Making cities better for children: meet Urban95

As part of our interview series with people working to support inclusive cities, we talk to Cecilia Vaca Jones and Patrin Watanatada of the Urban95 initiative

Cecilia Vaca Jones and Patrin Watanatada with Urban95 sticks. Photograph: Irina Ivan, Bernard van Leer Foundation

Based in the Dutch city of The Hague, Cecilia Vaca Jones is programme director and Patrin Watanatada is knowledge for policy director at the Bernard van Leer Foundation, an independent foundation that works internationally to improve the health and wellbeing of babies, toddlers and the people who care for them. The foundation’s Urban95 initiative is dedicated to reimagining cities from the height of an average three-year-old (95cm), and working with urban planners, designers and policy-makers to integrate early years thinking into improving city environments. 

Why did you decide to focus on making cities better for babies and toddlers? What was the spark that started it?

Cecilia: Four or five years ago, we realised that urbanisation is happening so rapidly that cities represent a unique opportunity to support babies and their families to thrive. How can we ensure that cities scale the opportunities of safe, healthy and stimulating places – with opportunities to learn, create, imagine, play and grow – across all neighbourhoods to reach as many families as possible? 

Patrin: The early years are when the brain is developing most rapidly – babies and toddlers are forming neural connections at the rate of 1 million per second! The way these connections form sets the foundation for good health and learning in later childhood and adulthood. This is partly genetic and partly shaped by what a child experiences. And a lot of it happens by the time a child turns two. For optimal brain development, young children need healthy food, protection from harm, and – crucially – plenty of opportunities to play and be loved. 

Close Streets for Play Libreville, an Urban95 challenge project in the Gabon capital

We think cities have a big role to play in ensuring babies get these things. Traditionally, governments have focused on the role of social services, health and education departments in supporting healthy child development. Urban95 works with city leaders, planners, designers, advocates, communities and anyone else who influences city life to look at the way that the entire city – including, for example, public spaces and transportation – affects the way that families with young children live, work, play and move through cities, and what that means for healthy child development. 

How does Urban95 work to understand and respond to the needs of young children in cities around the world?

Cecilia: We know that small children learn through positive interactions, play and new experiences. So we support our partners to identify and scale solutions that promote healthy child development through the built environment or by addressing things that affect their lives in the public realm – like air quality, heat, or street violence. Every city is unique, but many solutions can work in different contexts. For example, public spaces in any city can be turned into places for young children to play safely while exploring nature. Here’s a wonderful guide for play spaces for 0–3-year-olds by our partner Superpool, an Istanbul-based design studio.

Patrin: Everything starts with empathy and data. One of the first challenges is that urban planners and designers don’t necessarily see or think about the particular needs of young children and their caregivers in their work. Public spaces and playgrounds are often set up for older kids or adults. Transportation tends to be planned for the needs of peak-hour commuters travelling straightforwardly from home to work to home, versus the needs of caregivers who might be going from home to childcare to grocery store to job and back at odd times.

A still from the Young Explorers film in Pune, India – documenting the journey of a small child and its caregiver

So developing empathy for this demographic group is an important first step. We’ll take people on walks through the city holding metre sticks with a mask at the 95cm mark they can look through, or carrying 10kg bags of rice to simulate carrying a toddler. Or we’ll ask them to draw their childhood journey to school and a recent journey as a caregiver. We’ve asked people to try breathing at 4x the speed of a normal adult – the pace at which a newborn baby breathes, which means they take in 4x as much air and all its pollution per gram of body weight as you or I. We’ve supported the development of short films, called Young Explorers, that document the urban journeys of a small child and their caregiver in Pune in India and Recife in Brazil as well as another film series in Dakar, Senegal. We’ve also partnered with Arup to develop an Urban95 virtual reality simulation.

We also support cities to gather data on where families with young children live, where they go, how they’re doing and what they need. If city planners know where and when babies and toddlers spend the most time, they can target general interventions and services like clean air zones or pocket parks or health clinics or safer streets to them. For example, we funded a research institution in Istanbul to develop an innovative way to map families in need and overlay this with a map of municipal services (more here). The municipalities have begun to use this to locate services more effectively.

Another example is our work with Gehl to develop a tool to observe and measure the way babies, toddlers and their caregivers move through the public realm. We also partnered with the Open Data Institute to develop guidance for city governments who want to develop early childhood data dashboards. And we supported Canada-based organisation 8 80 Cities to develop guidance on engaging families with young children to gain insights into their needs.

A stroller test in Istanbul (including a 10kg bag of rice to simulate a baby)

What would you say are the biggest issues that our cities need to overcome to be more healthy, safe and supportive of babies and toddlers?

Patrin: First, congestion and transportation challenges. Not having access to safe, comfortable, affordable transportation makes life generally stressful, and can stop caregivers travelling to access healthcare. Road safety remains a big public health issue in cities worldwide. And the more I learn about the lifelong health effects of air pollution – particularly on babies and toddlers, whose lungs, hearts and brains are still developing – the more I’d like to see vehicle exhaust and other sources of air pollution become an unacceptable part of urban life. That’s why we’re working with the Clean Air Fund to tackle air pollution worldwide and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy to develop transit guidelines for families with young children.

Second, lack of nature. There’s more and more evidence to show that being around nature – especially trees and water – is important for mental and physical health at all ages. This is hard to come by in many cities today. And finally, the general stresses of urban living: lack of space, time and social ties. These make it harder for parents and other caregivers to give their children the love and attention they need to flourish; and they are particularly challenging for those living in poverty, insecure situations and informal settlements.

An Urban95 community-build playground project in Lima, Peru

Cecilia: One powerful way to address all of the above is to look closely at the street. On average, streets represent 70% of the public realm in a city – so why not use this space to promote play and other loving interactions between babies, toddlers and the people who care for them, better air quality, and better mental health through natural elements? Alongside Bloomberg Philanthropies, FIA Foundation and Botnar Foundation, we are partnering with the National Association for City Transportation Officials’ Global Designing Cities Initiative to develop Streets for Kids design guidelines to make streets safer, more comfortable and more joyful spaces for people of all ages.

Closing streets at regular intervals gives people of all ages a safe public space in which to play, meet, be active and breathe cleaner air. We frequently see that temporary closures are an effective step towards more permanent solutions. Building citizen support to transform street use is fundamental.  Citizens need to be motivated and to understand the benefits of reclaiming their public space.

Urban95’s project, Children’s Routes, in Colombia. Photo: Courtesy of Casa de la Infancia

What sort of impacts have you seen from your work on Urban95 so far? And what have you learned personally?

Cecilia: We’ve seen tremendous interest and enthusiasm for understanding how the lives and the development of young children and their families are affected by urban design, mobility and the environment. I’ve learned that:

First, municipalities are interested in cost-effective solutions that can be implemented fast as they represent a political win in every society. Helping them to generate quick wins is crucial. So is showing them live examples of what’s working in other cities. We’ve taken cities on study tours to London and to Copenhagen to see great examples of family-friendly spaces and mobility.

Second, municipalities tend to have poor data related to pregnant women, children under 5 and their caregivers. Helping municipalities to gather reliable data on this that can be used to generate practical maps layered over data on public space, services and so forth, is the best way to help these authorities make decisions that support healthy child development.

Finally, I think the most important learning is that there is a huge opportunity to promote urban transformation when you can relate to real people. Having good stories about how urban design affects the real lives of babies and toddlers generates social awareness that leads to political will for change. If we can build a successful city for young children, we will have a successful city for all people.

A stroller test in Argentina, an Urban95 challenge project

Patrin: For me, the three most striking learnings have been: First, planning and designing for babies and toddlers means planning and designing for the people who are taking care of them. You don’t see babies and toddlers wandering through cities by themselves – it’s those looking after them who decide where they go and how long they stay. So they need to feel safe and comfortable – whether from good lighting or buffers between sidewalk and road, well-placed amenities like benches, or easy-to-board, convenient buses. 

Second, proximity really matters. Anyone who’s tried to go anywhere with a curious, energetic two-year-old, or a surprisingly heavy baby in arms, can attest to this! Good public transportation is very important, but if you’re with a little kid the best option is probably just to walk safely, comfortably and quickly to where you need to go. So we’ve developed the concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood where families with young children can get to the services they need most within a 15-minute walk. And we’re seeing some of the cities we work with start to co-locate services based on where these families live.

Probably the biggest thing we’ve learned is that babies and toddlers are actually really compelling to urbanists as a target or frame for interventions. When we first started doing this work, we downplayed the benefits for child development and talked more about the benefits for everyone else. But we found that people wanted to learn more about brain development and found thinking about babies an easy-to-grasp way to think about universal design principles. So now we talk about babies a lot. From a design perspective, their extreme vulnerability and dependency, and strong drive to explore and play, means that if a space is safe, clean and interesting enough for them, it’s likely to work for everyone. And politically, they are a unifying cause: no one’s against babies, everyone’s been one, and many people have had the experience of caring for one.

An Urban95 project in Lima. Photo: Courtesy of Eleazar Cuadros

Which cities in the world do you think are most nurturing towards and inclusive of babies and young children?

Cecilia: Boa Vista wants to become the first early childhood capital in Brazil. Boa Vista’s holistic way of delivering services from pregnancy to five, the integration of pertinent urban design across the city to meet the needs of babies and caregivers, their social awareness to promote nurturing care in all public space, their political will to prioritise investment to ensure a good start for all children, and their openness to integrating Venezuelan migrant children to their welfare system all add up to what we think is a unique example of a nurturing city for babies and toddlers.  

Patrin: Among our Urban95 partner cities, Tel Aviv, Recife and Tirana in particular are implementing city-wide initiatives, with a person responsible for driving and coordinating initiatives to serve young children. In the case of Tel Aviv, there’s even a newly appointed deputy mayor for early childhood. But, in short, there are many cities are doing interesting and groundbreaking things! We have been tremendously inspired and impressed by the work that our partner cities and organisations – and our colleagues – have done so far and are looking forward to more to come.

Patrin Watanatada and Cecilia Vaca Jones. Photograph: Irina Ivan, Bernard van Leer Foundation


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