As child-centred design becomes mandatory in urban planning, meaningful engagement with young people is the key to success, says Dinah Bornat


When I first wrote a piece about child-friendly cities, I wanted to call it ‘Walking Home and Squashing Snails’, a title taken from a 1980s song by Madness. It’s an evocative phrase and describes the everyday freedom of childhood; the mischief and risk associated with play which children eke out of precious time. Fast-forward five years from that article, and the built environment is beginning to embrace the child-friendly city concept, giving us the confidence to talk about designing for this type of activity and the benefits it will create.

The Child-Friendly Cities Initiative is a Unicef response to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, enshrined in UK law. This includes ‘the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities’. In planning policy terms this means embracing both the social and physical elements of play, which is ­– by definition – freely chosen, self-directed and intrinsically motivated. As well as this, it includes children’s independent mobility – a child’s ability to get around their local area safely without adult assistance.

The London Plan, currently in draft form, has taken on these concepts and stipulates that urban development must allow for play and children’s independent mobility in such a way that is not ‘confined to playgrounds and play areas, but is something that can be done in… a wide variety of locations and environments’. In addition, ‘particular consideration should be given to consultation with children and young people in the design of new provision to understand their changing needs’. The Housing Design Guidance is likely to go further and provide detail about how to achieve these elements.


Neighbourhood planning with young people undertaken by ZCD Architects. A recent report by the practice looks at strategies for engagement. ‘Neighbourhood Design: working with children towards a child friendly city’ was funded by the University of Westminster, A New Direction and RIBA Research Trust and can be downloaded here

In our practice, ZCD Architects, we have been focusing on child-friendly cities for a number of years. Through research, design and engagement work we are able to provide a combined approach to development proposals and policy, which sets out to meet these requirements.

We know that children and young people’s neighbourhoods matter to them and we seek to build an evidence base, using previous research and our own observational work. We have developed a system that measures the use of external spaces, leading us to challenge commonly held assumptions. We test our findings in focus groups, whose participants provide us with lived experiences, often influenced by the physical aspects of their surroundings. The needs and aspirations of young people arise out of their everyday activities, which their local neighbourhood needs to support.

The key to good engagement is to treat young people as experts and to bridge the gap between this age group and that of the professional team. Our common language is the notion of play or ‘hanging out’, something that each of us will have enjoyed, and is central to our sense of self in both childhood and adolescence. We map for play and independent mobility, and turn young people into clients who are able to engage and critically challenge a complex masterplan.

Development teams who are introduced to this process quickly discover that it provides a people-first approach, unlocking the design and connectivity elements within the public realm and across the scheme.

The key to good engagement is to treat young people as experts”

Our approach stretches from a strategic perspective through to the more granular scale. We promote layouts that work for people of all ages, including children, focusing on car-free space that is overlooked and well-connected to homes. Children and in turn other age groups in the community use these kinds of spaces more frequently.

It is encouraging that a number of local authorities and London’s City Hall are embracing our research and developing the child-friendly city concept too.

We believe that designing for children and young people through listening to them and advocating for their independent use of the public realm is the key to designing successful and inclusive communities.