The concept isn’t as far-fetched as you may think. Alexandra Rotter discovers how city planners are increasingly using children’s ideas to help inspire urban ‘Neverlands’ that work for everyone.
“My dream city would be a village in the Caribbean with villas, each having their own huge garden and pool. Everyone would have a dog, two cats and a dolphin to ride,” says 10-year-old Amélie. What’s more, there would be “no criminals, no mayor, no sharks in the water, no oil rigs along the coast and no endangered animals.”
Animals would also be the biggest focus for seven-year-old Elia if he could create his own ideal city: “My dream city would be full of animals freely running around and helping me. For example, I would sit in the pouch of a kangaroo and it would take me to wherever I wanted to go. There would also be horses for people to ride.”
When children describe the cities of their dreams, it becomes clear how far away the reality is and also how much our adult imaginations have become stunted. Ok, it may not be exactly realistic to ride dolphins or take kangaroo taxis, but behind these wishes there are perfectly valid, deeply held desires. What Amélie’s and Elia’s ideas boil down to is a longing for more contact with nature and the outdoors.
Five-year-old Noah is on the same wavelength – and his ideas would be somewhat easier to implement: he wishes for “many more trees in my city. I want to plant them myself. They should be trees that have lots of fruit. They must also have branches that are good to climb on.”
Climbing, acrobatics, digging, hiding, playing with matches, collecting branches and leaves, getting wet – all this and more is needed in order to encourage children to develop, discover the world and express their playfulness.
“Children would love to have a bit of wild nature where they can do a load of ‘forbidden’ things,” states Danish architect Jan Gehl. He campaigns for cities in which the people are the focus. Gehl believes that cities worth living in allow and encourage all members of society, including children, the elderly and people with disabilities, to move freely and safely around them.
For Gehl, Freiburg in Germany is an example of a child-friendly city. It has Bächle – small channels through which water flows along the streets. These attract children like magnets. It seems that water in a city is the secret: “Wet children are happy children,” he says.
In addition to this, he believes that private transport must be minimised and pedestrians and cyclists should be given more space. This would also counteract other urban problems such as the risk of accidents, exhaust emissions and noise. Gehl is behind the conversion of Copenhagen from a car-based to a cyclist- and pedestrian-based city and has, through his company, Gehl Architects, completed numerous similar projects in cities such as Moscow, Shanghai, Singapore and New York. However, none of these changes has been as extensive as in the Danish capital. In fact so many more people are now going outside with their children that Gehl has often been asked if there’s a baby boom. This is not the case at all.
Spirit of adventure
For Peter Apel, owner of the planning office Stadtkinder (City children), in Dortmund, Germany: “Children need movement, movement, movement.” City planning should allow children to be able to roam around the city safely, searching for those hidden spaces that are often just ugly wasteland or potential building plots in the eyes of adults. But because adults like to concrete over these kinds of gaps with residential or office buildings, there are fewer and fewer of these adventure spaces for children in cities.
In Germany, the Spielleitplanung (managed play planning) process is designed to protect these kinds of areas from being built upon. Its aim is to guarantee a sustainable and environmentally friendly development for communities while helping to maintain and improve the living environments of children and adolescents.
Peter Apel regularly uses the Spielleitplanung process. Specifically, this process allows him to take children by the hand and ask them to show him their favourite places: “They always take us to playgrounds first. Then we ask them about their secret hideouts. We then travel over hill and dale to places that for adults are nothing more than wasteland and disordered areas full of scrub.” The first thing that’s investigated when undertaking these kinds of forays is the traffic situation. It soon becomes clear if the green phase of the traffic lights is too short or if crossing places aren’t accessible for children.
When we discuss child-friendly cities, we are talking about free spaces – and in the eyes of city planner Peter Apel, these should, in principle, be the starting point of any plans. This doesn’t necessarily mean fully designed children’s playgrounds. Jan Gehl even sees playgrounds critically, since they are spaces with only one function. But a city as a whole should invite people to play. In his opinion, Venice is a good example of this: “Children can play anywhere there. They don’t need any playgrounds because the city itself is a playground.”
The city as a single playground – that would also be the dream of Nicola Hengst-Gohlke, who lives with her family in Düsseldorf’s suburbs in the Mettmann district, which has 40,000 residents. This mother of an eight-year-old boy has a vision: “I’m pretty sure that playing can save the world. We would take a large step forwards if we created more playing spaces for everything,” she says.
Hengst-Gohlke started championing the interests of children when, after moving from Munich to Mettmann, she found the playgrounds were neglected: before her son, who was two at the time, could play in them, she had to clean them up. She researched who was responsible for the playgrounds and discovered that there are honorary playground ‘godparents’ – volunteers who regularly check that everything is in order, monitor the playing equipment, clear away the rubbish and collect funds for improvements. Hengst-Gohlke founded the Spielplatzpaten für Mettmann (Playground Godparents for Mettmann) network and achieved, among other things, an increase in the budget for playgrounds. In Mettmann, 40 out of 90 playgrounds now have a godparent, some of them children themselves.
In addition to this, Hengst-Gohlke gets involved in projects and ensures, through lobbying activities, that local councils offer more to children. She is convinced that children become strong by overcoming obstacles – and they can best do this in places where they are able to take calculated risks. She believes that it’s a big problem that many municipal playgrounds and free spaces where this is possible are being sold to investors in order to make profits.
A worldwide project has recently shown that children’s participation in the shaping of their cities is beneficial and would offer city planners inspiration. The first Design-a-Thon for children took place in November 2014 in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dublin, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro, with children aged eight to 12 coming up with solutions for cities of the future.
Their ideas included: cars that move through a magnetic mechanism; a mechanical tree that collects dirt from the air and converts it into fruit using 3D printing; a greenhouse system for homes; and a helicopter that fishes plastic from landfill sites and the sea, melts it together with solar-powered flame throwers and turns it into beds for homeless people.
Gisèle Legionnet-Klees, who managed the Design-a-Thon in Berlin, is enthusiastic: “The results exceeded all my hopes.” She says it had made her realise, “how much energy adults spend trying to defend ideas rather than enjoying the freedom to experiment.”