3rd Annual Conference Cities for Children

Stuttgart, Germany, 29-30 June 2009

Speech by President a.i. Ian Micallef, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe

Dear Mayor of Stuttgart,

Dear Madam Director of OECD,

Dear participants of the Conference,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You all know, I’m sure, the African saying: “It takes a village to raise a child”. As I stand before you today, I am tempted to paraphrase it and say: “It takes a city to raise a child”. It certainly takes the commitment of the entire urban community and city authorities to make a better environment and life for all our children, and to create a whole network dedicated to this noble cause.

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today, and not only because the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, which I represent, is one of the patrons of such a network, Cities for Children. I am also particularly pleased because I see this Conference as a stepping-stone for the Network and all participating cities and organisations on the way to charting out a path for future action, drawing from both the experience gained over these three years and the novelty of the situation with regard to the political framework for children’s issues in Europe.

Allow me to explain myself on these two points in greater detail during my presentation, but first and foremost, I would like to thank the organisers of this Conference for giving me an opportunity to speak to you today. I wish to express my particular gratitude to the Mayor of Stuttgart, Mr Wolfgang Schuster, who is the driving force behind this and many other initiatives, and whom we are delighted to count among us as a member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is said that three is a charm, and three years is certainly a good occasion to take stock of the initial experience and make a first assessment. A telling sign of a successful beginning is the fact that during this Conference we will be giving the very first European Award of Excellence “Cities for Children”. We welcome this endeavour which has our full support, and my congratulations go to all the cities which presented their projects this year.

The Congress participated in the jury of the Award, and we were impressed by the excellent quality of candidatures, showing just how much innovative thinking there is at local level and how much is being done to create a child-friendly urban environment. This experience also revealed the importance for projects to be not only innovative, cost-effective and sustainable, but also transferable, making it possible for other cities to use the same methods or patterns despite the obvious diversity of applications in practical terms. This question of transferability is one on which we should reflect more in order to develop an appropriate approach in the future.

Of course, the European Award of Excellence is just one example of the innovative steps taken by the Cities for Children Network over the past three years – steps which have clearly stirred into action many cities and towns, since 53 municipalities from 26 countries have joined the Network, and the Award of Excellence has attracted more than 70 applications. The Network has also becomean important player in the European territorial landscape, with an increasing number of institutions and partner organisations, including governmental organisations, making reference to it in their work on children’s issues. Most importantly, your activities have provided a valuable input into the current outlook on the situation of children and influenced the approach to dealing with it.

The novelty of today’s situation is the growing and broad recognition by actors at all levels of the need for mainstreaming children’s issues into national, regional and local policies and seeing them as an integral part of the comprehensive package. The Congress has been a strong advocate of such mainstreaming, saying that a piecemeal approach to tackling the situation of children is not effective.

For far too long, the topic of “children” was one of many running in parallel with others, considered as an important but independent, separately standing issue. Today, national governments and international organisations are increasingly taking on board a comprehensive approach. It means that our advocacy and action, those of the Council of Europe and its Congress, and of networks such as yours, are paying off.

Back in 2005, the Warsaw Summit of the Council of Europe Heads of State and Government called for mainstreaming children’s issues into all Council of Europe policies. Two years later, a programme “Building a Europe for and with Children” was launched to put in place a systematic, integrated action. In September last year, a conference on mainstreaming children’s rights and enhancing children’s participation was held in Stockholm, Sweden, during which the programme was extended for 2009-2011, and the decision was taken to create a Platform on Children’ Rights.

This Platform has just been launched at the beginning of this month, bringing together some 40 countries and their national focal points, as well as key international organisations and NGOs. By the end of this year, the Council of Europe will publish its draft policy guidelines for integrated strategies on violence against children, as part of the work of this Platform. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is actively involved in drafting these guidelines to introduce the local and regional dimension.

On the other side of the spectrum, the European Union held a conference in June 2007 to look at strategies for disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods, which echoed the action of another municipal network – the Berlin Process on integrated policies for young people in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods. In November last year, the EU organised a first conference on the Child in the City, echoing the Congress’ recommendation on the same subject – in fact, with the same title – adopted six months earlier, in May 2008.

I am mentioning these activities to highlight my point – that our appeals in favour of children have been heeded at national and international level. For its part, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities has provided its input into all of them, with our focus on territorial action and creation of an appropriate urban environment. 

Just recently, we have been exploring the interrelationship between different aspects of community development and their impact on children at two ministerial conferences organised by the Council of Europe two weeks ago – the Conference of Ministers responsible for Family Affairs, in Vienna, Austria, and the Conference of Ministers of Justice, in Tromso, Norway. The first dealt with family-oriented public policies supporting the wish to have children, the second focused on the terrible scourge of domestic violence.

At both of them, the Congress argued that a contributing factor to family violence and people’s increasing reluctance to have children is the prevailing environment of tension in our communities and lack of child-friendly surroundings and support services. Solutions to these problems, both of which have a direct effect on the situation of children, lie to a large extent in the remit of local and regional authorities. Indeed, improving conditions of life and work in our communities and making them family-oriented will certainly increase people’s willingness to raise children and help to reduce family violence, including violence perpetrated on children.

We strongly believe that a violence-free and secure environment is a child’s fundamental human right and part and parcel of decent living conditions for them and their families. Building such an environment that is violence-free, family-oriented and child-friendly is certainly a task for the local and regional level– the level where policies decided on by governments are put into practice in the most practical terms. This task, which cuts across all aspects of local governance, is indeed at the very heart of our mission as territorial authorities.

Local and regional elected representatives have special responsibilities towards children as members of their communities – responsibilities for making sure that children are regarded and treated as fully-fledged citizens in their localities, and that they are able to enjoy the world outside their home. These special responsibilities are only natural because children’s first experiences of interacting with the community takes place in spaces managed by local and regional authorities. This experience should nurture children’s development and socialisation processes in a changing world.

Today, many 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. Open space, giving a chance for children to create their own playground, has too often disappeared from our built environment. As a result, many urban children seem to be confined to their homes, leading lives which are isolated and inactive. Left alone, they may fall victims to violence on TV screens, video games, or internet.

We are pleased that this year’s Award of Excellence focuses on these two important aspects:  “Mobility and Traffic Safety” and “Design of Open Spaces and Play Areas”.  The Congress has put forward certain proposals in this regard, recommending integrated transport and mobility policies which introduce improved facilities for cyclists and pedestrians and which reduce the level of traffic in urban areas. Regarding spatial planning, we also recommend that our town and city planners should implement measures to reclaim the streets and the public space for children and adults. Good practices in this area 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 its most vulnerable users.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We will all agree that there is a close connection between making towns and cities child-friendly and making them sustainable. It is in this spirit that the Congress adopted, in May 2008, the European Urban Charter II: Manifesto for a new urbanity, which offers a modern vision and model of urban governance, planning and living, and sets out principles for building communities which are citizen- and family-oriented, compact, sustainable and cohesive. The new Charter addresses many aspects of children’s experiences in an urban environment, urging territorial authorities to place people, with all their multiple identities and cultures, at the heart of preoccupations in urban planning and development, paying particular attention to the needs of the most vulnerable, including children.

In addition, in its recommendation entitled “Child in the City”, the Congress called on local and regional authorities to design the built environment from the child’s perspective and to develop compact cities where housing, schools, child-care facilities, shops and businesses are in close proximity – in other words, cities conducive to the implementation of the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Exercise of Children’s Rights. We would like now to take this recommendation further and support the idea of elaborating a European Charter of Child-Friendly Cities.

Our texts on child-friendly cities have been complemented by our work on social reintegration of street children and protection of children against violence. The work on protecting children takes on a particular urgency in this time of economic crisis when crucial family support services are facing budget cuts. Local and regional authorities have a major responsibility in this regard – for instance, implementing schemes to help families who fall into excessive debt (a well-known trigger for violence), which was the subject of a recommendation by the Congress’ Committee on Social Cohesion last May.

Nor must we forget the needs of migrants and other vulnerable groups and their children. These groups often lack access to decent living and working conditions and services. The Congress has been particularly involved with the situation of migrants and their families, which also deserves a closer look in our action on children. We should give due consideration to the rights and needs of particularly vulnerable children through activities dealing with access to education, social, health and legal services, and children’s participation.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that a child-friendly city has many facets, as does the overall situation of children. In developing a comprehensive and integrated approach to improving this situation, we have already identified – within the Council of Europe, within other international organisations, within municipal networks such as Cities for Children – the main axes along which our action must be pursued. It is imperative now to put it into practice and make child-friendly communities a reality.

Cooperation and networks play a crucial role in this process, in giving children and young people their rightful place in the city, in a community where they are not treated as second-class citizens but are empowered to fully participate in shaping the world that is theirs.  It may take a city to raise a child, but it takes all of the cities to raise all of the children on the entire continent.

I wish all of us all a fruitful and stimulating conference.

Thank you.