Q: Are there specific manifestations of urban inequity that particularly affect children? Please provide examples.
A: Yes, I can highlight two or three examples. First of all the difficulty for children to access healthy and safe spaces is a problem in lower income areas. It is difficult for them to access basic leisure opportunities as they often have few options close by. Younger children must sometimes take the bus to a park or to a shopping center on their own. We can talk about proximity and what it means. People who study brain development say that external risk factors like poverty, sewage, clean water, issues of violence at home, all result in problems of child development. Equity risk factors are worse in urban environments.
Q: In light of this, what are the main causes of urban inequity affecting children in your opinion?
A: This is a complicated question. I think that children suffer from adult inequity. In many American cities, social inequities are stronger than in other first world countries. This inequity is sustained by the need for a cheap working class, which with little access to quality education and other opportunities, cannot improve its situation.
In Brazil, I see this issue very clearly as well. Brazil has even more inequity than other countries in Latin America. Those in the upper classes go to great lengths to reduce opportunities for lower classes, preventing them from moving up in society or having the freedom to choose other options. Children suffer from these inequities, which are created by adults.
Access to health and quality public places for children is dependent on the living conditions of parents. If a child lives in a poor family, she will not have full access to her rights because, for example, her family might not be able to get healthcare.
Q: Given your experience working with child mobility in urban centers, can you mention one or two programs that you think have made an impact to improve equity for children in cities?
A: I’ve been living in São Paolo, Brazil, since 2011 so I’ll give you two examples from Brazil, one from São Paolo and another from Rio de Janeiro.
Both are about developing processes, such as providing safe housing and public spaces, that can lead to upward mobility. The first experience was launched in 1994 in Rio de Janeiro and called Favela-Bairro. It benefited 500,000 people and was supported by the Inter-American Development Bank. It was highlighted as a model project by the UN, and so it’s really a good first-of-its-kind example from Rio de Janeiro. It did not specifically target children but families as a whole, so children benefited indirectly.
There is another, more child-focused, experience, called “Centro Aberto”, like “open center” in English, which was developed in São Paulo. It is a consultancy program by Jan Gehl, a well-known urban planner from Denmark. His project was implemented in São Paulo where he highlighted four points in the center of the city, which later became two main places. These areas were squares with a lot of social problems, such as drug dealing and prostitution. They were upgraded to playgrounds for kids with benches and other areas where people could sit down and meet. I gave workshops in one of these places where the children of local squatters played. That was really good because these children did not have any space to play inside the buildings their families were occupying. There were a lot of families living in these buildings and many roads surrounding them. The area was really dense. So having access to these playgrounds and open spaces was a fantastic moment of freedom for these children.
Another point I want to make about the project is that, while we were doing these workshops, even though the drug dealers and prostitutes were still there, they respected the children. They did not generally bother us and when one day someone asked me angrily what I was doing, I answered, “I’m just facilitating a workshop for your children.” To which they responded, “Oh, it’s with my children. Ok.” So they respected the process and the space where the children were playing. And there were a lot of children, about 20 to 25, which was really good.
Q: What are your recommendations for designing and implementing an equity approach in cities?
A: Currently, I’m working as a consultant for the Bernard van Leer Foundation in the urban program in Latin America. This program is about designing cities that support the healthy development of children from ages zero to three. I mention this because I think it’s a good parameter to answer your question.
Here in Latin America we say “ a good city for children is a city that cares.” What does “a city that cares” mean? It refers to a city that’s healthy, safe and interesting. We also say that if the city works for a pregnant woman or for children then it will work for everybody. Cities should provide safe, healthy and interesting environments because children need all three to develop correctly.
As we mentioned earlier, the concept of proximity is key. Usually urban planners say proximity is walking 5 to 10 minutes or 500 meters from your home. For a pregnant woman with a child other issues might be more important. For example, you have a bus stop 300 meters from your home, but the way from your home to the bus stop might be very complicated. The stairs might be dark or unsafe, blocked by trash, or, there might be violence. It doesn’t matter that the bus stop is 300 meters away, what matters is that you have to have a safe, healthy and possibly interesting environment. So this concept of proximity is really important. My recommendation for designing an equity approach is to consider proximity but also the ability to get to places, really close places, from your home in a safe and healthy way.
Any mayor in the world seeking to roll out a program for children initially thinks about creating parks and playgrounds. I don’t like that. Why? Because children need access to all of the city. So If you build a park or a playground but you don’t consider how children will get there; you don’t think that the sidewalks, or the squares, or other places in the city should be suitable for children, that’s not equity. Of course children need parks, but they also need more than that.
First of all, they need to get to the parks and playgrounds. They also need to be safe and to find interesting places they can get to with their parents. I’m thinking about younger children but we can think about older children who can go about the city alone. We talk about playgrounds and parks but the first question is how do you get there? And then, what do you do outside of the park? This is a message to the mayors. Don’t just consider parks, consider the city as a whole.