If it works for children

London Essays – Issue 9: Play

If it works for children

We should approach planning through the eyes of children, young people and families.

By Holly Donagh

The experiences of children, young people and families are crucial to the future of the city. London is likely to lose families if the city cannot satisfy their needs for high-quality schooling and local amenities, 16 lack of which will harm the city’s economy and, just as importantly, its social cohesion. Families with children are the glue around which communities form: without them, social integration becomes much harder to achieve.

Currently, however, London’s children and young people are not very happy; nor are they doing as well as they could be. About one in six, 15.5 per cent of 15-year-olds in London reported poor life-satisfaction in 2014/15. This is the highest in England, significantly higher than the average of 13.7 per cent. 17 We also have rising levels of obesity across the city, 18 high levels of youth unemployment, and an increasing polarisation between young and old.

Meanwhile, the qualifications that employers are likely to value in the future – skills in caring, creativity, self-discipline, teamwork, adaptability, and self-reliance – are not being fostered as much as they might be by schools’ strict focus on academic performance. 19 At A New Direction – a charity which exists to enable all young people to get the most out of London’s extraordinary cultural and creative offer – we believe in opening up London’s playful and intellectual resources for all children, not only those with well-connected parents.

We have recently published two reports: The Cultural (Re) generation: Building Creative Places for Young London, 20 which looks at incorporating the needs of children, young people and families into the physical development of our city; and Caring for Cultural Freedom, 21 which explores what kinds of partnerships are needed to enable young people in different areas of London to engage with London’s remarkable wealth of creative resources.

Our findings support the principles of the Child Friendly City, a movement that started at the UN in the 1990s, which starts from the assumption that by addressing children’s needs in urban development (access to local services, safe streets, places to play), we will also meet the needs of the wider population. The Child Friendly City has been adopted successfully in Rotterdam, where it began as a way of attracting families back to the centre of the city when it had become rundown and unappealing, and it is being implemented in the UK in Leeds and in other cities across the world.

What might this look like in London? We are exploring a number of possibilities. In Hackney, we are working with Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects and the Policy Studies Institute at the University of Westminster to investigate what “child-friendliness” might mean on one estate, with a view to scaling up our recommendations across the borough. In Croydon, we are developing partnerships to look at the future of the borough from the perspective of young adults (they took over the Town Hall for the second time in October 2017 and debated the issues that mattered to them). In Barking and Dagenham, we are working to build a programme of cultural citizenship and cultural entitlement for all school pupils.

Our projects suggest that young people are often best placed to identify the barriers they experience to making the most of the city, and come up with solutions. We believe there is a great deal more input young people could give on the future development of London – specifically when it comes to regeneration and growth – and we would like to see the many parts of London that are developing housing or undergoing regeneration include young people in discussions, from the inception of projects through construction to ongoing management. This might involve employing young people to work alongside planners, commissioning young researchers to lead consultation processes, creating work experience and access to employment on all new developments, and investigating the way that children and families use places and spaces.

Young people’s concerns are often local: the neighbourhood park is extremely important to them, as are the library and shopping centre. Crime and safety, pollution and litter are all major preoccupations. These issues affect young people’s day-to-day lives – yet they often feel they have no chance of influencing or changing them.

One finding of our research (reinforcing the conclusions of other studies) is that many children’s lives have an increasingly managed quality, dominated by homework and school. Young people lack freedom or space for safe self-organised activity. Anxiety about crime can lead parents to restrict their behaviour. Young people need to be able to play and to explore: this is how resilience, curiosity and creativity are nurtured – and they 38 London Essays

will struggle to access the global labour market on their doorstep if they don’t know how to navigate their city. That starts with having the confidence to navigate the street.

How, then, do we need to think about the design and systems of the city to make London a place in which young people have the space and opportunity to develop?


Bake in design and master-planning solutions that encourage play, creativity and learning for children and young people. This means providing spaces for different age groups to congregate and play, with venues and mixed-use spaces that can facilitate a range of activities, using anchor buildings like schools and colleges to draw in the community. Road layouts should be designed to encourage sociability and discourage traffic.

Opportunities to listen

Prioritise opportunities to listen to children and young people, and take action based on what they say. There is a range of ways to do this but they all call for a sustained, genuine commitment of time and resources. In Boston (and an increasing number of cities in the US) young people allocate $1 million of public money every year. Not only does this encourage democratic engagement, it has also elicited some really good ideas and projects.


Strong civic leadership is crucial in making the city open to children and young people, because partnership is needed across sectors and types of organisation. A strong signal from the Mayor that he is listening to young people and taking account of their views would be a good first step: a Young Mayor, along the lines of the Night Mayor, could engage young people and examine polices from their perspective. It is locally, however, where child-friendly approaches are most fruitful, meaning that leadership is needed from local authorities and local partnerships.


More support is needed for places and programmes where new thinking about the needs of young people can be tried and developed – Old Oak Common Park Royal, for example, is expected to be 30 years in development and could benefit from the insight and engagement of today’s children and young adults who may well occupy the area in the future.

To achieve these things, schools, children’s services, cultural organisations and local authorities need to establish child-friendly agendas, and embed them as long-term strategies. Children want to play, and play leads to creativity and new ideas. If we allow for and encourage the play and ideas of young people, we can build a city that unlocks the talent of the young for the benefit of everyone.

  • 16 Booth, R. (2017, 24th July). Bloated London property prices fuelling exodus from capital. The Guardian. Retrieved from:
  • 17 Public Health England (2016). The mental health of children and young people in London. UK Government. Retrieved from:
  • 18 Crerar, P. (2015, 4th August). Obesity rates higher among London school children than anywhere in UK. The Evening Standard. Retrieved from: www.standard. very-overweight-by-time-they-leaveprimary- school-10436893.html
  • 19 See the recent Nesta publication, Future of Skills 2030, for one of many analyses predicting this form of shift. Available at: future-skills-employment-2030
  • 20 Available at research/the-cultural-regeneration
  • 21 Available at