Lessons from Antwerp:
Designing Child Friendly Neighbourhoods
Image: Children demand the right to healthy air in Belgium. Photo: MO News
In numerous cities around the world, children and young people are increasingly frustrated with the inaction of governments relating to the climate change emergency. Led by young activists such as Greta Thunberg, children are demanding their right to a future planet where humans can survive. In Belgium there is a growing number of schools taking part in protests for reduced air pollution and carbon emissions. The headline "Help! Ik Stik" i.e. "Help! I’m chocking" shockingly highlights the growing recognition of the impact that air pollution has on both our environment and on human health.
Increasing activism from children and young people was one of the topics discussed at the ‘Child in the City’ conference held in Belgium last month, the theme of which was children in a sustainable city. Antwerp in Belgium was the perfect place to host this conference, as the city is taking numerous steps to ensure sustainable development of neighbourhoods by investing in increased urban greenery, access to natural playspace, children's active transport and a transition away from car-reliant lifestyles. Below are 3 initiatives from the city of Antwerp which are focused on creating a more child-friendly city, while simultaneously aiming to ensure urban sustainability.
1. Living Streets
Walking through the residential streets of Antwerp, it is hard not to notice the amount of greenery which fills the streets. This is no accident, but an initiative from the city council encouraging residents to create more lively and nature-filled streets. Streets which coordinate between 8 or more residents are eligible for funding from the council for soil and plants for their street, as well as advice from an expert who can suggest appropriate species for the local area. Residents are also free to remove pavers from the sidewalk adjacent to their walls (provided the sidewalk width is sufficient) to create a 'facade garden'.
Apart from these initiatives which seek to increase greenery in cities, the council also encourages neighbourhoods to shut down their streets to traffic during the summer months and provides them with a budget for seating, play structures and other equipment necessary to create a ‘living street’. This is all part of a strategy to return the street back to people, encouraging social interaction between adults and providing car-free space for children's play. Wim Seghers one of the leaders of the initiative from the City of Antwerp noted that his street is shut down every year for a camping event where all residents (particularly the ones with children) camp out together for the night in the street. The intent is to make initiatives such as this easy to achieve by local residents and supported by the council both through funding and expert advice. If we are serious about encouraging less car-reliant lifestyles, then returning the streets back to people is a fundamental step in highlighting the benefits to both the environment and our social lives.
2. Car-free neighbourhoods
With public transport and bike infrastructure placed as a development priority in Antwerp, many potential buyers are increasingly seeking opportunities to live in car-free neighbourhoods. One neighbourhood designed with the aim to create a car-free lifestyle is the former 'Millary Hospital' redevelopment in the centre of Antwerp. Here car parking is significantly reduced and pushed to underground garages, which allows for space in-between the buildings to be entirely car-free. The project consists of 404 residential units, which includes a mix of refurbished historic buildings as well as new apartments and dense townhouse clusters as well as a shared rooftop garden, co-working spaces and a neighbourhood cafe.
One clear benefit of pushing cars away from the front door of the homes, is the increase in opportunities for children's outdoor play. Without fear of traffic, children are able to safely use the green spaces directly outside their homes for play and socialising. Children are also free to roam around the neighbourhood, visit their friends independently and gather in the neighbourhood playground. Most of the larger family units are placed on the ground floor, to provide direct visibility to the play spaces and the ability for families to easily spill outdoors. As there are no fences separating the front yards, there is a natural sense of community as parents and grandparents sit outside to watch the kids play out in the afternoons. The benefits to children's active mobility and play are clear as they are able to safely reclaim the streets which once belonged to the car.
3. Creating a walkable playspace 'web'
Apart from providing every child in Antwerp a play opportunity nearby to their home (preferably on their doorstep), the city is also serious about ensuring that play spaces throughout neighbourhoods are linked with pedestrian and cycling infrastructure to enable active mobility. Through consultation and workshopping with neighbourhood children, the city has invested in mapping how children travel to school, where they play, and where they meet their friends. The collected data allows the city to start building a “speelweefselplan” or a ‘Play Web’ which networks children’s common travel routes and all neighbourhood play spaces, youth centres and schools.
This in turn provides the city with a framework for infrastructure improvements along children’s common travel routes and further investments in creating more accessible journeys. Safety improvements include traffic calming or additional street signage and networks of green infrastructure are overlayed onto designated children’s routes. The city also considers how ‘play stimuli’ could be added to the travel routes to improve the desirability of active travel and increase physical activity of children. Playful elements such as tree logs or willow tunnels are included along routes to create moments of play.
Creating a neighbourhood ‘Play Web’ ensures that spaces for play can be accessed independently by prioritising active mobility and reducing the dangers posed by traffic. Additionally to this, by consulting directly with children, the council has a greater understanding of children's movements and play behaviours which in turn creates a diversity of unique and connected play opportunities.
Video: One of many 'Nature Play' areas around Antwerp connected via the neighbourhood Play Web. Video: City of Antwerp
Spending the week in Antwerp highlighted the importance of local council taking initiative in creating more child-friendly neighbourhoods and supporting grassroots movements to improve the liveability and sustainability of cities. A key lesson from Antwerp is that a child-friendly city is one which not only looks at improving the lives of children but also ensures security of their future within a sustainable world. There is no doubt that a child-friendly city and a sustainable city are fundamentally interlinked.
Author: Natalia Krysiak
Natalia is currently undertaking a Churchill Fellowship exploring best practice for designing high density, child friendly neighbourhoods. Through an 8 week period she will travel to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Toronto and Vancouver. Stay up to date with her travels on twitter or instagram.