Empathy tools for urban leaders and designers

Published December 2, 2019 – by Patrin Watanatada

For Urban95, everything starts with empathy and data. One of the first challenges is that urban planners and designers don’t necessarily see or think about the particular needs of young children and their caregivers in their work. Public spaces and playgrounds are often set up for older kids or adults. Transportation tends to be planned for the needs of peak-hour commuters travelling straightforwardly from home to work to home, versus the needs of caregivers who might be going from home to childcare to grocery store to job and back at odd times.

So developing empathy for this demographic group is an important first step. Over the course of our work, we’ve developed a number of what we think of as “empathy tools” to help do this:

  • Taking people through city walks while carrying metre sticks with an eye mask at the 95cm mark that they can look through – first suggested by our colleague Leontien Peeters – or holding 10kg bags of rice to simulate carrying or pushing a young toddler in a stroller.
  • Drawing exercises. We’ll often start workshops by asking participants to draw their childhood journey to school and a recent journey as a caregiver. Our partners at the Global Designing Cities Initiative do this as well in their Streets for Kids workshops.
  • A breathing exercise. When we run presentations on air pollution, we’ve asked people to try breathing at 4x the speed of a normal adult – the pace at which a newborn baby breathes, which means they take in 4x as much air and all its pollution per gram of body weight as you or I. I first used this at a BvLF board meeting where we were asking for approval of our first-ever “environmental investment”, in the Clean Air Fund, and it worked!
  • The Urban95 Journeys. Our collaborator Hannah Wright and design agency Wolf&Player are leading the development of a series of storyboards that outline a set of urban journeys by families with young children in the cities where we work. These are designed specifically to be used in workshops with urban planners and designers.
  • Short films. Our colleague Melissa van Well-Dijkshoorn commissioned filmmaker Jacob Krupnick to develop the Young Explorers series that document the urban journeys of a small child and their caregiver in Pune in India and Recife in Brazil. Our partner Karima Grant of ImaginationAfrika also created a short film series called Walking with Amadou film in Dakar, Senegal. We’ll ask people to watch these and then highlight specific aspects that might be good or not so good for healthy child development on a still photo from the film.
  • …and the most high-tech: an Urban95 virtual reality simulation that our colleague Ardan Kockelkoren developed with Arup. We’ve used this at more than a dozen events this past year where it always attracts attention – including at the C40 Mayors Summit where our colleagues Preeti Prada, Taissa De Mello Padua Bernardes and Cecilia Vaca Jones persuaded several mayors to try it out, and onstage as part of Michael Feigelson’s plenary keynote at the ISSA early childhood conference where it got a big laugh as well as making an important point. We’re about to start working with Arup on a new edition that goes from negative to positive.

We’ve found these to be wonderfully helpful and adaptable to different settings to spur both empathy for babies, toddlers and the people who care for them, and productive dialogue on how to support them. We’d love to hear other ideas for doing this!