Designing great neighbourhoods: 

what do children think?

As we retreat into our homes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, important conversations are starting to emerge reflecting on what we value most in our neighbourhoods and public spaces. The sense of connection with our natural world, the incidental opportunities to interact with neighbours and the ability to feel a sense of belonging; all of which helps prevent loneliness, isolation and depression.

 

As these discussions continue, it is vital that we remember the voice of children in this debate, as their perceptions about the environment around them are incredibly valuable and often far more insightful, sensitive and imaginative to that of any adult. 

Earlier this year, Natalia Krysiak (Cities for Play) alongside Nature Play Queensland facilitated a workshop with children from Caboolture primary school asking the children this exact question. How can we improve our neighbourhoods to create more social and connected communities and what is important to our youngest citizens?   

The children’s workshop was part of a larger forum organised by Nature Play QLD which ran across two days in Caboolture (Moreton Bay Region) and Cairns (Far North Queensland). The forums aimed to engage local council planners, the design industry and community to challenge the barriers preventing children from playing outdoors and provide inspiring solutions for how our cities could be more playful and child-friendly.

The forum commenced by engaging in conversation with the experts themselves – local children of the Caboolture State Primary School. By the end of the day, no adult in the room had any doubt that children are both acutely aware of their built environment and able to creatively contribute with solutions that enhance their communities. So, when it comes to the design of our neighbourhoods, what do children think?

Image: Children discussing their local neighbourhood

Empowering children to voice their needs and concerns

The workshop was structured in a way to firstly familiarise the students with their own environment and give them the confidence that they are in fact experts of their own neighbourhood. By asking the children to identify spaces that they loved or disliked on the Caboolture map, we collected some incredibly perceptive observations.

Issues that were raised multiple times by the children included access limitations to natural environments, walkability of local streets and the visibility of rubbish in parks and waterways. Children’s comments such as “we need to be able to reach the lakes and rivers easier, with no worries” highlighted their instinctive respect for the surrounding natural environment and their desire to have more direct access to play within nature. Observations about the rubbish seen in the local lake were also of particular concern to the children as it made them feel that they were part of an uncaring environment.

Image: Children’s thoughts of their most loved or hated spaces were stuck onto their neighbourhood map. 

Students were also acutely aware of the roads that were too busy to cross, with comments such as “I hate traffic” consistently tagged on the busy roads. The negative comments around traffic highlighted the glaringly obvious barrier that car dominance imposes on children by restricting their ability to be actively mobile or play outside. Simple solutions provided by the children such as “need more bike paths” reminded the adults in the room just how rarely we prioritise (or even consider) the mobility of children in the design of our neighbourhoods.

At the core of the children's observations were simple desires: less rubbish, safer streets and diverse opportunities for play within nature.

Capturing the essence of children’s vision for their neighbourhood 

The second part of the workshop included re-imagining the city of Caboolture to be a more child-friendly and playful urban environment. Using the collected observations from the previous exercises, the children were well equipped to come up with innovative solutions to enhance their neighbourhood.

Improvements included sinking the train station underground (to allow for a green open space above ground), providing rooftop gardens with active uses, bringing the river into the city and creating more adventurous and risky play opportunities (such as rock climbing and waterplay).

 

Flying cars were envisioned to allow more space on the ground for playing and socialising and significant thought was considered to include people with disabilities and the elderly within the neighbourhood. This included designing swings that could allow children with various needs to use together and ensuring that people of all abilities could access public spaces.

Image: Children working on re-designing their neighbourhood

At the end of the workshop, the children were asked to come up with a name for their re-imagined Caboolture city. After a few seconds of deliberation, a small girl shouted out from the corner “NATURE-HOOD!”. I doubt that any of the adults in the room could have more beautifully summarised the hopes and visions of the children for their neighbourhood with that name.

 

At the core of their ideal environment was a place where both people and nature were connected and well cared for; with plenty of animals in the parks, birds in the sky and streets filled with trees and flowers for everyone to enjoy. The neighbourhood that the children envisioned was one filled with beauty, care and empathy.

Image: Children reflecting on their dream ‘Nature-Hood’

A professor from Chiba University in Tokyo, Isami Kinoshita, once said to me “it is true that it takes a village to raise a child, but it is also true that it takes a child to raise a village”. As we take the time to reflect on how we might improve our neighbourhoods post the pandemic, let’s not forget the power of the child to uplift and enrich a “village”. If only we gave more time and a genuine voice to children, I think the result would be a much richer environment for all of us to enjoy.​

I hope that every urban designer, architect or council planner is fortunate enough to hear the honest thoughts of children in their local neighbourhoods and fearless enough to bring their innovative and caring solutions to life. 

 

Please feel free to contact Cities for Play (Sydney) or Nature Play Queensland to discuss opportunities for engagement and workshopping in your community or local council.

Contact email: natalia@citiesforplay.com or info@natureplayqld.org.au

Video: Summary of children's workshop created by Nature Play Qld

Image: Children and teacher from Caboolture Public School with Angela Wright (Nature Play Qld) and Natalia Krysiak (Cities for Play).

Many thanks to the numerous individuals who made the Child Friendly Cities Forums and Workshops possible including Caboolture Public School, Moreton Bay Council and in particular Gail Price, the entire team at Nature Play Queensland led by Angela Wright as well as Prof Geoff Woolcock and Hyahno Moser from Logan Together. 

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