Global initiatives focus on child-friendly spaces
In Orange Grove, Johannesburg, a shul shares its grounds with a church and school. Foot traffic is high, which fosters a sense of community. The neighbourhood is home to people from diverse socio-economic, ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds. But there are open manholes that can swallow children, shattered glass on the pavements and the trees lining the streets haven’t been trimmed for years.
Washington DC city planner Eric Feldman says successful cities are planned with children in mind as this benefits entire communities. In an essay he writes: "My daughter’s map of the city is layered with micro-landmarks, and these seemingly utilitarian objects provide the physical cues that shape her understanding of her neighbourhood and, from her vantage point, give the urban environment its sense of place."
In SA, there are many competing urban planning concerns. The first priority is addressing ruinous apartheid-era spatial planning by building low-cost housing close to economic hubs and infrastructure. But growing local and international research reveals that investing in the earliest years of a person’s life is the most effective of all social investments.
James Heckman, who received the Nobel prize in economics, noted that early childhood development has a profound effect on health, economic and social outcomes for society.
Brain development is at its most critical in young children, and children who develop appropriately grow into well-adjusted and capable adults. The foundations of early childhood development include sound nutrition, strong bonds with caretakers and opportunity for quality play.
Through global initiatives such as Urban95, spearheaded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, city planning and the built environment are regarded as important pillars in the healthy development of small children. Urban95 proposes that designers plan cities from the vantage point of 95cm — the average height of a three-year-old.
Harvard public health academic James Dunn adds that "the physical design of neighbourhoods, including access to local amenities, can affect child development".
"Additionally, it is possible to imagine that community recreation facilities and early programmes addressing cognitive, language and communication skills could be expanded on a neighbourhood basis to significantly increase the stimuli that we now know children require to develop the skills and neuro pathways needed for healthy trajectories."
As a suburb close to economic hubs and infrastructure, Orange Grove has been earmarked by the City of Joburg as a site for intensive development, forming part of what it dubs Corridors of Freedom. This initiative is part of the city’s strategy to tackle spatial apartheid through "transit-oriented development in Johannesburg" by 2057.
But Rashiq Fataar, director of urban planning nongovernmental organisation Future Cape Town, says while the long-term strategy to fix urban planning is welcome, quick wins could be had by transforming public spaces and doing so rapidly, much like streets and public spaces were transformed before the 2010 Soccer World Cup in SA. An example of the transformation of public space was the Fan Walk in Cape Town.
"The Fan Walk links the city’s central station to a series of well-pedestrianised historical streets. It thus provides a spine that promotes walkability and provides a safe pedestrian means to access free city facilities and spaces," he says.
Fataar says children would thrive in walkable cities, and that small changes such as lowering the speed limit around schools would make a significant difference.
Future Cape Town is working on improving the forecourt of the Sea Point Library and Civic Centre, where children go after school before their long commutes home.
The organisation has also partnered with Blok apartment developers to expand the focus on real-estate developments in the area and build inclusive public spaces that "encourage residents to see surrounding public spaces as an extension of their homes and take ownership of them".
Sea Point and the Atlantic Seaboard is a contested space where Reclaim the City activists are fighting against the sale of public land for private use.
In Johannesburg, Play Africa has built a "children’s museum without walls" at Constitution Hill, with free rotating exhibitions for children.
Dee Blackie of the Courage Project has developed an innovative community mapping tool, with which children, teenagers and people who work with children can identify child protection challenges in areas where they live and work. This includes pinpointing places where children feel safe and where they do not. Services that are poor or lacking, such as health care or schooling, should be noted and sent to relevant authorities.
The Courage Project is similar to Istanbul’s efforts to create a "social atlas" for children in crisis, known as Istanbul95. It allows the local government to increase service delivery where needed.
Urban95 suggests that for the healthy development of babies and toddlers living in cities, space should enable frequent, warm, responsive interactions with loving adults, and a safe and stimulating physical environment. All children and their caregivers should be within walking distance of early childhood development services.