When it comes to children, health and the city are not often associated with one another. If anything, cities are thought of as unhealthy places where children in particular suffer the ill-effects of pollution, crime and traffic. However, through research I have been conducting with children who live in Dublin’s north inner city, it seems they are in fact very happy with many aspects of their urban environment. Just how well Dublin city works for them can be measured in terms of well-being indicators developed in collaboration with children through a study at NUI Galway. The idea of well-being is based on an understanding of health as ‘the presence of positive health such as feeling happy’. The children who were involved in the study were asked to photograph people or places that made them well, or kept them well. The study showed that happiness and health are associated with physical participation in life and a sense of belonging in the local community. Other indicators of well being were being able to interact with nature and positive relationships with people in the immediate environment.
The children who participated in my research used photography to map their experience of walks they made regularly through the city to and from school, to play, to after school activities or to visit friends and family. The variety of important places and people the children identify reflect those well being indicators. Time and again the children express the value of the social encounters they have with people along the way, people they know and who know them and who make them feel a sense of belonging in their communities. They also photograph little pockets of nature on their routes which often go unnoticed by adults; horses in stables behind a gateway or a small tree on a grass verge where they have built a little tree house. They are also very clear about places where they do not feel happy such as roads where there is a lot of traffic and pathways strewn with empty beer cans and bottles or lewd graffiti - both of which suggest to them that ‘bad people have been here’.
The key to promoting children’s well-being in the city is to engage with them and develop planning policies which reflect their needs. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child children are accorded participation rights. Through Irish planning legislation children are entitled to make representations on planning decisions. Developing collaborative planning strategies is an important acknowledgment of their rights and would facilitate planning decisions which engaged with children’s well-being. There are several excellent examples internationally of how to plan cities with children, among the UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Initiative which specifically promotes children’s participation in local government decision making processes and provides a framework for action with nine building blocks towards creating a genuinely child friendly city.
Children’s play is clearly an ideal means to achieve both engagement in the city environment and promote well-being. Through play children socialise, exercise, manipulate space to meet their needs, and above all else, they enjoy well deserved fun. Playgrounds offer children a particular play experience but the street is widely regarded as an invaluable play space where they can hang out in their local community with their friends - messing, chasing or inventing whole new imaginative worlds. The new Dublin City Play Plan ‘Play here, play there, play everywhere’ is a welcome step in the right direction towards recognising children’s needs in the city.
Designing traffic calming measures and even car free streets which would allow children more freedom of movement through their local community is a vital next step. Finally, developing a genuinely child friendly city which acknowledges children’s rights and citizenship is the solution to ensuring children’s well-being in the city. A child friendly city is a sustainable city. By pursuing a goal of making ours a child friendly city, Dublin has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Jackie Bourke runs Playtime which promotes children’s urban play needs. She is undertaking a PhD on children’s outdoor freedoms in the city through the Dublin Institute of Technology.