15th Plenary Session of the Congress, 27-29 May 2008

Thursday 29th May, Plenary Sitting

Speech of Mrs Saima Kalev, Rapporteur (Estonia) about the Child in the city

I am very pleased to be here today to present one of the Congress’ contributions to the Council of Europe programme “Building a Europe for and with children”. Prepared by the Committee on Sustainable Development, this report offers examples of policies for the built environment which are child-friendly and which encourage opportunities for children to explore their town or city.

Many of us here today have good memories of our childhood in the city. Growing up in towns or cities was an enriching experience: we were able to play safely near our homes and explore our surroundings, by walking to school or to the local shops with friends.

Today, such experiences are no longer so common; towns and cities are seen as too dangerous for children to explore. In fact, the main difficulties that children face relate to their mobility and their activities in the urban environment. This negative feeling is partly due to the omnipresence of cars and partly due to the idea that urban areas have become anonymous, unsafe and unfriendly.

This is also why many parents regard urban areas as unsuitable places to bring up their children. People who have the financial means are leaving urban centres and moving to rural or suburban areas.

This trend, made worse by the demographic challenge of an ageing population and low birth rates, is reinforcing two serious obstacles to sustainability:

-       growing urban sprawl and the subsequent car-dependency which reduces the quality of life for people in both rural and urban areas;

-        the disappearance of socially mixed cities. Today's urban populations are made up of an increasing number of single people, childless households and disadvantaged families.

We must not accept the gradual disappearance of children from urban public spaces. Many urban children seem to be confined to their homes, leading lives which are isolated and inactive. This situation is not only psychologically and physically damaging but deprives them of opportunities to explore the social environment which should be their own.  It inhibits a healthy balance between generations.

As elected representatives, we have the responsibility to make sure that all children are considered as fully-fledged citizens. It is our duty to ensure that they are able to enjoy the world outside their home. Their urban experience should nurture their development and socialisation processes in a changing world.

We need to introduce policies to make our cities attractive. We need to act in the face of today’s demographic challenge. Our policies should make public spaces more welcoming and safe for children.

Local and regional authorities need to show a strong political will to create a more compact city, increase the level of affordable and adapted housing across the city for families and design the built environment from the child’s perspective.

This all means that territorial strategies are to be developed in the spirit of the Manifesto for a new urbanity we adopted yesterday. This means transforming our cities into child-friendly places which encourage people from all backgrounds, ages and cultures to share the public space, to feel safe in it and to explore it.

We will all agree that there is a close connection between making towns and cities child-friendly and making them sustainable.

These are towns and cities where housing, schools, child-care facilities, parks, businesses and shops are in close proximity and where the need for people to travel long distances is reduced to get to where they live, work and relax.

We recommend integrated transport and mobility policies which introduce improved facilities for cyclists and pedestrians and which reduce the level of traffic in urban areas. In this way, we create a safer and more pleasant environment for our children, but not only for them, for all of us.

Regarding spatial planning, our town and city planners should think about space from the child’s perspective and implement measures to reclaim the streets and the public space for children and adults. Good practices include car-free zones and ‘safe zones’ near schools and residential areas where car speeds are reduced and the emphasis is on making the street safe for the most vulnerable users.

Our recommendations also suggest that street furniture should be adapted to children’s smaller size and their greater vulnerability. It should take into account their need to play with all objects, not just those designed for play.

Decisions about land use should also reflect children’s needs. We recommend that local authorities make sure that sufficient open space and play space is included in their planning. 

Dear Colleagues,

We should not forget that the home is the centre of a child’s world. We need to make sure our homes offer a safe and healthy environment to all their residents, especially children, who are the most vulnerable. Also, we believe that housing should reflect the changing needs of today’s families.

As territorial authorities, we need to encourage exchanges between the generations. One way to do this is to broaden the use of specific buildings and places. For example, a school can be opened outside school hours for use by everyone. This has the dual benefit of making the facilities more widely available and encouraging parents to be more involved in their children’s world. Another way is to build inter-generational houses where young and old share facilities.

We are convinced that if children are to be considered as full citizens of their locality they should be encouraged to participate in decision-making processes. Their voices should be heard on all aspects of spatial planning, not just for ‘their’ spaces.  Such participation needs to be adapted to children and should be fun. In this way our children will be encouraged to become responsible, involved citizens.

The issue of participation of young people in local and regional life will be presented next in more detail by our colleague Stepan KIRICHUK.

Finally, I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate
Wolfgang Schuster, our Colleague Mayor of Stuttgart, for his persistent personal effort in bringing to fruition the project of the Cities for Children network. I feel strongly that if we are to fulfil our mission to create a healthy and peaceful Europe we should start building a Europe for Children, beginning with a Europe of Cities for Children.