‘Learn how to design and deliver better cities for babies, toddlers & caregivers, because cities that work for young children, work for everyone.’
Earlier this year, Leeds City Council applied to join the Urban95 Academy and were successful in joining the fifth cohort of this programme. The Urban95 Academy is a sponsored global leadership course that focuses on how to make cities better for babies, toddlers and their caregivers. The programme aims to help city planners, designers, and other urban professionals working for local government understand how their work impacts early childhood development. The programme featured seven weeks of online course content as well as weekly live virtual sessions with LSE faculty, Bernard van Leer Foundation leadership and global knowledge partners. The Leeds team consisted of representation from Child Friendly Leeds, Strategic Planning and Elected Members (Councillor Fiona Venner, Executive Member for Children’s Social Care and Health Partnerships).
What’s the relevance of ’95’?
This is a reference to 95cm, which is the average height of a three-year-old. The Urban95 approach is about viewing our cities from this height. On our streets, in our green spaces, on our public transport and in local businesses – what is the experience and perspective of the child? At the very start of the programme, we received an assignment to take a guided walk in our local neighbourhood: a walk from the perspective of a toddler. Guided by audio prompts from Urban95 lecturers, we viewed our neighbourhoods from knee-height. Such a simple task and activity – yet powerful in provoking new ways of thinking and highlighting the challenges that many children and caregivers face in urban spaces. Why does the traffic light signal not factor in enough time for a toddler to walk across the road? Why are the seats at the bus stop too high for a small child to sit on independently? Why is a traffic-free passageway overgrown with foliage fenced off from public access?
A baby’s brain develops the fastest during the first five years of life, forming approximately one million neural connections per second. It is during this first phase of life that a child is able to develop many of the core skills that are needed for healthy development: skills for confidence and curiosity; skills to be able to manage anxiety or anger; linguistic skills; emotional skills; cognition. The early years are foundational. These years set the stage for everything else that comes later in life. Therefore, intervening during this phase is critical.
Why focus on the early years?
In order for babies to thrive during the early years and to be able to develop to their fullest potential there needs to be a number of critical factors present. Babies require proper nutrition and access to good healthcare. They require the nurturing care of an adult and a safe and secure environment. When all of these ‘ingredients’ are present, babies can achieve their full potential. However, if some of these are missing then there is the likelihood that a child will not develop the foundations that it requires to thrive later on in life.
A good start for all children: If you can change the beginning of the story, you can change the end of the story
Bernard Van Leer Foundation
To some extent, a baby’s brain is predictable. It builds basic circuits for simple skills first and builds more complex circuits for more complex skills later. These different skills come in at a predictable times. The timescale of when these skills and circuits are built is pretty much controlled by genetics, but how they’re built is controlled by experience.
The theme of connections is central to the Urban95 approach. There are connections between neurons within the brain, but it is really the connection between child and caregiver – and the presence of affection and nurture – that really consolidates and bonds these connections.
Better urban environments are the means by which we build strong, healthy connections at every level
Putting yourself in the shoes of the toddler or the caregiver prompts the question: What is the stress and the impact of our cities? Where is the space for the nurture, the care, the playful interaction?
It is our streets and the public spaces that are associated with our urban environments that create the make-or-break conditions for a high level of well being and for the level of social engagement between children and their environment. Too often it’s forbidden territory. Too often it’s the street that scares not just the child, but the parents or caregiver. It’s a territory that we retreat from or go elsewhere in order to seek safe spaces.
There is the fundamental question of traffic and the way that this impacts how young children connect with their environment. But it goes beyond that: it’s about a better design of streets that need to function as spaces that allow us to connect with one another – that connect our cities but at the same time offer opportunities as places for public engagement and play. The previous sentence eludes to the competing nature of streets. The negotiation between the movement function of a street and the place function. It is important that we get this negotiation and this balance right: streets are our largest network of continuous public space and one of our biggest untapped assets.
Growing up in a city provides families with opportunities and conveniences, but it also brings big challenges. Many families – and especially those living in poverty – are particularly vulnerable. Babies, toddlers and caregivers benefit in transformational ways from better planning and design that takes their needs into account.