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Lessons from Tokyo:

Designing Child Friendly Neighbourhoods  


Image: 'Koinobori' Streamers for Children's Day in Tokyo

On the week which I visited Tokyo, I was lucky to experience celebrations for Children's Day, a national holiday which takes place annually on May 5. Throughout the neighbourhoods you can see ‘Koinobori' or carp-shaped streamers hung from trees or eaves in honour of children for a good future and in the hope that they will grow up healthy and strong. The streamers flatter in the wind, symbolising fish full of power and energy to fight their way up rapidly-flowing streams. The symbolic nature of this tradition is a beautiful reminder of children's voice and presence within the neighbourhoods in which they live. This was one of many examples where a sense of community was evident throughout the neighbourhoods of Tokyo. I was truly moved by the experiences and conversations which I had while travelling through Tokyo, exploring best practice for design child friendly, high density neighbourhoods. The generosity of my hosts including academics from the Chiba University, the Adventure Playground Association, Tokyo Play and Tezuka Architects was so genuine and warm. There are numerous lessons learned from Tokyo, but below is a summary of three key takeaways. 

1. An urban backyard

In a densely populated city such as Tokyo, space for private backyards in scarce. In order to give kids the opportunity to be messy and free within a dense urban environment, the first city ‘Play Park’ was established in 1971 as an urban equivalent to the backyard. There are now over 40 scattered around the city, providing space for kids to get their hands (and clothes) dirty, build a den, climb a tree, sit around a bonfire and set up an impromptu water slide. Play parks are open and free to all children (above the age of 6 children are welcome to come on their own) and many children will stop by at a play park on a daily basis. These spaces are staffed by permanent playworkers (funded by the local council) who facilitate playful opportunities and maintain the play equipment and loose parts.


I visited a number of these parks while I was in Tokyo and the joy and creativity in these spaces is difficult to describe. Kids here can truly be as messy and creative as they wish, which would neither be possible nor accepted in a traditional “manicured” city park. As cities continue to densify and fewer children have access to a private yard, space for messy play must not be forgotten. Every urban neighbourhood needs a play-yard.

2. The freedom of movement


The first time I saw a 6 year old travelling independently to school on the Tokyo metro, I felt a little bit startled. He was strolling with so much confidence down the platform, with his school bag half his size. I soon realised this was not at all unusual as many children starting from elementary school travel without an adult to school either by public transport or through active travel. As observed by Alexandra Lange in her recent book, “It is not greater self-sufficiency but “group reliance” that allows this freedom of movement… It isn’t just neighbors that are part of the network, but shopkeepers, cyclists, conductors.” 


Apart from the fact that the community at large accept and contribute to the safety of travelling children, details within the physical environment assist in making the journey safe. There are intercoms and telephone booths at train stations which the children use when needed, as well prioritised pedestrians crossings and street signage along children's common travel routes. Pictographs of small feet are often painted at crossings to remind the smaller children to stop and many zones around schools are closed-off to vehicular traffic during school commute times. Retired adults also volunteer within school zones to ensure that vehicles do not dismiss traffic rules and to assist younger children with crossing roads.


By prioritising children’s active mobility, both through the physical environment and social norms, children have the freedom to move independently around their neighbourhoods. Not only does this provide them with the opportunity to develop skills of independence but also a sense of trust and belonging within their community.

3. It takes a village  

There are probably few people out there who would disagree with the wisdom of the African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. But the question which has sat in my mind for some time is how in an ever-urbanising world, we can create cities which feel and act as a village which supports the raising of children. There are many aspects of this saying which I observed in practice within the neighbourhoods of Tokyo.


One example, is the provision of a central play organisation within a neighbourhood district such as the “Bouken Asobiba no Kai” which is an NPO commissioned and funded by the City of Kokubunji. This organisation takes the responsibility of providing a more child and parent friendly neighbourhood through the running of ‘Play Parks’, events in the local parks run by playworkers and spaces for parents to meet. For new parents this begins in a neighbourhood ‘salon’ such as the Bouken Tamago which is a space for parents to gather, chat and play with their babies and with a councillor/ nurse visiting regularly. Apart from creating supported networks between local parents, the organisation aims to increase awareness of the value of play within the community and the importance of creating rich play environments.  


A neighbourhood organisation such as this, can holistically provide play opportunities and support for children and parents within the local district. In practice, this creates an organisational framework which networks spaces and people, in turn building a ‘village’ where everyone plays a part in supporting the raising of children.

While I visited Professor Isami Kinoshita at the Chiba University, he reminded me that though it is true that it takes a village to raise a child, it is equally true that it takes a child to raise a village. This phrase highlights the need for us to go beyond what we can provide for children but also how we can empower children to take the lead.


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.

#citiesforplay #childfriendlycities

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