The city at a child’s level

Le Magazine Du Centre National De La Fonction Publique Territoriale – N° 44 – Juin 2021

June 2021

Centre National de la Fonction Publique Territoriale (CNFPT)

40 years after the first children’s council in Schiltigheim, the inclusion of the voice of the child in public policy has made its way. The Child-Friendly Cities network, created by UNICEF, now brings together 245 cities, 16 inter-municipalities and 4 departments. Participatory democracy now goes through them: children are included in consultation processes for developments that concern them, such as schoolyards, parks and playgrounds. At the same time, more and more cities want to make the city more habitable for them, to give them back some of the public space that the car has taken away from them: pedestrian streets around schools, streets for children. Some municipal teams, such as that of Lille, have even made this the core of their action, declaring that they want to create a « city at the height of children ». This is a major challenge for all generations. A « child-friendly city » is a city for everyone: peaceful, green, accessible. Everyone will benefit from it.

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Let’s face it, children are not the « forgotten ones » in the city’s construction. For decades, a lot of public money has been invested in providing them with dedicated playgrounds that are increasingly safe, with soft floors that limit the risk of accidents. But like those parents who think they are doing the right thing but sometimes miss the basic needs of children, Western societies may have failed.

Forty years ago, public space was shared by all generations. For children, the street was a field for experimenting with life, autonomy, socialisation and intergenerational and inter-social encounters. Gradually, children have been ousted from public spaces, which they now frequent « without escort » much later than previous generations. They usually have to wait until they enter secondary school to earn the right to go out on their own. At the same time, children have been confined to places specially created for them, playgrounds equipped with the inevitable slides or rocking horses.

The intentions were laudable (to protect children, to create ad hoc places for them, etc.), but many voices are now being raised to question these urban planning models. Do children need dedicated parks, oases reserved for childhood, in a city that is generally inhospitable, aggressive, noisy and invaded by cars? Or, on the contrary, does he need to gradually leave the private sphere in order to grow up, to discover the world, to experiment with it and to gain autonomy step by step?

In other words, is it the whole city that needs to be thought of at the level of the child, and not just a few facilities exclusively dedicated to children?

While many sociologists and geographers are pointing to the rise of the « indoor children » phenomenon (see interview with sociologist Clément Rivière), which has been exacerbated by the rise of digital technology, a number of cities have recently decided to « turn the tide » and rethink the city from a child’s perspective. Lyon, Lille, Rennes and Grenoble now have « child-friendly city » or « child-sized city » advisors and delegates. Their mission? To take into account the interests of young people in the redevelopment of public spaces (playgrounds, but also roads, paths, public facilities, playgrounds) and to involve them in decisions and projects.

This approach, if it gains momentum, is likely to transform the face of cities. Gone are the days when motorists ruled and occupied most of the public space. Following the example of Lyon, many local authorities are experimenting with « school streets », or « children’s streets », pedestrianised at certain times of the day so that children can play, do activities and meet up. Others are introducing 30 km/h zones, aware that a calmer city will be a more pleasant city for children.

Another important subject is the evolution of playgrounds, parks and schoolyards. A new generation of places is emerging, which encourages creativity and free play. The idea is not to « lock » children into their practices, for example with games such as slides or swings, but to give them a territory to explore with natural materials and settings: a mini-forest, a stream, bridges to build, chickens to feed, games to invent, etc.

Behind all these approaches, a global vision of the educational approach is emerging: public space, the street, parks participate as much in the education and learning of the child as what happens within the school walls. Their success therefore depends to a large extent on coordination between the various city services and with educational partners. Hence the interest in having « city at child level » delegations, to establish links and infuse the approach…

More and more local authorities are interested in the place given to children’s participation in the life of the city. In order to support their thinking, the CNFPT offers a range of services based on a better understanding of children’s fundamental needs and rights, from a very early age. The many themes of the training courses enable professionals to work on their position with children in ordinary care or in child protection, listening to what the child has to say, supporting their development, respecting their fundamental needs, the contribution of new scientific research, or supporting parental skills and family participation. Thus, the training offer on childhood is linked to the notions of « families » and « parenthood ». The CNFPT also offers a training programme for officers in charge of education, childcare and youth policies in local authorities. This itinerary provides and reinforces skills on the challenges of public policies in the field of education-children-youth, project management, management and partnership relations.