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Creating healthy, prosperous and vibrant cities where babies, toddlers and their families thrive

If you could experience a city from 95cm – the height of a 3-year-old – what would you change? Urban95 asks this bold but simple question of the world’s urban leaders, planners, designers and managers.

Urban95 is the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s initiative to make lasting change in the landscapes and opportunities that shape the crucial first five years of children’s lives.

Urban95 is rooted in the belief that when urban neighbourhoods work well for babies, toddlers and the people who care for them, they also tend to nurture strong communities and economic development.

Background

Today, more than a billion children live in cities. Cities can be wonderful places to grow up, but they can also pose serious challenges for healthy child development – with consequences for the next generation of adults.

To develop to their full potential, young children need frequent, warm, responsive interactions with loving adults and a safe, stimulating physical environment to explore.

Both of these things are often in short supply in a city. Dense neighbourhoods; poor access to nature; long, unpredictable and even dangerous commutes; crowded housing; poor sanitation; isolation; stress; and lack of access to affordable healthcare and childcare make it harder for children to explore safely – and for caregivers to interact with their children in ways that promote healthy development.

The spatial needs of young children also differ from those of older children and adults. Babies and toddlers:

  • experience the world at a much smaller scale, depend on others to move around, and have a far shorter range of mobility than the typical city dweller.
  • are particularly vulnerable to air and noise pollution.
  • need to travel regularly to early childhood services such as well-baby clinics and childcare.
  • are always to be found with their caregivers.

To create environments that enable nurturing care, it is crucial for urban planners, designers, developers and cities to understand how children’s and caregivers’ surroundings influence their needs and experiences – physical, social and emotional, cognitive and spatial.

Why cities benefit from Urban95

Focusing on babies, toddlers and their caregivers does not only make a city’s young children more likely to develop to their full potential – it makes a city better for everyone.

The wellbeing of babies, toddlers and their caregivers is the best measure of a vibrant, prosperous and healthy city. When city leaders make decisions that work for the youngest residents, they also tend to have a wider positive impact:

  • Walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods that cater for the basics a young family needs within 15 minutes on foot are attractive for everyone.
  • Lively, green public spaces close to home that offer amenities for caregivers while allowing small children to explore safely attract all generations and may create higher economic value for a city.
  • Safe transport routes and transit systems that make it easy, reliable, affordable and enjoyable for families with young children to travel where they need to go are also more likely to work for older people and those with disabilities.
  • Air quality is most important for the health of young children, but important for everyone else’s health as well – and becoming a major public and political concern in cities all over the world.

Young children can be a powerful, easy-to-understand cause for mobilising political and public will for a broad range of initiatives. As one mayor we spoke with said, ‘There’s a natural and broad constituency of support when it comes to children‘.

What Urban95 focuses on

While many elements of urban life impact on children’s healthy development, Urban95 focuses on:

Family-friendly urban planning and design: Using the lens of families and their needs to influence the design and regulation of the uses of space, with a focus on the physical form, functions, health impacts and social support networks of an urban area and on the location of different activities within it.

Public space: Places such as streets, parks, sidewalks, plazas and playgrounds, accessible to all, and which support positive interactions between babies and toddlers and their caregivers.
Transportation: Safe, convenient, affordable and sustainable ways for caregivers with young children to reach their destinations, including walking, cycling, and formal or informal public transit.
Neighbourhood planning: A neighbourhood that provides access to key early years services in a short and affordable trip, a supportive community and a quality environment for young children’s development and caregiver well-being.

 

Healthy environments for children: Focusing on aspects of the natural and built environment affecting children’s development.

Air quality: Air quality under WHO-recommended levels in and around areas where children spend the most time, such as childcare, healthcare, preschool, streets, parks and playgrounds.
Nature: Regular exposure to nature for play and rest, and better ways to protect from exposure to negative natural elements such as adverse weather conditions.

Resources

An Urban95 Starter Kit - ideas for action

Based on knowledge gathered from Urban95 initiatives across the world, this Urban95 Starter Kit serves as a starting point to help cities understand the importance of investing in their youngest… Read more

Urban95 Virtual Reality

Urban95 Virtual Reality - Bernard van Leer Foundation

Urban design and planning have a big role to play in shaping the early years of a child’s life, which are vital for their long-term health and development. But few… Read more

The City at Eye Level for Kids

The City at Eye Level for Kids

The City at Eye Level develops and shares knowledge about how to make urban development work at human scale. A collaboration with the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative, this… Read more

Infant, Toddler, Caregiver-Friendly Neighbourhood (ITCN) Framework and Guidelines

What can cities do to nurture positive early experiences and protect against negative ones? How can neighbourhoods and therefore cities support parents to talk and play with children? How can… Read more

Get ready for data! - A tool to guide data use to serve babies, toddlers and the people who care for them

Get ready for data! - A tool to guide data use to serve babies, toddlers and the people who care for them

Data is vital as cities investigate ways to measure progress and improve outcomes for babies, toddlers and the people who care for them. This tool is designed to help city… Read more

Toolkit - For measuring urban experiences of young children

People moving count, stationary activity mapping, intercept surveys and sensory mapping are among the tools that can be used to gather data on young children and caregivers in cities. They… Read more

Comparative Global Study of Urban Spaces to Support Parents

How can designated spaces for parents and children be established within existing municipal infrastructure such as community centres? What needs should these spaces focus on meeting? What services and programmes… Read more

Urban95: creating cities for the youngest people

Cities can be wonderful places to grow up, but they can also pose serious challenges for healthy child development. The Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative seeks to make lasting… Read more

It takes a city: making early childhood a strategic priority in Tel Aviv

When our Urban95 programme began to work with the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo, we initially thought about what programmes and activities the municipality might implement. We have since come to… Read more

Pollution and child development

Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today. Pollution is responsible for 9 million deaths per year – 16% of all deaths worldwide –… Read more

Child-friendly urban design - Observations on public space from Eindhoven (NL) and Jerusalem (IL)

Child-friendly urban design - Bernard van Leer Foundation

This report presents findings on urban design solutions for increasing child-friendliness at the neighbourhood level based on a project funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation. It reviews the literature… Read more

Mix & Match - Tools to design urban play

Mix & Match - Tools to design urban play

This toolkit provides possible design interventions to create more inclusive play environments from the street to the neighbourhood. It is aimed at stakeholders including policy-makers, designers, planners, architects, NGOs and… Read more

Playing it safe? - A global white paper on risk, liability and children’s play in public space

White paper - Playing it safe? - Tim Gill - Bernard van Leer Foundation

Available data suggests that playgrounds are comparatively safe places – yet, in many countries, concerns about potential liability for injury have led to bureaucratic risk reduction initiatives that might not… Read more

Space to Grow - Ten principles that support happy, healthy families in a playful, friendly city

Space to Grow - Gehl Institute and Gehl

In partnership with the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative, this paper by Gehl Institute and Gehl briefly distils 10 initial findings from research to explore how public spaces in… Read more

Services for children and family in Istanbul district municipalities

This report summarises how the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) produced an interactive map of services for children and families across 39 district municipalities in Istanbul, correlated with… Read more

How dashboards can help cities improve early childhood development

How dashboards can help cities improve early childhood development

Data dashboards can help cities to set priorities, monitor progress, encourage collaboration, inform decisions, increase accountability, and strengthen the voices of children. Based on interviews with experts and practitioners, this… Read more

Building Better Cities with Young Children and Families

Building Better Cities with Young Children and Families - Bernard van Leer Foundation

For the most part, the voices of young children, their parents and caregivers, and pregnant women have been underrepresented in traditional city building processes and overall civic engagement strategies. Using… Read more

The Kids in Communities Study: what is it about where you live that makes a difference to children’s development?

To date, research in early child development has focused primarily on family and school environments. However, to create positive environments that facilitate optimal development in young children we need to… Read more

Compendium of Best Practices of Child Friendly Cities 2017

Compendium of Best Practices of Child Friendly Cities 2017

This publication showcases examples of ways to make cities friendlier for children and youth, with initiatives drawn from various sources: research studies, award lists, newspaper articles and recommendations from a… Read more

Indicators for CHIld-friendly Local Development

As part of the Child-Friendly Smart Cities initiative, currently being implemented by India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs, this publication provides indicators to assess the gaps relating to child development… Read more

Small children, big cities

Publication ECM123 Small Children, Big Cities

With the world rapidly urbanising, more and more childhoods are being lived in big cities. This ECM explores issues ranging from playground design, "public parenting", and children's voices in urban… Read more

‘Interventions must be low-cost, low-tech, and paired with a public health message’

Interventions - Early Childhood Matters

ARCHIVE (Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments) Global is a non-profit organisation working worldwide to improve housing for health. Founder and Executive Director Peter Williams talks to Early Childhood Matters… Read more

Designing spaces that users can define

Designing spaces that users can define - Early Childhood Matters

Comparing her experiences of living with children in Rome and Chicago, architect Monica Chadha concludes that culture and social norms may be more important than explicit rules in making a… Read more

Blueprints for hope: engaging children as critical actors in urban place making

Third- and fourth-grade elementary school students have been contributing their ideas to the redevelopment of their community in San Francisco, using a methodology known as Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan-Learn-Act, Now!). This article… Read more

Human-centred design and the need for new ideas

Human-centred design and the need for new ideas - Early Childhood Matters

The process of finding ideas for improving urban design so that it caters for the needs of children has to start with understanding what children and families want from their… Read more

‘Cumulative risks need comprehensive responses’

Cumulative risks need comprehensive responses - Early Childhood Matters

Gary Evans is an environmental and developmental psychologist interested in how the physical environment affects human health and well-being among children. Here he talks to Early Childhood Matters about the… Read more

‘Families are beginning to reclaim city centres’

Families are beginning to reclaim city centres - Early childhood Matters

Lia Karsten researches the changing relationship between cities and children. Here she talks to Early Childhood Matters about the historical evolution of childhood in cities in The Netherlands, the experiences… Read more

‘People who grow up in a city that cared for them are more likely to care for their city’

People who grow up in a city that cared for them are more likely to care for their city - Early Childhood Matters

India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) is a think tank attached to the national Ministry of Urban Development. It participates in consultations and serves as a sounding board in… Read more

Living conditions: The influence on young children's health

Publication ECM118 Living conditions: The influence on young children's health

This edition of Early Childhood Matters explores the links between the living conditions that children grow up in and their health and development around the world. Read more

Child-friendly cities – sustainable cities

Child-friendly cities

How can planners integrate the environmental experiences that children have into the processes of planning for sustainable development? Studies show that children aged 11–12 years, and professionals with a child-centred… Read more

Improving living conditions for the Roma minority in Europe

Improving living conditions for the Roma minority in Europe - Early Childhood Matters

Alexandros Tsolakis works as a policy expert at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Regional Policy. Here he talks to Early Childhood Matters about how the EC’s ongoing work on… Read more

Children growing up in Indian slums: Challenges and opportunities for new urban imaginations

The physical environments of slums present many challenges to residents, particularly children. Even so, there are thriving communities in slums with strong social and economic networks. This article looks at… Read more

Working with youth to improve the built environment

Working with youth to improve the built environment - Early Childhood Matters

YouthBuild International and the Bernard van Leer Foundation began in 2011 to explore ways to work together. This article explains how YouthBuild’s programmes engage unemployed young people in building infrastructure,… Read more

Knowing, participating, transforming: A research and social mobilisation experience in a low-income Brazilian community

A research and social mobilisation experience in a low-income Brazilian community - Early Childhood Matters

Action from public authorities is often necessary to solve problems of children being exposed to unhealthy environments. However, such action must be based on sound data establishing the extent of… Read more

Healthy Environments

Publication ECIF8 Healthy Environments

Textbooks typically give much less attention to the physical environment in which children grow up than to their social environment, yet the physical environment is intimately linked to growth and… Read more

Young children in cities: Challenges and opportunities

Young children in cities: Challenges and opportunities - Early Childhood Matters

This edition of Early Childhood Matters looks at young children’s experiences of growing up in urban settings. A quarter of the world’s children live in poor urban settlements - a… Read more

Children living in urban poverty: A global emergency, a low priority

Among the world’s rapidly expanding urban populations, poverty is having catastrophic implications for millions of young children. However, in the context of good governance and well supported grassroots organizations, urban… Read more

Making Rotterdam child-friendly: “Cooperation and a wide-angle view are key”

Rotterdam has a reputation within the Netherlands and beyond for its progressive approach to social policy and its focus on improving life for the city’s children – in particular the… Read more

A safe passage to adulthood: Reaching slum children through women-led savings

Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) is an international alliance of slum dweller organisations in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which originated in 1991 when slum dwellers from South… Read more

Hope for the children of Juarez

As the new ‘ground zero’ in the war on drugs – and the homicide capital of the world – Ciudad Juarez in Mexico is a challenging place in which to… Read more

The urban experience of young Roma children

In its work at regional level within the EU, the Bernard van Leer Foundation focuses on Roma populations, who across Europe face higher risks of discrimination and difficult living conditions. Read more

Freeing children to contribute: Building child-friendly cities in the Asia Pacific region

Building child-friendly cities in the Asia Pacific region - Early Childhood Matters

Large sections of many cities in the Asia-Pacific region are effectively out of bounds for children, whose freedom to explore their urban environments is limited by a lack of child-friendly… Read more

Inspiring slum children through education: a story from Delhi

Inspiring slum children through education: a story from Delhi An experience of early comprehensive care with children under 3 years old - Early Childhood Matters

In a personal account of the 22 years since she set up Katha (which means ‘story’ in most Indian languages), Geeta Dharmarajan reflects on how education services can inspire children… Read more

Community classrooms for the all-round protection of Petare’s boys and girls

In an area of Caracas where street violence has become a normal part of everyday life, and where children grow up admiring and wanting to emulate the leaders of local… Read more

Setting our agenda on early learning, violence and physical environment

Setting our agenda on early learning, violence and physical environment - Early Childhood Matters

This edition of Early Childhood Matters offers a first introduction to the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s thinking as we flesh out our new goals for the period 2010 to 2015. Read more

A view from the Netherlands: The status of children in local government spatial planning

The status of children in local government spatial planning - Early Childhood Matters 2010

This article describes spatial planning processes at local government level in the Netherlands in relation to opportunities for children to play and explore the outdoors close to home: in their… Read more

Improving the life chances of low-income young children in urban Brazil

The Bernard van Leer Foundation commissioned CIESPI (International Center for Research and Policy on Childhood) to study opportunities and challenges presented by the Foundation’s three new goals – reducing violence,… Read more

Space to play: Experiences from São Paulo

Ato Cidadão (Citizen Act) works with the Project Estação Atitude Cidadã in communities of São Paulo where children are especially at risk. Together they support the creation, organisation and consolidation… Read more