Kids and the city: How to plan cities for play

Article By:

Principal | Urban Designer

Designing cities for play should be a fundamental consideration in planning. So, how do we prioritize play in design and planning?

“But for a moment I forgot my questions. I let go of my handlebars and raised my arms in the air of the cooling breeze, and I remembered my own childhood of country roads, afterschool wanderings, lazy rides and pure freedom. I felt fine. The city was mine.”
- Charles Montgomery, Happy City

Charles Montgomery details the author’s bike-ride through Bogota with the former mayor Enrique Peñalosa in the first chapter of his book, Happy City. Titled The Mayor of Happy, Montgomery describes how Peñalosa scrapped concrete plans in exchange for more parks and pedestrian environments to improve the city’s overall health and wellbeing.

It reminded me of my childhood in Singapore, spending countless days playing on residential streets and feeling that never-ending sense of adventure and freedom. Like Peñalosa’s goal to make Bogotans happier through the creation of more outdoor spaces, and fewer highways and roads, the opportunity to play outside—through access to playgrounds, sidewalks, parks and community centres—made me happier too. 

I believe outdoor play is essential to children’s health and wellbeing. Public amenities such as community centres, play structures, playfields and courts, plazas and open spaces afford children opportunities to participate in a variety of activities and programs in the community. Furthermore, these opportunities provide children with the ability to grow and mature, mentally, physically and socially.

Earth Day Canada, a community program that aims to integrate outdoor play as a natural part of children’s day-to-day lives (through schools, parks, streets and community green spaces) identifies three interesting facts that highlight why cities still need to invest more resources and time into play:

  • The majority of Canadian children spend less than one hour outside each day
  • Canadian children are among the unhappiest in the world according to UNICEF
  • Fewer hours outside also increase the risk of physical and mental health issues in children later on

Therefore, what other ideas and tools are available to promote outdoor play in Canadian cities? In my experience and research, the subject of play is a broad one. However, two topics often stand out in the discussion of designing cities for kids: Safety and Learning Through Play.

Safety and learning through play

I. Safety

Safety within our residential environments is arguably one of the most important facets related to children and their ability to play outside. Unfortunately, city planning is often designed to achieve efficiency and optimal purpose for modes of transport such as cars, trucks and semis, overlooking the pedestrian experience and the risks associated with a vehicle-centric environment.

In a review titled, A world without play, Josie Gleave and Issy Cole-Hamilton write, “There should be greater emphasis in planning and housing redevelopment on the preservation of good-quality public space, where children feel safe and where they can congregate and play without being considered a nuisance by neighbors and other users”.

Complete communities answer many of Gleave and Cole-Hamilton’s concerns in A world without play. Canadian cities lead the way in advocating complete communities in commercial and residential land development. Land developers, engineers and landscape architects build complete communities to mitigate the potential impacts of new development on neighboring streets, parks and properties, keeping in mind the recurring principle of ensuring safety in these developments. For example, in Winnipeg, our firm along with Manitoba Housing planned and designed the residential neighborhoods of Bridgwater to include numerous playgrounds supported by a vast network of trails, lakes and parks as opposed to roadways. Our designs aren’t massive, but they range from dancing fountains to opportunities for community activities and kid-friendly play structures.

Singapore—my home country—also leads the way in creating safe urban spaces for play. Government departments collaborate in urban planning with over 80 per cent of Singaporeans living in government-built flats. Decision-makers easily bring together representatives from housing, transportation, education, recreation and so on to collectively provide an integrated environment for all ages. One of the unique features in these buildings is the void deck—a covered open space found on the first floor of most flats and designed for community activities and other flexible uses. This “play space” acts as an extension of our private homes and a connection to outdoor public spaces.

II. Learning Through Play

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Therefore, designing cities for children to learn through play is as important as maintaining their safety. I find that there are many types of literature and frameworks on how children engage with the environment to learn about life while creating engaging experiences and childhood memories. 

In my research, two key ideas come to mind: the first being a social one, comprising representation, advocacy, research and development. Just as children in the cities should be well protected, so do their rights for space and opportunities to play. For example, the advocacy group Child in the City Foundation helps to strengthen the position of children in cities and promote a forum for academics, practitioners and campaigners.

My second idea relates to children’s cognitive functioning. Christopher Alexander, Murrau Silverstein and Sarah Ishikawa explored this notion in A Pattern Language—a book detailing patterns in architecture, urban design, and community livability. I find this book extraordinary; in one chapter, titled Children in the City, the authors describe the state of modern cities as too dangerous for children to be allowed to explore freely.

The patterns they refer to include elements, materials, life experiences, methods, words, and so on that when taken together develop a language as opposed to a prescriptive way to design. In other words, “Develop one system of paths that is extra safe—entirely separate from automobiles, with lights and bridges at the crossings, with homes and shops along it, so that there are always many eyes on the path. Let this path go through every neighborhood so that children can get onto it without crossing the main road. And run the path all through the city, down pedestrian streets, through workshops, assembly plants, warehouses, interchanges, print houses, bakeries, all the interesting invisible life of a town—so that the children can roam freely on their bikes and trikes.” 

In conclusion

In my opinion, every city has its own distinct culture and environment, so it would be up to the local decision-makers and advocates to figure out how to make their city a safe and nurturing place for children to play and grow. With a growing trend in complete communities, we start to restore public faith in the safety of our streets and sidewalks for children. Through land use diversity and combining residential and commercial, these allow children to play on the sidewalks and expose them to people of all ages from whom to learn valuable life lessons. Who knows? Today’s city sidewalks may become tomorrow’s memory lanes?

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