Museums care about their cities. They want to and need to. Whether small or large, urban, suburban, exurban or rural, a museum’s city is where its audience lives and visits and where its cultural, civic, and educational partners are based. As a museum’s wider civic, social, and cultural context, a city’s quality of life, economic wellbeing, workforce, and reputation affect its choices, actions, and fortunes.
Future trends indicate that increasingly, the world’s population will live in cities. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. Currently more than a billion children live in cities worldwide with children comprising about 50% of the population in urban areas. Soon they will make up 60% of the urban population growth.
What will these cities be like? Will they be vibrant with populations across the life span, with engaged citizens? Healthy places to raise a family? Rich with opportunities for successive generations to find work? Places where people of different backgrounds–ages, economic, cultural, ethnic, and racial–meet and connect? Or something quite different?
Perhaps more than ever, the prospects of the world’s cities and its children are closely intertwined prompting cities and civic groups to ask, “Are we creating the future, and future city, we want our children to grow up in?” To address this question, these groups, including museums, are working to create children-friendly cities.
It’s easy to dismiss children-friendly cities as a “nice” idea concerned with providing playgrounds or showing happy children on billboards and municipal websites. But, imagine a city without children. Not just a city without the sounds of children at play in parks or their chalk drawings on the sidewalk, but a city without young families, schools; without young trick-or-treaters ringing doorbells on Halloween. A city that does not address the needs of children and families becomes hollow; families move away. A city without children is a city without a future.
Cities that improve children’s lives, however, improve everyone’s lives and in many ways. A child-friendly city is also a family-friendly city. A city that is friendly and supportive of older adults is often friendly to invisible groups. Jane Jacobs, American-Canadian urban theorist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, recognized 50 years ago that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Including children and youth.
According to Nihdi Gulati, an architect and urban designer with Project for Public Spaces, This is echoed by Ali Modarres, Director of Urban Studies, at the University of Washington, Tacoma, who says children who are cared for are place loyal. Children with a strong sense of attachment to their hometowns stay in these towns, invest resources in it, apply for civic jobs, and run for office.
Becoming a child-friendly city is a rich, complex process. Like any large-scale, long-term change, it relies on a wide range of players and partners working together towards a shared vision, collaborating on projects and policy. In some cities the vision may be improved living conditions for children and youth or expanding opportunities for more children. In other cities, the vision may be everyday freedom for children to play, walk to meet friends, be outdoors, and be safe.
While the vision and the process are invariably local, the work involves co-creating the future of the city with and for children and the people who live with and take care of them at a scale that meets the needs and addresses the challenges cities face. Children are at the center of this work. The strong connection between children’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive wellbeing and the physical design of cities and towns is recognized and informs policy formation. Children are valued as part of the city’s vitality. Their interests are in the mix with transportation and business issues. Active participants in city planning projects, children's voices are heard along with those in city hall.
Like-minded, and sometimes unlikely, partners interconnect across sectors around a compelling vision and across a range of strategies. Community-led projects, child-friendly policies, and private sector partners providing services and programs to support broader civic and city efforts advance the agenda of a child-friendly city. Projects at all scales build momentum and public support, from short-term doable projects that produce quick wins to reimagined housing policies that change life outcomes.
None of this will happen, however, unless children and childhood are a shared community value.
Building a Child-friendly World, One City at a Time
Around the world, efforts are underway to create child-friendly cities. Typically these projects are inspired the UNICEF Child-Friendly Cities Initiative grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Initiatives to make cities livable for children take many forms.
• 8 80 Cities believes that if, “everything we do in our cities is great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, then it will be great for all people.” 8 80 Cities has identified 21 case studies in 16 countries recognized as great for an 8 year old and 80 year old.
• The Bernard Van Leer Foundation’s Urban 95 Challenge to improve public space for children under 95 cm tall has invited creative ideas and projects that promote the well-being of young children in cities.
• The City of Leeds in the UK has committed to a bold vision to be a child-friendly city, the best city in the UK, and the best city for children and young people to grow up in.
• Streets are often the focus of child-friendly city efforts because of their ubiquity, safety concerns, and their impact on children's mobility. Projects like Playstreets and (living streets in Dutch) are among some of the ways cities are transforming public spaces.
• Tim Gill, author of Rethinking Childhood has been touring and writing about child-friendly city policies and practices in Northern Europe, the UK, and Canada.
Museums have a role in making cities more attractive and livable. Players on the local cultural and learning landscape, they are grounded in their communities. Committed to being nice and necessary and contributing to placemaking, museums also engage with other nonprofit organizations and agencies to amplify their collective impact.
Some museums like Pittsburgh Children’s Museum see themselves in an urban planning role, committed to creating a family district in its Northside neighborhood. Others, like Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, see themselves as a community agent place where community members can leave their mark.
Thinking Small to Create Big Change
The Children’s Museum of Tacoma (WA), has made a whole-hearted commitment to creating a child-friendly city. This relatively small–10,000 square foot–museum lives by its mission that begins with, Everything we do begins with our image of the child.
Inspired by their visit to a child-friendly city on the 2013 museums study tour in Reggio Emilia, the delegation of museum staff, trustees, local educators, and designers returned committed to helping Tacoma become a child-friendly city. With guidance from Executive Director Tanya Durand, the Museum has engaged local partners across sectors and worked at multiple scales to create a city culture that values children and childhood.
A series of annual symposia is just one track of this important work in Tacoma’s becoming a child-friendly. In September 2014, the Museum hosted its first Symposium On Our Youngest Citizens at a half-day event with nearly 300 participants around the theme Building a Child Centered Community. Its fourth Symposium, ThePower of Thinking Small, on April 12, 2018 invited participants and speakers to think about the many and small ways everyone has as individuals to help realize a child-centered community with everyday choices and opportunities.
Invited to facilitate an exercise around the image of the child we each carry, I recently had the great good fortune to be present at this remarkable gathering. Individually, the keynote speaker, lightning talk speakers, and panelists were impressive and inspiring. Together they offered a truly extraordinary example of connecting a city's assets: its children, families, policies and institutions, and place.
Drawing from the arts, urban education, the university, non-profits, community engagement, and city government, these rich, compelling stories highlighted the role of developmental relationships in children’s lives, children as valuable sources of knowledge about the city, innovative services for children, and public spaces as social spaces for children and families.
Cheryl Mayberry, Vice President of Improvement Science at the Search Institute shared research on supportive youth-adult relationships, sparks...the interests and passions that animate children’s and youth’s development, and thriving. Children, Cheryl reminded us, grow in relationships, not in programs.
Valuing the contributions of even young citizens, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards Skyped with fourth graders at Fawcett Elementary School listening to what’s important to them, their favorite places to go in Tacoma, and how the City might be improved.
Matt Kelley described a multidimensional Action Mapping Project at the University of Washington-Tacoma. This youth-led community mapping initiative produces an annual set of maps that reflect the everyday lives of middle and high school aged youth that are used by city planning-oriented agencies to improve the livability of Tacoma area neighborhoods.
For the past 20 years, Jon Ketler has been leading a team of community members, teachers, students, and parents to co-create innovative, place-based schools within the Tacoma Public Schools. He highlighted how these schools such as SAMI, an outdoor Science and Math Institute high school located in the Tacoma Metro Parks, draw on place-based assets and community partnerships to develop students’ interests and passions.
Additional perspectives were shared by Tiffany Y’vonne, Community Cultivation Practitioner who spoke about community parenting; Tanisha Jumper, Interim Media and Communication, City of Tacoma, who explored how place matters in the life of the community; and Ali Modarres, Center for Urban Studies University of Washington-Tacoma, who talked about the economics of child-friendly cities.
Five Child-centered Community Grants awarded by Children’s Museum of Tacoma were announced. “Book to Barbershops” received an award for the work of Black- and Hispanic-owned barbershops in Tacoma to share children’s books and strategies that support healthy reading habits for children–in the barber chair.
Thinking in new and sometimes “small” ways, collaborating and connecting with partners across Tacoma, and making children visible, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma has set a bold course for helping to create a vibrant, child-friendly Tacoma.
If a relatively small museum in a mid-sized city of 200,000 can inspire partners and players across the city to think small, then doesn’t any–every–city and museum have the potential to be child friendly?
How is your city doing as a child-friendly city? What is your museum doing to help?
• Children as Natural Change Agents: Child-friendly Cities as Resilient Cities. Derr, Victoria, Chawla, L. and Van Vliet W. (2015)
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