Want a liveable city? Make it child-friendly first

Singapore not as perfect as it seems, according to urban planning expert
Tan Hui Yee Straits Times 21 Jul 10;

SINGAPORE is often cited as one of the world's more liveable cities, but a stroll through Kampong Glam, Little India, Tanjong Pagar and other downtown areas led one visiting expert to a more muted conclusion.

Yes, there is much the Republic is doing right, much the rest of the world can envy, but the country is falling down in one key area - it is not thinking small enough.

Child-sized, to be precise, because cities must first be liveable for kids before they can be liveable for all, according to urban planning consultant Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard, who was in town recently for the World Cities Summit.

And while Singapore is clearly streets ahead in terms of its crime rate, the walks around town she undertook over four days showed up other problems.

She found that traffic in downtown Singapore is a tad too heavy and street- level crossings inadequate for children to wander around on their own.

In her view, a city needs to facilitate such independent access for children if it wants to be truly liveable.

Child-friendly cities thrive because everyone needs fundamentally the same things, like an accessible environment and rich social life. By focusing on meeting the needs of children - one of the most vulnerable and physically weakest groups in the community - the city can get its basics right.

But that does not mean ever more kiddie rides, cartoon murals or playgrounds.

'The ideal play area for children is the city itself,' says Dr Crowhurst Lennard, 65, the founder of the International Making Cities Liveable Council, which is based in Portland, Oregon.

Generally, it is a bad idea to relegate children to just children's facilities because they learn best when able to freely mingle with and observe adults in an everyday setting. And catering to children is not that hard.

'On a simple level, it is a matter of walkability. Children have to be able to get around safely on their own as early as possible and explore their environment.

'That means it has to be safe not only from traffic, but also a good socially safe environment where there are familiar adults along the way who recognise them and speak to them - people of different ages,' she said.

So, buildings, roads, parks and street furniture should be designed to inspire imagination, invite exploration and serve multiple uses.

For example, steps should be comfortable enough to invite seating, walls should be low enough to be 'climbed on, sat on, or walked along', and window ledges and planter ledges should be broad enough to double as seats. Meanwhile, public art should welcome children instead of being plastered with 'no climbing' or 'no touching' signs.

'All kinds of public art should be meaningful and understandable to children. They should tell children about the history and traditions of the city. And they should be able to be played on.'

She cites, as a good example, the bronze sculptures of The River Merchants by local artist Aw Tee Hong, which details the lives of traders by the Singapore River when the island was under colonial rule. Passers-by continually stop to touch the sculptures and clamber on to pose for photographs.

And our bright shiny malls, centre of much of Singapore life? They get a firm thumbs down.

Malls are increasingly becoming meeting spots and teenage hang-outs as they are being planned around transport nodes, but Dr Crowhurst Lennard says they are 'not ideal' as a public space given the restrictions on what can occur there.

Instead, an open, flexible public space does better at engaging young minds.

'It can be used as a market in the morning, for festivals in afternoon and on a quiet (evening), just for sitting out and relating to people...It can be used for a school performance or some kind of local community festival.'

She thinks child-friendly environments make everybody's lives - especially older folk - easier. This is because they have 'very similar needs to children' - like being within walking distance to cafes, shops and libraries or other social nodes where they can interact with people as their social circle shrinks with age.

Yet, the quality of social life is all too often overlooked by city planners too engrossed with the hardware of their cities. 'Liveability' is regularly confused with 'standard of living', she says.

The latter refers to better health care, educational standards and a more comfortable environment that comes with higher incomes.

Meanwhile, liveability 'has more to do with quality of everyday social life, the interactions that we have every day and the quality of those interactions'.

In her view, a poor neighbourhood with abysmal sanitation could have a socially richer quality of life than a wealthier one with its plumbing systems in order.

'The trick is to try to figure out how to reclaim that rich social life and still keep our high standards of living,' she says.

Some cities get it right, although the one she cited might surprise - the seething tourist hot spot of Venice. Yet she notes that the 'museum city' actually hosts rich social networks supported by gracious infrastructure.

'While some people are richer, some poorer, they live side by side, everyone takes the same public transit and walks the same streets,' she says.

These social networks are based on Venetians' own home campo - the square they grew up in or live in - rather than their job or status.

The networks are strengthened by their shared memories of the city as well as the stories that collect around its landmarks.

'A community exists only when people know each others' stories. I would have to know all about you, where you grew up, what your childhood was like, who your parents were and who you played with in order for me to feel that I were part of your community or you were part of my community'.

Parents expand this community when they share memories of the city with their children. But the task becomes 'much harder' when the cityscape changes very fast - as it does in Singapore. The loss of a social landmark, like a long-reigning coffee shop, would then feel like a 'death in the family'.

She feels cities must have continuity in some measure: '(You need) social life that children take part in as they get to know their city.'

Ideally, a city should also have mixed-use environments, old and young from all walks of life working and playing in the same district. Such an integrated concept is regaining currency as urban planners realise the fallacy of zoning regulations that create buzzing business districts by day and dead zones by night.

In the United States, where middle-class families spent decades fleeing the cities for the suburbs, people are 'realising they have to bring the population back to the downtown area, and people are beginning to move back'.

'(People) want to be within walking distance of cafes and restaurants and nightlife and the resources of the city,' she says. 'This will be a trend for the future.'

The growing complaint in Singapore that only the well-off can afford to live within or close to the city as homes are so expensive gets a sympathetic response.

'That is not a good solution,' she declares, as it creates a rather skewed environment.

She thinks housing quotas for different income groups could help right the balance in the same way the Housing Board sets quotas for ethnic groups in each block and precinct.

In such an inclusive environment - where young and old, rich and poor, different ethnicities live together - people learn to 'negotiate with each other...and appreciate each others' values'. And it is these environments that will best meet the social needs of children - and ultimately, society.

'We need to live in as equitable an urban environment as possible,' she says. 'We need to live in a district where we all experience the diversity of our society as much as possible.'

Building the perfect city for everyone
Straits Times 21 Jul 10;

# How is greenery child-friendly?

There is a lot of evidence that children need contact with nature. There are a lot of studies now saying children do much better if they are able to play in nature. If they do that, they calm down, and their play is much less aggressive.

Children playing on asphalt playgrounds tend to become more aggressive and start fighting. Children playing in a natural setting work with each other and collaborate with each other.

# You have talked about the need for retaining social landmarks in the community. How then should the authorities go about the business of redevelopment?

There is a movement called community architecture (also called community planning in the United States). Professors of schools of planning go out and work in the community. They have meetings over time with community members to try and help them identify their problems and find solutions to them.

They would go into very, very poor neighbourhoods, for instance, and train residents to fix up old buildings. They would help the community in negotiations to buy buildings if they were renting them. It is a very difficult job, but it helps community members to make more roots and make their own investment of time and energy to come up with a solution that answers their needs.

# What are some of your favourite cities and why?

Freiburg, Germany, is extremely liveable for people of all ages and backgrounds. It helps children to grow up with a high degree of self-confidence and independence, stimulates their interest in life and desire to explore and learn.

It does this by being extremely safe for pedestrians and bicyclists, and by offering excellent, integrated public transportation so children are free to explore on their own, go into town, meet friends and do interesting things together in the countryside.

Freiburg's city centre is safe because it is an extensive pedestrian zone, filled with people day and night, and because it is human scale.

Meanwhile, Portland (in the US) is a young, idealistic city. The central and western part is extremely walkable with short blocks, wide sidewalks, linear parks, tree-lined streets, roses and fine views of three snow-capped mountains. It is constantly improving public transit and bike networks.

The extensive Pearl District next to downtown was transformed from an industrial area to renovated warehouse lofts and new mixed-use residential buildings, mostly human scale.

# What are some of your worries for cities of the future?

There is this recent film called Babies, which tracks the life of four babies in Namibia, Mongolia, the US and Japan. The quality of life in that first year is so different for each baby that it raises a lot of questions.

Even though the standard of living may be the highest in Tokyo, its quality of life may not be as good for a baby as that in Namibia, in a mud hut.

I am worried about the effects on children if cities of the future grow vertically and become more compact.

In cities where people are living in high-rise environments, more young people are busy with their careers and don't want to get married and have children. So, maybe high-rise environments are not conducive to the idea of getting married and having children.

On a quest for better urban environments
Straits Times 21 Jul 10;

DR SUZANNE Crowhurst Lennard, 65, is the director of the Portland-based International Making Cities Liveable Council, which she founded with her late husband Henry Lennard in 1985.

The council, which has 3,000 members and several hundred volunteers worldwide, organises regular conferences for up to 400 politicians, professionals and academics to discuss how to create better urban environments.

The council uses an interdisciplinary approach which spans the fields of planning, urban design, health, paediatrics, social sciences, landscape architecture and even art.

She has written seven books, including The Forgotten Child: Cities For The Well-Being Of Children. Her most recent was the Genius Of The European Square, published in 2008.

The mother of three received her architecture degree with honours from Bristol University in Britain, and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.

She has held positions at the University of California, Berkeley, and has been visiting professor at Harvard University, Washington University in St Louis and New York's City University.

She is working with the Washington-based National Town Builders Association to develop guidelines, standards and a certification system for child-friendly neighbourhoods, towns and cities.