Are We Listening?

Kids can teach us how to design better cities

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Little people have very big ideas about our cities, ideas without boundaries, that are refreshing and progressive and they can bring new visions about urban environment.

Urban planners and designers are always looking at how to make our cities more liveable for future generations. Yet tomorrow’s city makers—today’s children—are rarely asked what they think. Through the events of more recent times though, their voices are most certainly being heard. However, the question that must be asked is, “are we actually listening?”

As designers within the built environment, we are making decisions today that will impact the future of the next generation. It’s imperative therefore that we have a solid grasp, not only on what we are doing in preparation for them, but in fact what it is they want. Will they live in houses or apartments? Will they use private vehicles or public transport? What will draw them to a city—and make them stay? What will make for a successful city? And how will success be measured?

Using a focussed research event of interactive installations, designed to inspire tomorrow’s thinkers, planners and decision makers, we decided to dig a bit deeper; challenging children to experiment and toy with ideas about the urban environment, and inviting their thoughts on cities of the future. What would it look like? What should it include? What would be the cities priorities? How should it function?

We discovered little people have very big ideas about our cities, ideas without boundaries, that are refreshing and progressive. Although whimsical and fantastic, children’s liberated approach can teach even the most seasoned urban designers and planners a valuable lesson.

Mind-Blowing Homes Not surprisingly, kids think a lot about their homes, and the types of places they would like to live in the future. Homes below the ocean, homes in the sky, homes on wheels. The places they dream of are technology-enabled, ready to take on any family, any lifestyle, any situation.

Super-Charged transport Kids are fascinated by how we move in cities too. Most see the car as a problem—creating noise, pollution and congestion. Instead kids want to see jetpacks, slippery slides and flying trains—transport that’s engaging, flexible and sustainable.

Places to Breathe! Like many kids, Meredith (age 10) pointed out that “buildings are getting bigger and rooms are getting smaller.” That means our cities rely on common places to play, relax, run and have fun. Many children drew cities full of parks and rivers and playgrounds and wildlife—all parts of a healthy, happy city.

A Real Heart! Kids see cities as places where everyone’s included and equal— “something for everyone,” as Sage (age 10) said. They hate to see signs of inequality, like homelessness and poverty.

Seriously Fun! Kids understand many of the social, technological and ecological issues facing cities, but they still think there needs to be a focus on fun. They shared hotels made of dreams, buildings created out of chocolate and ice cream, and cities with swirls of colour in the air. We should all only ask: why not?

Children can bring fresh and new ideas about the urban environment.
Archikidz by HASSELL. Photo © James Horan

We explored what happens when a child’s vision of play is inserted into the adult world. These insights can be used to inspire fresh strategies for public engagement and inform future public realm projects.

“Playability” is an important consideration for our urban environments as it brings life into our city spaces, and encourages people to linger, explore and most importantly, smile. Play brings joy, it helps people feel connected, included and excited by the cities they live in. The next generation bring fresh perspectives on how we can make our cities better for everyone who lives there, young and old.

The expectations of the youth of today’s cities are very wide when it comes to living in the cities of the future. They want to see our cities with transport systems that are intuitive and connected and which remove our ongoing craving for car dominance. Cities that include places to breathe, and green areas that are truly public spaces, and that are visibly and functionally equitable places to live, work and play in.

In the end though, children relish fun. To enjoy the cities in which we live, and which we are handing over to a future generation, we need to ensure that this element of enjoyment is available to all and at every level—this goes way beyond just that of one building, one bus service or one park space. They need to work together as a combination of parts: linked up, inclusive, balanced, and enjoyable. It is only then that we could say we have listened and delivered.

Main image: Archikidz by HASSELL. Photo © James Horan

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