In the light of the serious problems of environmental sustainability and social degradation, ecologists, sociologists, psychologists and doctors are calling for urgent changes to make our cities habitable again. When working with children, it is surprising to discover that the city that they ask for and need is very similar to the city that experts on the subject describe.

Furthermore, the city that they propose strongly resembles ancient cities. When asked how he imagined the city of the future, the acclaimed Italian architect Renzo Piano replied: “As similar as possible to that of the past”. It isn’t about being romantic or nostalgic, but rather it’s about reclaiming the role of public places in the city, their function as a place for meeting and exchange, a place to express diversity that has gradually been lost up to the present day. The Renaissance city was dreamt up as an alternative to the medieval model of the castle, based on the principle of separation: the powerful and wealthy feudal lords lived within the castle walls, and outside the walls was the village of the serfs and the peasants at the service of the powerful. The city broke with this way of thinking and was built around a main square, a symbol of public space. The governmental palace and cathedral were in this square, and the market was also brought to life here, a symbol of exchange and interaction. The historical city did not have areas separated by different social classes. Its streets were attractive as they were made up of the fine mansions of the nobles, built by great architects, and the humble houses of the artisans. Diversity enriched the city and made it pleasing to the eye. This is the same as ecosystems: an ecosystem will be healthy and full of life if it is complex and joined-up, if each of its parts interacts with others.

For some decades since the Second World War, cities have managed to sell their own character down the river by adopting a model of separation and specialisation. The historical city centres have become depopulated, suburbs have emerged, neighbourhoods have been created for rich and poor, dormitory towns, cultural areas, working areas… In this modern city, thought out for adult male workers, the car has become king. Cars have caused the city to lose its public spaces, clean air, silence, beauty…

Most citizens feel left out in this city adapted to suit working adult citizens. In fact, take a look at the streets of a city, whether large or small, and you will be hard pushed to see elderly people, children roaming freely or disabled people getting about in wheelchairs. These groups of people have been excluded from public spaces and separate, specialised spaces have been created for them, with services for the elderly, disabled or children (from the infant school to the nursery or play centre).

The right to play

Children are the first to lose out in this city as they cannot exercise their most important right, recognised in article 31 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child: the right to play. To be able to play properly, a child needs to be able to go out alone with his friends and experience adventure, discovery, surprise, obstacles, risk. He has to savour the sweet taste of victory and the humiliation of defeat. He needs to get to know new people, unknown places, but most importantly, get to know himself. All of this would be possible if there weren’t adults accompanying them, watching over them. This option has unfortunately become tremendously difficult in the modern world. A child in a developed country will probably spend all of his time between school, homework, extra-curricular classes (languages, sport, music, dance, etc.) and the television or computer, not even having the possibility of living experiences by himself or with his friends. If we continue along this path, tests, difficulties and risk will disappear from the lives of our children. When asked the question “What is play for a child?” the well-known psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto replied: “I would say that it is enjoying fulfilling a desire by overcoming risks”.

This situation leads to serious developmental consequences with dramatic effects that can often be seen during adolescence. Because they have never been able to experience the risks that correspond to three, five or eight year-olds, the desire for risk, challenges and danger builds up. This explodes the first time the thirteen or fourteen year-old girl or boy gets hold of the keys to a house or a motorbike. And we are shocked and surprised by the many young victims on the roads, by the disconcerting number of cases of school bullying, by the increasingly young age that young people start smoking, drinking or taking drugs, and by incomprehensible teenage suicides.

The city of children

We set up the City of Children project seventeen years ago in the light of this situation of unease, neglect and danger. The project aims to get those who govern cities to ask the children for help. We encourage them to adopt this as a new parameter (instead of the model of the adult, male worker) to evaluate and change the city based on the conviction that a city adapted to children is a better city for everybody.1

The idea is to give children the right to speak, ask them for advice, listen to them and take their opinions into account. It also consists of returning autonomy to children, allowing them to fully exercise their citizenship which gives them the right to freely roam the city’s public space. If this were to happen, children would be able to live essential experiences once again, would become more independent and would need fewer toys, less TV and fewer afterschool classes. For less money, children would have more fun and would grow up to be healthier.2

If children can again experience autonomy in the city, walk to school with their friends and not with their parents, play in their neighbourhood, going to places that best adapt to the games that they choose and not just parks created especially for them, we will have achieved an important change. The city will become safer. We, the adults, deny our children freedom because the city is dangerous, but in fact the city is dangerous because it has turned its back on children. The presence of children on the streets and in squares obliges residents to look out for them, to be responsible and supportive. The Safe routes to school programme was run in different municipal areas of the city of Buenos Aires, a suburban area with a high level of environmental degradation and hazards, registering a subsequent reduction of more than 50% criminal activity.3

What do the children suggest?

After more than fifteen years experience with children’s councils and after gathering hundreds of proposals from youngsters, we can confirm that Italian, Spanish and Argentinean children share certain needs and concerns. We will now give three of the most common requests by way of example.

Public spaces

Children do not want specially-designed spaces that always remain the same and where they need to go accompanied by their parents. They want to use real spaces in the city alongside other people, adults, the elderly, and thereby draw out their own spaces and experiences. A space is public if and when it is alive and visited. It is public if it corresponds to the diverse interests of diverse groups and generations of people. It is public if it can be walked or run across, if it is sufficiently safe, so that children, elderly or disabled people feel like they are at home in their own city. It is public if it is attractive. One child said “Just going to school is lovely, but the streets should also be lovely”.

Fewer cars

Children come into great conflict with cars. These take up their play spaces, make the street more dangerous, justifying prohibiting them from going out alone. One child in an Italian city made a suggestion to the mayor: “There are loads of car parks in this city, why don’t we share them? Half the space for cars and half for the children”. The suggestion was met with a condescending smile but the mayor had misjudged. The proposal was wise, and would have improved the city for everybody, not just the children.

The right to play

Children ask to be able to play, and to play for the right amount of time and every day. We do not understand why they have to go to school for so many hours (article 28 of the Convention), then they have homework to do, leaving little time for playing. If a city set itself the goal of guaranteeing that all children could play, we would need to remove all the prohibitions that currently exist in public places and community spaces (these are unlawful after the Convention). We would have to close play areas and allow them to play in public places (pavements, streets, squares, gardens). We should empower children’s self-sufficiency. A girl from Suria, a town in the province of Barcelona, said “Play areas are always flat and we can’t hide” and one boy from Buenos Aires pointed out that “For a square to be good for children it shouldn’t have too much security”.

In conclusion, a girl from Rosario, Argentina, said: “It’s all the adults’ fault. We should set limits on grownups”. A terrible indictment, but if we observe the environmental degradation of our cities, the growing percentage of serious illnesses and the paucity of experiences lived by our treasured children, can we really consider this to be misleading or an over-reaction?

Francesco Tonucci

Director of the International Project of the Italian National Research Council

Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies

1 The project was established in Fanno, Italy and since 2006 it has been coordinated by the Italian National Research Council Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies. More than 100 Italian and international cities have signed up for the project, making up the “cities of children” network, with Rome as the main city.

2 Children in our cities are being exposed to the serious risk of childhood obesity, mainly caused by a sedentary life at home, in the car and in front of the television. Paediatricians are also in agreement with the project, insofar as it promotes autonomy in children so that they can go to school on their own or play with their friends.

3 According to that stated by the security director of the City of Buenos Aires in a public conference in July 2005.