by Nico Brando and Katarina Pitasse-Fragoso
I know what it’s like to be small in the city…The streets are always busy. It can make your brain feel like there’s too much stuff in it.
Sydney Smith – Small in the City
More than a billion children grow up in cities. This means growing up in densely populated areas with political, and cultural prosperity, but with radical inequalities. While some have access to parks, playgrounds, and child-friendly streets, others are forced to navigate crowded roads, deal with violence, and difficult (sexist, racist, ageist) environments. Children are among the various groups (think, as well, of individuals with disabilities, the elderly, or animals) who suffer from discrimination in their right to make use of public spaces safely. Especially in large urban areas, public spaces can be highly threatening to children of all ages. Smaller children suffer from lack of accessibility, and high risk of busy roads. Older children and youths, even if able of navigating urban areas alone, can have their free movement limited due to status offences, insecurity and violence.
In this short reflection, we wish to introduce some preliminary thoughts on the issues that affect children living in urban spaces. Why are children excluded from equal use of public spaces? Do children have a right to responsive and inclusive urban design?
Protecting Children from the Streets
The regular threats that public spaces impose on children leads, usually, to the standard assumption that children ought to be protected from the streets. That is, the city is a dangerous environment unfit for children, thus, they should be enclosed in safe spaces where the threats of the city cannot affect them. The argument goes, children are extremely vulnerable in public spaces, their well-being and safety is highly threatened in them, so they should be protected from being in the public space.
In this context, parents’ fear for their children’s safety can lead to them being kept at home. For some children, playing indoors is the only option. But getting children to spend time outside is vital for their physical and mental health. Moreover, and as especially highlighted by the coronavirus crisis, being at home is not necessarily safe. Many children are at risk of suffering physical and sexual domestic violence.
Others have access to child-friendly bubbles within the city (i.e. padded fenced playgrounds, parks, or community centres). But these are usually enclosed spaces requiring constant adult supervision. Children are usually transported to and from these spaces by a responsible adult, while still being protected from the city in the transition from one safe space to another. So, playgrounds, for example, more than being conceived as inclusive spaces that recognise children as equally entitled to make use of the city, seem more like segregated spaces, meant to ensure that children don’t have access to the actual, real public space.
Even adolescents tend to be paternalistically protected from making equal use of public spaces due to risk of harassment, or physical and sexual violence. Intersections of childhood, race and gender, in this case, are very relevant. Parents of children from ethnic or racial minorities can be very protective of their adolescent children due to increased risk of suffering violence and racial abuse by other citizens, or by the police forces themselves. School-aged girls and adolescents, moreover, are at an incredible risk of suffering sexual harassment, catcalling, and sexual abuse in the streets, to degrees that it seems an understatement to call it a risk rather than a reality through which almost every girl must live through.
Protecting the Streets from Children
But the exclusion of children from the streets is not only defended by appealing to the welfare and best interests of children themselves. In many cases, and especially as it relates to adolescents, children’s exclusion from public spaces is defended in terms of ensuring public order. Adolescents in general, and children who live or work in the street, tend to be seen as a nuisance, and as a threatening presence in public spaces. It has been regularly considered, thus, that in the benefit of public order, safety, and the fair use of public spaces by the rest of the population, it is legitimate to restrict or limit these groups’ access and use of these spaces.
Adolescents tend to be in a stage of life in which they are not inherently vulnerable to using public spaces (in the sense of being able to navigate it without guardianship), so they tend to find a sense of independence in public spaces, which they may not find at home or in school. Parks, parking lots, squares, malls, etc., are usually full of teenagers, because these are spaces in which they can be detached from adult supervision. However, their use of these spaces can be seen as threatening and many states and cities have particular legal restrictions targeted towards their free use of public spaces, with status offences sometimes criminalising the simple act of a child or teen being present in a public space. Curfews restrict children’s use of public spaces at certain hours, loitering laws forbid children ‘hanging out’ in certain places, truancy laws can criminalise the act of a child being unguarded during school hours, and Mosquito alarms, for example, are used to expel children and young people from certain spaces or entering certain stores.
The exclusion and maltreatment in the city are compounded, unsurprisingly, for the children who make most use of the streets. Children who not only use public spaces, but who work or live in public spaces (street children) are those who tend to suffer the greatest harm, harassment, and discrimination in their use. Children who live or work in the streets (on top of being affected by the laws mentioned above) are also constantly harassed by police for simply existing, they are criminalised for vagrancy, for selling without a licence, or for using public spaces to make a living. They are regularly ignored, stigmatised, alienated and mistreated by the others whom they share public spaces with. Moreover, their harm is even worsened by the lack of protections and securities that come with living in the street (unsafe shelter, difficult access to clean water, scavenging for food, lacking family support, regular threats of sexual, physical and emotional violence).
Protecting Children in the Streets
Excluding children from the cities negatively affects their life, by harming their well-being, and creating the feeling that they do not belong in the streets and public places. We should therefore rethink the city in order to make its use and availability more equitable for all groups, and ensure that those most vulnerable reap the highest benefits. Various mechanisms have been put in place to attempt to overcome (some) of the issues raised by the exclusionary standard of many cities around the world.
Urban 95, for instance, is a proposal, of the international foundation Bernard van Leer, operating in some cities in Brazil, such as Jundiaí and Niterói. Its goal is to work with urban planning experts to reform the city from the perspective of those who are under 95 cm tall the size of children under 3 years. They want to allow children to occupy the city. As some preliminary results, in Jundiaí, the city’s plan was rewritten to include a chapter with public policies specific for children. In Niterói, pedestrian crossings around the city were draw with colourful and ludic character in order to incentivise children to use them. Although targeting children as beneficiaries of the reforms, Urban 95 ends up abstracting what it is to be children, and does not considering that children think different from adults.
Child Friendly Cities is a UNICEF-led initiative aiming to encourage governments and city councils to take substantial steps that can make their cities truly inclusive and egalitarian in their treatment of children. It relies on children’s rights as the structural principles that guide policy, law and practice on urban planning, policy and law. The objective is to localise as much as possible the concept of children’s rights in order to make them into reality at the local level. Depending on the particular priorities, and issues which may affect childhood in particular cities, the initiative (a collective of children themselves, city council, universities, hospitals, NGOs) develops a specific and targeted working plan in order to realise children’s rights at the city level.
Giving a voice to children themselves regarding how they conceive of their use of public spaces and what they need for inclusivity, is a requirement (see the example of the General Comment on children in street situations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child). Here in Liverpool, a fundamental aspect of their child-friendly initiative is its commitment to including local children throughout the whole process, thus, ensuring that their voices, interests, and claims are heard, and taken into account when developing policy. Growing up Boulder is a city proposal in Colorado (USA) that envisages including children and adolescent voices in the city planning. Children were initially listened to in their schools and their suggestions were take on board by specialists. As a result, “Growing up Boulder” reformed parks, cultural spaces and changed some of the public transport in order to include children and their parents.
However, as we see it, participatory programmes must be sensitive to potential further segregation between different groups of children. Especially, when certain already privileged groups of children are the ones who are listened to, overlooking the most vulnerable, such as those children who are living in the street and are not even enrolled at the school. Second, although, creating equal and inclusive spaces for children seems at first hand the appropriate approach (and the standard), these need to be combined with an integrationist project that helps to foster social bonds between city dwellers, otherwise further questions of lack of larger urban engagement, discrimination and segregation are raised.
Conclusion: on the need for equality, inclusivity, and integration
Excluding children from the streets and public spaces of the city is unjust. Children should have access to the appropriate spaces in the city on an equal and inclusive basis, without having their bodies constrained. However, true inclusivity and equality should (ideally) be developed in a wholistic way. In practical terms, this means not asking how we can develop safe spaces for children, but by asking how we can develop transformative spaces where all groups can equally share and benefit. We think that an egalitarian city, which means a city that everyone can call their own, needs to be inclusive, but integrated as well. This is because simply guaranteeing that everyone has access to the streets, public services and resources of the city is just one part of the picture and does not address the lack of social bonds, dialogue and communication between different groups. In this sense, we need to carefully design city policies capable of grasping the dynamics of the urban spaces and its social barriers, which involves race and class segregation. Put differently, it is important to have a procedure capable of changing not only the physical spaces of the city, but its social divisions.