Putting Children and Young People At the Heart of Our Towns and Cities

Anne Longfield has been a tireless, thoughtful and tenacious champion for children and young people. Yesterday was her last day in post as Children’s Commissioner for England, and, typically, it was the stories of children, many of them heartbreaking, some of them uplifting, that she used to sign off on. The day before, Tim Gill’s excellent new book, Urban Playground, dropped on my front porch. It builds on previous work, including Arup’s designing for urban childhoods, to make the case for designing cities with the needs of children in mind.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the position of children and young people in how we make policy for and design our towns and cities. I have witnessed with my own kids the experience of lockdown and school closures, and we have heard a lot bout the impact more widely. It is a topic I have always been passionate about. When I was at Leeds City Council I worked closely with colleagues to build on the existing Child Friendly Leeds ambition to ensure that putting children at the heart of the growth strategy was one of the main priorities for the city’s inclusive growth strategy. I built on this theme in a talk I gave in 2018 at an event organised by the five main built environment professional institutions in Yorkshire(slides are here).

Children and young people have suffered hugely during Covid, mainly to protect the health of older people. Their education and prospects have been impacted by school closures and online learning. This is widening the gap in educational opportunity and attainment between different places and communities, all exacerbated by a digital divide. As well as their formal education, the social development and mental health of young people has been damaged. A study released today shows that only one in three children in Bradford had sufficient exercise in the first lockdown, and a similar proportion rarely left the home. Child poverty was increasing before the pandemic, and as been worsened as a result of job and income losses during it. And children’s mental health has suffered. The statistics set out by Anne Longfield in her last speech as Children’s Commissioner are shocking: over 2 million children in families affected by severe poverty, domestic abuse, parental mental health issues, parental substance misuse, or where the child is a young carer or a parent is in prison; and 1.3 million children with significant mental health conditions (less than a quarter of these received NHS treatment in 2019/20). As kids missed free school meals, the issue of childhood hunger has become prominent thanks to Marcus Rashford’s campaign, building on the fantastic work of projects such as the Leeds Healthy Holidays scheme. Teenagers have lost important developmental experiences, and some have had to deal with the uncertainty around exams. For young adults, a rise in youth unemployment could have a long-term scaring effect on their careers and livelihoods for decades to come.

As towns and cities look to build back better, now is the time to put children at the heart of their plans for economic growth and recovery. Some large cities, particularly London, are seeing increased migration of families, what Richard Florida has called “accelerated family flight” fueled by the pandemic and the possibilities of living further away opened up by remote work. There is increasing recognition of the importance of good quality open space, of urban places that are walk-able and bike-able and enable interaction, and there is opportunity to reshape cities with the needs of children in mind. I suggest five calls to action.

First, increasing educational opportunity should be priority. As the Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s Educating the North report argues, improving schools and educational attainment (particularly among white working class boys) is essential to support levelling-up. This needs to start with early years provision; there is strong evidence that many children that lag behind in early years attainment do not catch up later as they progress through school. This will be essential in retaining and attracting families and skilled people in towns and cities. The London Challenge initiative, created in 2003 in response to poor schools in Inner London and associated family flight, led to huge improvements in schools and contributed to the regeneration of many areas. We need initiatives with a similar intent and cross sector backing in other places. At a time of rising youth unemployment, this should include strengthening links between schools, employers, FE and HE, and improving the transition of young people form school to further and higher education and apprenticeships. Universities have an important role in supporting school improvement and widening participation in higher education, including in bridging the UK’s huge divide between technical and higher education, and as the Universities for Nottingham initiative has shown, these roles can be strengthened through Civic University Agreements.

Second, we must ensure initiatives to improve public realm are child friendly and enable play and social interaction. As the role of city and town centres change, particularly with the shift to online retail, good quality public realm and green space is being seen as a catalyst for regeneration, for example through the schemes to create a new city centre park in Leeds, to reconnect Stockton town centre with the River Tees, or as part of the regeneration of Broadmarsh in Nottingham. But with some notable exceptions, such as city park in Bradford, or Kings Cross Central in London, new urban spaces are rarely designed with children or play in mind, and in some places rules prohibit play. That needs to change. Tim Gill’s new book, and Arup’s designing for urban childhoods document set out how. We should support projects to encourage play, such as Emma Bearman’s Playful Anywhere initiative. Better urban design and more play can be combined with support for families to encourage healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, an approach that has enabled Leeds become first UK city to reduce obesity in children living in the most deprived areas.

“Telling children and families to go out and take more exercise is all well and good if they have a nice garden or live near a park. If you live near busy roads, without a garden or safe place to exercise, then you are going to be reluctant to let your children go out to play” Prof John Wright.

Third, there should be a new deal for teenagers. We should do more to make public spaces more welcoming for teenagers. We desperately need to increase funding for youth services, which have suffered a 70% funding cut in less than a decade. There is a strong case for involving young people in shaping the vision and policies for how places will develop and change. For example, through the Leeds Station Challenge project we ran with local schools, we gained genuinely useful insight from young people on design issues. Places should think about creating structures to engage young people in influencing decision-making; Leeds is one of the few cities to have a children’s mayor; and Greater Manchester has a Youth Combined Authority.

Child-friendly interventions offer an opportunity to improve a city’s level of “childfriendliness”. The ideas presented in Arup’s Designing for Urban Childhoods report include small actions that can add up to high-impact change as part of a children’s infrastructure network.

Fourth, at a time when youth services, mental health services for young people, and benefits for people with children are under such financial strain, national government should redress the inter-generational fairness in fiscal spending. Child poverty has been increasing rapidly, with a reversal of many of huge advances made by Gordon Brown when Chancellor and PM in using the benefits system to help tackle child poverty. When I was at Leeds City Council I remember vividly a young person in the city talking to the Council’s State of the City meeting about the intense feeling of unfairness he felt around the cost of his bus fares to get to college when all pensioners benefit from free bus travel. Perhaps it is time for us to look at the generous benefits enjoyed by wealthy pensioners, and to rebalance some of this spending to support younger people

Finally, we need to seize the moment and, as Anne Longfield has urged government, to give children their “Nightingale moment” with a dedicated recovery package. The need to act is urgent. The future of our cities and towns depends on it.

About citypolicy

Interested in what makes cities and regions dynamic, competitive and sustainable. I blog in a personal capacity. I work for Arup as Director, Cities Advisory. I was previously with Leeds City Council as Chief Economic Development Officer.
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