Designing cities for little citizens

PROFESSOR KAREN WITTEN -Associate Director, SHORE and Whāriki Research Centre

From British Columbia in Western Canada to Ghent in Belgium, and now Auckland in New Zealand, cities throughout the world are incorporating child-friendly approaches to urban planning.

Part of the new concept design responding to the children’s audit of the existing square. Photo: Auckland Council

Modern cities tend to be structured around motorised transportation. As urban populations increase, so do the appearance of “concrete jungles” filled with busy roads, narrow footpaths intersected by roads, car parks and buildings.

Safe spaces for children to play and socialise can be easily lost or compromised as cities grow. Coupled with this increasing urbanisation, car dependency and changing family structures, such as more parents working outside the home, are putting distance between people and the communities in which they live.

The main sources of entertainment for our youngest citizens are socialisation at school, structured play at community facilities and events such as play dates and sports lessons. The “fringe hours”, mostly spent under the watchful eye of parents at home, tend to be sedentary, causing health advocates, social scientists and urban planners to become concerned about the health impacts of our built environments on our future generations.

Researchers at Massey University, led by Professor Karen Witten, have undertaken several studies over the past eight years that have examined the relationship between the types of play and physical activity children engage in and the roles of the built environment and parental supervision. Professor Witten is a geographer and psychologist with an interest in urban neighbourhoods and how their design and infrastructure influence the social relationships, transport choices and wellbeing of residents, and is Professor of Public Health at Massey University.

“Children naturally negotiate risk and manage fears during play—it’s how they become independent,’ Professor Witten says. “Socialising with friends, being active and exploring their environment are all important for their development.

“However, compared with previous generations, they are very sedentary and have less freedom to engage in free play and move independently around their local neighbourhoods.”

Taking a fresh approach to urban planning, Auckland Council is considering the needs of its little citizens. In the inner city, the Waitematā Local Board has become a strong advocate for child-friendly cities, and is liaising with UNICEF about gaining accreditation. Massey University is helping inform this approach by providing policy-relevant information about children’s use and experiences of nine Auckland neighbourhoods, in both suburban and inner-city locations.

To take account of children’s wellbeing in cities we need to think beyond provision of parks, playgrounds and skateparks.


Kids in the city

Called Kids in the City (2010–2014), Massey’s research involved 253 children aged nine to 12 years and their parents or caregivers. Recognising the potential influence of walkability and access to services and amenities, aspects of children’s spatial and social lives were investigated using GPS devices, accelerometers, trip diaries, discussion groups with children, interviews with parents and neighbourhood walking interviews.

Findings from the interviews and discussion groups clearly show that children have few opportunities to travel independently. “Stranger danger” and traffic concerns were the primary cited reasons. “Active transport—walking, scootering, biking—is the most effective way for children to explore their local environments and become street-confident citizens. But we need to rethink how we design many of our streets to make them safer for children,” Professor Witten says.

“To take account of children’s wellbeing in cities we need to think beyond provision of parks, playgrounds and skateparks. While these amenities are important, a child-friendly city will embrace children’s presence city-wide; they will feel safe and welcome in all public spaces and will have the freedom to move safely and independently between home, school, shops and other common daily destinations.”

Children researching children

Following on from the Kids in the City research, and coinciding with Auckland Council’s wish to incorporate child-friendly perspectives in urban planning, Dr Penelope Carroll and other colleagues in Professor Witten’s team ran a pilot study called Children Researching Children in 2013. Six children aged 10 to 12 who had previously participated in Kids in the City conducted their own research with peers living in Auckland.

Each child came up with a research question and was mentored through data collection, analysis, presentation and dissemination of their findings to Auckland Council. Impressed with children’s ability to articulate their needs as active citizens, the council approached Massey University again in May 2015 to carry out a child-friendly audit of Freyberg Square. This CBD park dating from the 1870s was becoming tired and in need of rejuvenation. Its proximity to a community centre, shops and inner-city apartments made it an ideal test case for becoming a “distinctive, safe and popular destination, where locals and visitors choose to frequent and linger”.

Over a three-month period a select group of children (including some from the original Kids in the City cohort) explored Freyberg Square, took photographs, participated in workshops and, under the mentorship of the researchers, contributed insightful feedback and creative ideas. As a result, the council’s final draft development plan for the space ensured the 1970s statue of Lord Freyberg (a World War I hero) remained accessible for children to touch, a discovery trail was incorporated amongst the bushes, the water feature was made more interactive and pohutukawa were planted to ensure children would have plenty of trees to climb.

The final report on the audit prepared for council was well received, including the perception by council staff that the children’s perspectives had given strength to the final draft design, and that involving children in an audit was “doable”. From the researchers’ perspective, the project was a valuable extension of their earlier work and refined the way that they conduct child-friendly audits to ensure children’s right to participate is recognised, and that their sense of agency, safety and positive sense of self were all enhanced through the process.

We’ve helped produce changes to both policy and practice in urban planning.


Just the beginning

Research in this area is ongoing for the team. They have two new Health Research Council project grants: Neighbourhoods for active kids, led by Dr Melody Oliver, an AUT colleague; and Enabling participation for disabled children and young people, led by Professor Witten. The former is using novel SoftGIS technologies to investigate children’s use and experiences of urban neighbourhoods, and the latter is concerned with understanding barriers and enablers to the community participation of young people with mobility and sensory impairments.

As Freyberg Square nears its redevelopment, following a recently completed consultation with other stakeholder groups, Professor Witten is confident that this is just the beginning.

“We’ve helped produce changes to both policy and practice in urban planning. It has built on decades of international research, producing a shift in the way children are viewed—that is, as citizens with rights and capabilities as change agents—and highlighted the need for urban planners to consider the wellbeing of children living in cities.”

Project details


  • Building Research Capacity in the Social Sciences
  • Health Research Council
  • Marsden Fund
  • Massey University

Dates Ongoing since 2008