Family-friendly design of streets, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, plazas
Idea for Action Summary
Transforming existing urban spaces throughout the city into safe, accessible, natural, playful spots can transform the city and the lives of all its residents.
These spots can include small playgrounds, play streets and urban gardens, or simple resting spots along the way – where babies and toddlers can safely play and explore, caregivers can meet and rest, and people of all ages can gather. Typically, such places are found in wealthier, more privileged communities. The challenge is to spread design principles to better impact the most vulnerable areas.
Urban planners and designers can support healthy child development by positioning spaces to facilitate caregiver well-being and positive caregiving behaviours. Such planning means taking into consideration the greater sensitivity of babies and toddlers to environmental factors (for example, air pollution) and their greater need for warm and responsive interactions. Their sensitivity means that streets, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds and plazas planned for them will most likely be suitable for everyone else. Family-friendly urban planning and design often require a shift in both political priorities and technical implementation systems across city agencies involved in the design, regulation and management of urban spaces.
For detailed guidance on designing streets that benefit babies, toddlers and their caregivers, check out Streets for Kids, a supplement to the Global Street Design Guide by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). For more information on how the design of streets and public spaces can benefit children, check out the City at Eye Level for Kids, by STIPO. For playful design in urban spaces, adapted to the needs of children from birth to age 3, check out Playground Ideas for 0–3 years, by Superpool Architects.
Key characteristics of family-friendly urban spaces:
- Safe – A mother with a toddler and newborn should feel safe from crime and harassment, or simply safe to cross the road or linger in public spaces for quality time. This means streets with context-appropriate speeds, ideally below 30 km/h in dense urban environments; sidewalks in good condition; and frequent street crossings with adequate signal timings, minimal crossing distances and short waiting times. It also means designs that improve the visibility of pedestrians and reduce speeds of turning vehicles, with good lighting to help prevent accidents and crime.
- Accessible – Family-friendly public spaces and streets should be easy to reach, situated a short distance from where families live and connected to safe walking, cycling and transit infrastructure. Within the spaces, moving with children should be easy, whether they are curious toddlers running around or infants in strollers, with universal accessibility elements such as ramps, dropped kerbs and level surfaces for ease of movement.
- Comfortable – Public spaces should be comfortable places for babies, toddlers and their caregivers. This means benches with shade and shelter to rest along the way, playgrounds inclusive of the very young, and facilities for intergenerational outings in parks. The provision of toilets, drinking water and food options increases the amount of time families spend outdoors. Women breastfeeding in a public space is generally a good indicator that this space is comfortable for families.
- Stimulating – Spaces that allow exploration and play in various forms support children’s healthy development, especially when they are integrated into everyday urban infrastructure. This includes playgrounds and parks with natural play elements with loose parts and varying textures, green spaces and murals on streets.
- Publicised – Spaces and infrastructure should be actively publicised in a way that supports their use by the most vulnerable families, through targeted events programming and well-designed communications, as well as engagement campaigns and other strategies to improve awareness, access and utilisation.