moment of eureka” evoked when one child suggested to others to collaborate and build, the children would then discuss, interact, imagine, and create. The team catalogued all the ways children had interacted with the Jenga, realizing that different behaviours took place according to the typologies: temporary public spaces induced play in prescribed ways but public housing estates unleashed most creativity like block fights as children are familiar with the place and each other. Referencing to the theory of “affordance of play”, Joshua believed that play unfolds beyond their design intention so that users could make their own place, ultimately enhancing interaction and cooperation to create a better place. 



Benjamin Shirtcliff, Iowa State University, United States

Benjamin pinpointed that the title of the webinar and all the presentations showed that we are at a point of transition. Agreeing with Robyn's value proposition of children’s intrinsic right and value of play, Benjamin revealed how we have however attached that right to a single environment, i.e. playground, stripping children and cities of their values to us. Paul’s concept of the slow city is the change necessary to shift our priorities and value these intrinsic values and rights. As children grow up from immature to mature state, they are trying out new things like identities, bodies, testing them out in public and social environments. This is fundamental to their development into active citizens and future leaders. If we isolate them in a single environment instead of providing them with a rich public space environment, their societal developments are blocked, their abilities to adapt to society to changing needs are affected. Raising the issue of climate change, Benjamin felt that children are the most adaptive, as Tim pointed out - children's lenses have the long-term focus and form the common ground that different stakeholders in cities can circle around and commit to. Slowing down is one of the great ways to achieve that as Paul had illustrated clearly. At the core of this discussion is to leverage the opportunity now for transformative actions, focusing on co-creation and recognizing interdependence; Benjamin emphasized that we cannot keep prescribing environments for children, instead, we have to involve them as co-creators and give them the time and tools as they naturally subvert and create better adaptive cities.


Roundtable discussion

Which areas are considered as more potential for such playful appropriations? i.e. particularly in relation to morphological properties.

Robyn: Anywhere - children will use any space in the way they want to. Loose parks are rich for play opportunities, as children can modify, make and engage with different play scripts and scenarios. A study in India showed that children intended to pick a space where there is more scope for them to use the equipment, move around and create opportunities without being managed or disciplined or having to keep the place clean. In this case, they picked a public space unintended for children to play in with old equipment over a beautifully laid out park. Sometimes we try to control children’s play instead of creating an opportunity for them to mobilize the environment. Nature is a great place to play as it has a lot of loose elements. 

Joshua: There needs not to be too many conditions for children to play in, flexibility is an important property for children as they unleash their creativity and make the cities theirs. 

Tim: Children play anywhere. The single biggest type of space is streets but is most poorly used with cars parking most of the time. Streets take up 60-70% of a neighbourhood, while cars represent only 20-30% of the movement within the neighbourhood. We have surrendered streets to parked and moving cars, creating tremendous opportunities and resistance to opening up street space for other uses. There is a trend of appropriating and reconfiguring streets for play, setting up play streets, home zones, community-led street redesigning. Recently in London, there is also a springing up of low-speed neighbourhood for traffic calming and modal filters, and kids simply come out and play.

Paul: As children play in places that are too neat and tidy like backyard, they have a preference for “creative untidiness”. Quoting “The Child in the City” by Colin Ward, “ the failure in the urban environment can be measured in direct proportion of the number of parks and playgrounds”, Paul agreed with Tim that we don’t need parks and playgrounds to be a child-friendly city as the entire city is the playground, and the street, making up a huge proportion of urban fabric, is a good place to start, with play street being a great example.

Benjamin: Responding to the idea of appropriation, we are always waiting for permissions to manipulate the urban environment as co-creators. When adolescents appropriate space, they always get into trouble and intimidated by adults and law enforcement. How do we get them the permissions to change things in the city without asking? How do we empower them when they show interest in shaping the urban environment? If children are allowed to appropriate space, play gets better and safer, and they have the time to develop skills and expertise. How do we recognize the need for permission when play is spontaneous?

Paul: First there needs to be a change in the mindset of adults trying to be over-protective, make them realize that play does involve risks and children would get a bit of injury. We should allow them to take more risks and reduce the big risks like speeding cars. 

Tim: UN’s general comment on play highlighted three necessary elements for play to emerge: space, time, and adults’ permission or attitude. If these three elements are in place, play will happen. Play is an urge and impulse, the worst thing that can happen to a child is feeling bored - there is a drive to play, and the pandemic has shown that the online world is not enough for children.

Robyn: The idea of permission is the most challenging of the three elements as we have a community who is fearful of play, especially threatened by adolescent play. There is a need for community education of play and grassroots consultation and negotiations with adolescents to better meet their needs and that of the community. There are even malls that emit a sound to dispel young people gatherings as many people find adolescents scary and problematic.

Greg: Adolescents are pushed out of the physical domain, they escape and are forced into the digital world, and use such to appropriate space and develop culture. There perhaps need more education on the importance of play and how it can be agents of change. A documentary in Queensland shows a year-long social experiment in a neighbourhood and reveals the culture of adults being fearful of letting children go out and play, even though the physical environments and the morphological properties are greatly suitable. 


One of the common counter-arguments to oppose child-friendly urban design is exactly about ‘children can play anywhere, why bother to set a zone to limit their freedom’. How do we tackle this ambiguity of semi-counter argument and push the children-friendly city forward?

Tim: In reality, children cannot play anywhere due to the limitations of the physical environment and adults’ attitude. We need playful offers and invitations in the neighbourhood scale, as opposed to the city, to increase the affordances in terms of social conditions and spatial features across the neighbourhood. Cities like Rotterdam and Barcelona are moving into this direction, opening up public spaces for playful uses and moving away from regimented reservations.

Robyn: When we design public spaces, we need to take into account of whether parents and caregivers can still sit and relax and have a good view of the children without being too invasive. 


How about cities in relation to babies and toddlers 0-3 years old?

Tim: Looking at children of this age, the child-caregiver dyad as the unit has very different concerns and needs, for instance, they have very complex trip changes. 


Further reading materials


Photo by Gregor Mews