As our cities densify, diversify and become challenged by affordability and space, they must adapt to meet changing uses and purposes to accommodate business people, singles, men, women, families and more.

Placing a child-like lens over our view while planning for cities may seem frivolous for some. We have grown up continuously told to look forward into our future as we forget our past. Yet as our cities grow and change to accommodate more residential and mixed-use developments, it is important to consider the streets and public spaces for our youngest dwellers. Our adult mindset recognises the need for an increase in schools and childcare services within our city lifestyle, but have we considered the desires and requirements of children for their new backyards and activity centres?

We recently held a drop-in session for Arup staff in Sydney to tell us what makes a child-friendly city. Unsurprisingly, the key takeaways were access to schools, activities, safe walking paths, pedestrianised streets and a connected public transport network. But to truly understand what makes a child-friendly city, we invited 15 children from Sydney Arupians to tell us (and show us) what they love about cities to form part of a global research initiative on how and why we should be designing child-friendly cities.

As a person without children, hosting a workshop for a group of kids between the ages of two and 11 induced a feeling of anxiety. The kids exploded into the room on arrival and commenced drawing on every allowable surface. Fortunately with some parental help and the children’s creative imaginations, we used drawing and lego to investigate how the kids felt about their city.

We asked questions like, “How do you like to get to school?”, “What do you do on the weekend for fun?” and “What’s your favourite playground?” to get them thinking more broadly about their environments.

We quickly realised it was hard for the kids to understand the concept of a city; they only knew their schools, local parks and landmarks such as the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Tower. Journeys into town didn’t seem frequent and we considered the view that kids are “parachuted” into places via cars, and often cannot understand how places interconnect.

Playing with lego we asked the kids to create buildings and places of interest. There were three different jails, a plane with a treasure chest, references of war, an office, and interestingly a series of interconnected and colour-coded floating buildings from a young girl who had the opportunity to live in Amsterdam so understood different travel modes. The most intriguing creation involved a power station that was monitored with a chicken leg that turned when full. The children all had beautifully unique and intriguing stories behind their creations. Their drawings showed monkey-bars, swings, schools and friends, while their building models provided a platform for fantastical storytelling. We were reminded children are very impressionable, and very imaginative.

The workshop provided an insightful experience and an appreciation that children have the ability to creatively engage and play within an un-programmed space. Through our conversations, it became clear that we don’t have to design complex playground systems, but places all over the city to explore and surprise, that allow imaginations to create unique adventures.

When designing our cities, more allowance for open space and space between buildings may be the best way to allow children to explore safely and engage with environments away from the dangers of a city.

The workshops provided a plethora of ideas to continue with our research. We felt so lucky to interact with the beautiful, open and creative minds in the workshop. We were reminded that cities are no longer centralised business districts for which they were once created; they are people’s backyards, grocery stores, gyms and playgrounds. Cities of today must work with the fabric of their original form, and adapt to meet the requirements of the people who are its inhabitants. As we move into cities for jobs and convenience or as we pass through them on our holidays, and as we bring our children into these places, we are increasingly aware that these dense, urban environments require adaptation to be safe and friendly for both adults and children alike.

Our final workshop session will ask a select group of kids more targeted questions about their ideal city. Our Cities Alive: Everything to Play For publication is due to be available for everyone to download on in July. We can’t wait share the content and inspire place makers, city shapers and parents who strive to deliver spaces in the cities for young minds to explore.

Tessa Colclough is a landscape architect with Arup.

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