In this extract from their report, Neighbourhood Design: Working with Children Towards a Child Friendly City, Dinah Bornat and Ben Shaw propose new approaches to urban design and participation with young people.
A quarter of London’s population is younger than 18 years old. That’s a significant proportion, but children are nevertheless largely unrepresented in urban development policy and practice.
For this report on neighbourhood design, we have worked with children, listened to them, observed their activities and analysed their use of outdoor space.
We chose the London Borough of Hackney as a setting for the research because Hackney Council has made a public commitment to becoming a child-friendly borough and is keen to understand how to put this into practice. On the advice of the mayor, Philip Glanville, we carried out a nine-month study on the De Beauvoir Estate with children from the nearby De Beauvoir Primary School.
The De Beauvoir Estate was built in the south-west corner of the borough in the 1970s. It currently has more than 800 dwellings in a variety of towers, lower blocks and terraces. It is a good example of a ‘mixed development’, with a range of flats, maisonettes and terraces, and an abundance of open spaces. It is a fascinating place to study from a spatial point of view, as there is huge variety in the type of spaces and consequently a huge variance in their use. It offered us the opportunity to study public spaces and make comparable observations between different spatial configurations.
“Participation needs to involve listening to children on their own terms. There are huge benefits to be gained from giving children the time and space to talk about their lives and neighbourhoods. This can better inform urban development”
According to the latest census data, the De Beauvoir Estate suffers from high crime rates, poor living conditions and child poverty, ranking in the bottom 20% of the country for deprivation. This is paired with a very high level of obesity among children on the estate, with 32% of Year 6 children classed as obese – one of the highest levels in both Hackney and England.
In terms of housing, recent data from Hackney Council shows that 58% of the 611 households with a live rent account are receiving housing benefit and that 16% of these households are overcrowded; however, it is highly likely that the true number of overcrowded households is higher.
It was difficult to access accurate data about the total number of children living on the estate. But a quarter of the 611 households contain children and young adults under the age of 20, of which two-thirds are younger than 16 years old.
Data like this does not reveal the full picture of people’s lives in the area. For example, the estate has a long history of civic engagement: the Jonathan Hoskins book Own De Beauvoir! includes many first-hand accounts of the tenants’ and leaseholders’ campaigns against the council. The council is now planning infill development and the residents who spoke to us felt their estate and spaces were under threat. We do not propose sites that are more or less suitable for development. But we do look closely at the whole estate, understanding how the external spaces can contribute to play and social use.
While focused on a particular estate, our conclusions and recommendations are also relevant to other boroughs, housing associations, designers and developers across the capital and cities across the UK.
Children have rights and we have grounded our work in the context of Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, with further detail provided by General Comment 17, which calls for “the need to create time and space for children to engage in spontaneous play, recreation and creativity, and to promote societal attitudes that support and encourage such activity”.
The importance of play to children has been a vital principle of this work and also a way of engaging them in a topic they have all experienced and about which they have their own views.
Our intention was to put children at the heart of our research. We wanted to test techniques for engaging them and obtaining their perspectives that could be applied in other neighbourhoods and developments.
We created an eight-week programme of work with children from Year 5 of De Beauvoir Primary School. This included more than 12 sessions of research, photography, discussion and creative writing.
The work culminated in an exhibition at the school in May last year. This was co-created and curated by the photographer Madeleine Waller, who helped the children produce the striking series of photographs and collages displayed that day to the mayor and deputy mayor of Hackney, parents, carers and siblings.
Our research with the children was augmented by independent, observational research work carried out in a series of areas across the estate that yielded more than 110 hours of data and contributed to a richer understanding of the neighbourhood.
“Central to our project was the aim of developing new ways of mapping urban neighbourhoods that are more responsive to children’s behaviour and needs”
Our project tried to explore four themes:
1 Understanding children
Our work built up a rich picture of the experience of growing up in Hackney. Children were mostly very positive about their experiences. However, there are concerns and issues that need addressing.
Children are very aware of adult behaviours, including traffic, alcohol, drugs, knives and mental health problems. These affect their lives, too.
Most say they can play outside without adults and half are allowed to call on friends by themselves. However, they are often at the bottom of the hierarchy in the use of public spaces, with intolerance exhibited towards their behaviour and their play often reported. These are all areas where interventions are needed for a more child-friendly Hackney.
2 Understanding spaces
We conducted extensive work to understand the areas of the De Beauvoir Estate. We used traditional approaches to mapping and observation of the use of space, but we complemented these with novel approaches that enable children to articulate how they use space: photography, discussions and walking tours. It has only been possible to build up a clear picture using this range of methods, as many of the insights we gained would not have become apparent without involving children.
The De Beauvoir Estate’s complex spatial arrangement and wide variety of differently used spaces mean that children across the estate have very different everyday experiences of play. In general, children play close to home and rely on easy access to well overlooked, shared spaces. But if this is unavailable, playing outside and meeting friends is less likely to happen.
3 New ways of mapping
Central to our project was the aim of developing new ways of mapping urban neighbourhoods that are more responsive to children’s behaviour and needs. The maps we have produced highlight where interventions can be made to improve the neighbourhood for children as well as other residents.
More generally, the approaches we have developed help in measuring social value, masterplanning, designing and evaluating spaces, and should become intrinsic to the urban development of residential neighbourhoods.
4 New ways of engaging children
We used a range of methods to understand what is feasible, what works best and what is most effective in gaining the views of children about their neighbourhood. We had a particular interest in how much the methods gave us space-specific insights rather than general comments on children’s lives. The methods we used enabled us to build a rapport with the children, so we could then use other less exciting methods with them.
These methods gave us rich insights into children’s lives and use of space. Our findings suggest how children can be better considered in consultations, using good advocacy, ways of listening and appropriate principles for design, delivery and management of estates and neighbourhoods.
Policy and participation
Bringing children’s experiences to bear on planning and built environment policies offers a way to better provide for their needs in that setting. A focus on play provides a targeted way to achieve a tangible and desirable outcome – one that is central to children’s daily lives and, ultimately, their own sense of self and well-being.
The new ways of mapping we have developed can form the foundation of design guidance. Combined with observational research, they offer a strong way to analyse social value and provide new tools for predicting, planning and evaluating an area.
By joining up with policy areas such as public health and transport, they could further strengthen our understanding of complex urban systems, how these affect people in their daily lives, and how we might manage change and measure outcomes.
Fundamentally, though, they create a platform that better represents children – one with which they can engage more effectively, challenging commonly held norms about the spaces we create in neighbourhoods and for whom we create them.
Children’s needs are regularly misunderstood, or simply overlooked by policy and practice. Yet their neighbourhoods matter to them, satisfying their basic daily needs, supporting their growing independence and contributing to their sense of self and well-being.
There is increasing pressure on land and sites to provide more dwellings at greater densities. However, the lack of design guidance and appropriate evidence and research to support good planning, as well as a lack of meaningful engagement in change, means that children are frequently overlooked.
To add to this, child-focused research and policies have often focused on tackling issues such as resilience, obesity, mental health and screen addiction. This report moves away from a partitioning of behaviours towards a more holistic understanding of children and their lives, by focusing on their right to move around their area safely in accordance with their own wishes. Our research suggests the design and layout of a neighbourhood can have a real and lasting impact on their lives.
“They are very aware of the realities of inner-city life and the behaviours of older children and adults related to alcohol, drugs, knives and anti-social behaviour, as well as people with mental health issues. These affect what they feel safe doing”
Children’s needs are under-represented in urban development and planning processes. This needs addressing at national, regional and local levels.
Participation needs to involve listening to children on their own terms. There are huge benefits to be gained from giving children the time and space to talk about their lives and neighbourhoods. This can better inform urban development, for both them and the wider community.
It also needs to be led by children’s experiences of space. Children can bring life and insight to a place through their stories and descriptions, which is invaluable to professionals working on urban development. Children’s knowledge should be paired with the expertise of urban professionals in design and delivery. But the engagement of children must focus on their experiences, not abstract concepts of urban design.
Space, time and permission
Urban professionals thinking about and shaping spaces need to understand the nature and importance of play to children. Play is important for children’s immediate well-being, their health, and their physical, social and mental development. Children enjoy play and have a right to it. They need to have the everyday freedom to go about their neighbourhood to play.
Children are acutely aware of positive and negative adult behaviours in the external environment and are significantly affected by them. Adults often prevent play and children often presume as a result that they are not allowed to play. But adults need to be enablers and supporters of play.
Children are inventive and experimental in how they use space to play. Given the chance, they tend to play everywhere and seek risk and excitement; they also don’t necessarily play in the way adults expect or intend.
We can learn from how children use space. If engaged appropriately, they can reveal uses of space and issues that are not obvious or apparent to parents, carers and urban development professionals.
Children are often at the bottom of the hierarchy of claims on public space. Girls are even lower in that hierarchy: they play out and call on friends significantly less than boys do, even though they do want to.
This is what is known as a ‘mixed estate’, which refers to its form and type of housing; five 19-storey tower blocks, three six-storey deck access slab blocks and a small number of terraces with back gardens. There are also two ‘play decks’ – paved podiums with parking beneath.
This mix of housing types was intended to be flexible and offer a variety of living arrangements for young people, families and older people. In practice, a natural movement of tenants between homes did not occur. There is now a mix of tenanted and leasehold properties on the estate, with a higher proportion of the terraced homes as leaseholds.
There are plenty of external spaces on the estate, much of them grassed: there are four distinct ‘playgrounds’, a MUGA and two first-floor-level play decks. There is a small precinct shopping area, although a number of the shops are now vacant, awaiting sale or refurbishment by the Benyon family. Access around the estate is complicated; most of the ground floors offer blank facades, with entrances at first-floor level via ramps and staircases. Security fences and access gates have been fitted on some of the blocks.
The residents’ association secured funding for allotments and exercise equipment in a number of spaces, but otherwise the quality of the external spaces is in need of some maintenance and refreshing
Overlooked, connected, car-free
Conventional spatial planning is often concerned with efficient car, pedestrian and cycle movement, and doesn’t account for the meandering nature of children’s play. A more nuanced, local approach that re-emphasises the importance of ‘defensible space’ and connectivity may be required.
For play to happen, spaces need to be immediately accessible, overlooked by dwellings, car-free and connected to another place or space. These attributes need to be built into policy and design guidance.
Children can be the animators of social life in communities. However, circulation on the estate is complicated in many instances, with split access and blank, unactivated ground floors. Security measures intended to improve safety, such as fences and controlled gates, restrict children from meeting friends and playing; in turn, this can lead to less community activity and fewer interactions that make the neighbourhood safer.
By paying attention to the spatial, social and physical needs of children, we believe neighbourhoods could be better, safer and more sociable places. This powerful way of thinking could herald better measurements for social value and post-occupancy evaluation, championing good design and more inclusive practices from the outset.
“When we talked to them as a whole class, they liked the idea of going to school by themselves, as it gave them more independence. They also said it was more risky as there were dangerous people in the world. They said that parents were worried that someone would kidnap them”
Mapping childhood in Hackney
Much of what the children say about where they go and the activities in which they engage are typical of what one would expect of nine and 10-year-olds. They go to parks, they play near their homes, they visit and play with friends and family, and they go to shops. They like playing football, a variety of tag-like games, knocking on doors then running away (‘knock-down ginger’), riding their bikes, roller-skating, and being out and about with their friends.
While they talk about going out to play, some children cannot as much as they like, partly because they are not allowed out on their own. Some lack the motivation to go out, although they like it once they are. Games consoles are an important feature of home activities.
Food is also very important, and visits to sweet shops and chicken shops feature prominently on the maps, in discussions in the focus groups and throughout our time at De Beauvoir Primary School.
In talking about their maps, a large proportion of children highlighted small areas near their home where they go to play. These seem to be the places they use for regular, daily play. However, when asked about the opportunities for play in the area, the children highlighted the bigger parks, such as Clissold Park, Shoreditch Park, Victoria Park and Finsbury Park. These require longer journeys and may be visited less frequently.
Children’s journeys and trips are largely made on foot or by bus, although some children said they mainly travel by car. The bus stop is a landmark many of the children know and included it in their maps and comments about the local area.
When we talked to them as a whole class, they liked the idea of going to school by themselves, as it gave them more independence. They also said it was more risky as there were dangerous people in the world. They said that parents were worried that someone would kidnap them.
Twelve children in one class said they would like to get about more by themselves. They said that to do so, they would need to be more responsible and become more comfortable with doing it.
Nearly all children can go out to play or travel unaccompanied by adults. This independence varies from none or a little to an apparently quite extensive ability to roam freely, with one boy saying: “I got an Ofo bike and head as far as Hackney Wick.”
However, as would be expected for children of this age, their independence is clearly conditional and not granted at all times or to all places.
“The reason I say between [fantastic and rubbish] is because up there, up those areas, I don’t go by myself. I want, like, an adult to be there, because there are a lot of dangerous people around… like roadmen [drug dealers]… I don’t play in the park any more because they are always there… men doing bad stuff.”
How happy are children with the opportunities to play in their neighbourhoods?
We asked the children how they rated the opportunities for play in their local area on a scale of ‘fantastic’, ‘good’, ‘OK’ or ‘rubbish’. Most were positive, with ‘fantastic’ being the most common response.
Reasons given for this rating included the proximity of places to play, the range of things to do, the scale of parks and places to play, other children to play with and friendly people.
“Because at the park there are lot of good things to ride – roundabouts, slides, zip wire and sometimes they do barbecues, yeah! And it tastes good!”;
“Because even though I’m a bit lazy and stay at home sometimes, it’s a really, really big place, like bigger than this school… and also a lot of people are friendly there and I know everyone.”
However, the ‘fantastic’ response was often qualified in subsequent comments:
“Yeah, absolutely fantastic… not just playgrounds, but my area! Even though sometimes it’s a bit grim… by grim I mean like kind of lonely, very quiet and sometimes scary”;
“The reason I say between [fantastic and rubbish] is because up there, up those areas, I don’t go by myself. I want, like, an adult to be there, because there are a lot of dangerous people around… like roadmen [drug dealers]… I don’t play in the park any more because they are always there… men doing bad stuff.”
“Approximately one-third of the children said their best play memory took place in a park or open space and several further responses implied this was the case for other children, too”
In the creative writing sessions, most children described informal play when they wrote about their best memory of play. Very few talked about supported play, such as visits to an adventure playground, Cubs or Brownies.
In addition to trips to local parks, many children wrote about play activities in the area around their home. Games included football, hide and seek, and truth or dare.
We had expected a large number to say their best memory of playing in Hackney took place in warm, summer weather. However, 50% reported that it actually took place in the snow and around one-third described playing in the snow as their best ever memory play. But children live in the moment and it had snowed that morning, which will have distorted the findings from this exercise.
Of the 32 children surveyed, 29 rated their best play memory as ‘green’, meaning they felt free to choose how to spend their time. Two ranked it between ‘amber’ and ‘green’ and one ranked it ‘amber’: “My baby brother was with me and he would follow me so I couldn’t do climbing.”
Approximately one-third of the children said their best play memory took place in a park or open space and several further responses implied this was the case for other children, too.
Few people, unfriendly people, poor maintenance and lack of cleaning can create an environment threatening to the children. This is something of which children were very aware and regularly raised, noting very specific or small details of their local environment.
Most children were happy with the opportunities for play, but some said they were ‘rubbish’. Reasons included not having places to play nearby, places being dirty or facilities being inappropriate for their needs.
A few children said ‘baby parks’ were the closest places to play but not places where they wanted to go. One girl said: “As you get older, it just gets boring and it’s just slides and swings. Make something better, like rock climbing…”
What stops children going out and getting around by themselves?
At least two groups mentioned dogs as a problem: both dog fouling and being chased or barked at by dogs.
“A dog chased me and it ate my ice cream”;
“Strangers and dogs… some are dangerous and some of them chase kids.”
When asked if there were adults around who helped them to play or made them feel safe, one boy replied: “Nope, nope, nope.”
Other problems that multiple groups raised and animated the discussion related to concerns about adults with apparent mental health problems.
“Where I walk and when my mum takes me to school today, there are some, like, crazy men, always talking all the time, and my mum says: ‘When you start going to school by yourself, be careful’”;
“There’s this weird man that says: ‘Urgh! How are you doing?’ And he just walks up and down, going: ‘Urgh! Urgh!’”;
“Some people in Dalston, they shout a lot, and they fight with innocent people.”
Featuring prominently in one group’s discussion, ‘roadmen’ make some areas no-go zones for some children.
The children had mixed views about the attitudes of adults that can hinder or help their playing in the local area. Multiple groups mentioned a lack of tolerance for children playing.
One girl said: “Sometimes, like, people complain about what you’re doing and judging what you are doing…
“For example, the woman upstairs, she complains about what we do. Sometimes, we are chatting. It’s like a local area where we can just chat in the courtyard, isn’t it? But sometimes we just talk and afterwards we get into trouble for it.
“But it only says ‘don’t play ball games’ there. It doesn’t say ‘don’t chat’ or something like that. And like I said before, there aren’t like that many resources to play with so sometimes you get a bit bored.”
One group highlighted the impact of adults, not just on their ability to use space outside but on their lives at home, particularly during the night:
“At night, there are people shouting, drunk people shouting, and sometimes you can smell beer in the morning”;
“In the night, they just, they just invite all their friends and then they start to put on music and don’t turn it off until three in the morning.”
Most children in the group that raised this issue reported recently being woken at night by youth and adult activities.
“Friends, family, neighbours or shopkeepers are also highlighted as providing support to children. Shops, particularly chicken shops, appear to play a role in providing an environment with a supportive adult. However, some children reported being banned by particular shopkeepers, so the relationships may be mixed”
But these negative experiences are balanced by more positive ones. For example: “A good thing about where I live is that sometimes there is a man… who lives in one of the floors and sometimes he lets us have a mini-party downstairs in the courtyard where, like, there’s face painting… And then there are competitions, like a dance hall competition and all that stuff, and sometimes he makes trips to go to different places, for example, like the Olympic Stadium.”
Other adults are highlighted as being kind or helpful: “Yes, there’s this one person, he’s the bin man, he always sticks up for me… I mean the bin lady.”
Friends, family, neighbours or shopkeepers are also highlighted as providing support to children. Shops, particularly chicken shops, appear to play a role in providing an environment with a supportive adult. However, some children reported being banned by particular shopkeepers, so the relationships may be mixed.
The role of other children was also highlighted, with one comment about teenagers capturing a broader view: “They don’t help – they ruin everything.”
But even within the Year 5 age group, tensions are highlighted between different groups of friends and especially between boys and girls:
Girl: “When boys are playing football, there’s no stopping them. They will get into a fight! A proper one. Yeah, you didn’t say that, but they will get into a fight to, like, own that football pitch, so we just have to like leave them.”
Interviewer: “Do boys dominate the space?”
Interviewer: “What do you do when the boys play in the space?”
Girl: “We tell them to play outside and we lock the cages… cos some of us wear bobble pins and we know how to do that.”
What would make the local area better for children to get out in?
Responses focused on dealing with the people seen to create problems: people with mental health problems, roadmen, and people drinking and being drunk in public spaces:
“Arrest them bad people”;
“If you shank the roadmen…”;
“If we arrest the roadmen… roadman watch. Just put them in handcuffs and lead them off.”
The facilities, maintenance, and cleaning of local areas was also highlighted:
“Then this park, all you have… a bin there and a bench and this tree I love to climb but it’s too dirty”;
“You should fix the park to make it bigger, cos it’s very small… and also add a few more play areas and make it more child-adaptable”;
“They should make the park bigger, and fix the houses, and then ban the bad people, then arrest them.”
“The woman upstairs, she complains about what we do. Sometimes, we are chatting. It’s like a local area where we can just chat in the courtyard, isn’t it? But sometimes we just talk and afterwards we get into trouble for it. But it only says ‘don’t play ball games’”
The children interviewed lead lives in many ways typical of nine to 10-year-olds. However, they are clearly very aware of the realities of inner-city life and the behaviours of older children and adults related to alcohol, drugs, knives and anti-social behaviour, as well as people with mental health issues. These all affect what they do, can do or feel safe doing in their area.
These themes are also reflected in the behaviour, attitudes and language of some of the children, who are leading lives more adult than might be expected of someone their age. The mention of and familiarity with ‘shanks’ (knives), while probably raised with little direct experience, is of concern, since it suggests knives are a normal part of their lives and language.
This also poses the question of whether there is the community and social support to prevent these issues.
Children need space, time and permission to be able to play, otherwise they get bored. They also expect to be treated fairly. For example, when they respect adults’ rules by not playing ball games and engaging in reasonable activities such as talking with friends, they shouldn’t get into trouble for breaching unwritten rules. These frustrations are unlikely to make children feel valued as part of their communities.
It is also interesting to note the things children didn’t talk about in these discussions. They said very little about the impact of traffic on their lives and how it affected them. They also said very little about cultural or organised activities in the area, other than community-based gatherings in the park, which they seemed to value and enjoy. They did not mention visits to the cinema, museums or galleries, and only a few talked about organised activities such as Sunday league football, dance clubs or Brownies. However, some children indicated in the surveys they participated in these activities.
Understanding the reasons for these omissions could usefully be explored in future work. Was it the way the discussions were focused on play and external space or because these activities were less important to the children and so they didn’t bring them up?
“The exercise revealed all the children could talk eloquently and intelligently about their area and their experience of living in it. It gave us rich details about the range of experiences of living in Hackney that the children have and raised issues that may not be immediately obvious to adults. Most children engaged well with the exercise and showed a clear enthusiasm for doing so”
The exercise revealed all the children could talk eloquently and intelligently about their area and their experience of living in it. It gave us rich details about the range of experiences of living in Hackney that the children have and raised issues that may not be immediately obvious to adults. Most children engaged well with the exercise and showed a clear enthusiasm for doing so.
The prompt of their maps, with the particular details these included, allowed us to explore specific issues and details with the children. This led on to a more general thematic discussion, less focused on specific locations but giving a clear sense of the children’s views on living in Hackney, what they liked and their concerns. The conversation also stimulated many children to add details or new items to their maps as we talked.
We found that the 25-minute focus group sessions were not long enough to fully explore the issues the children wanted to talk about and that we wanted to probe. However, it is unlikely we could have run much longer sessions and still have retained the children’s full attention. Splitting the discussion into two 30-40 minute sessions would be appropriate and allow a fuller exploration of the responses of the children.
At the beginning of our research, we had intended to look specifically at the De Beauvoir Estate with the children, but discovered that only four had lived or still did live there. The geographical spread of the children meant that they were talking about a range of places across Hackney of which they quite often didn’t have a shared knowledge or experience.
The focus groups enabled the children to indicate the places that are important to them, both by highlighting them on their maps, and then discussing them in the focus groups. The focus groups revealed more detailed insights of the children’s experience of living in Hackney than the other methods would have gained.
Future work might benefit from ensuring a better geographical concentration of participants to allow a discussion of what it is like to live in a particular street or estate and focus on the elements in those places.
Our work with the children has built up a rich picture of the experience of growing up in Hackney. Children for the most part are very positive about their experiences. Care needs to be taken in interpreting our findings as being typical of all children in Hackney – every child’s experience is different.
However, there are concerns and issues that the research revealed, including the impact of adult behaviours on children, the low status children have in a hierarchy of the use of public space, and intolerance towards children’s behaviour and play. Addressing these will make Hackney more child-friendly.
Dinah Bornat is a founding co-director of ZCD Architects and was a senior lecturer at the University of East London
Ben Shaw is a director at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster
Find out more
Read the full report, Neighbourhood Design: Working with Children Towards a Child Friendly City
Listen to The Developer podcast interview with Dinah Bornat