The number of children living in urban areas is on the rise. However, this is not reflected in cities’ infrastructures. Rapid development is shrinking the amount of suitable and safe play areas for children. Using Nairobi as an example, Peninah Ndegwa, founder of Wow Mom Kenya, reflects on why and how cities should become more child-friendly.
My name is Peninah Ndegwa, the founder of Wow Mom Kenya, an organisation committed to advocating for child friendly cities. I grew up in a village in the slopes of the Abadare Range in Kenya’s Murang’a County. I walked to school every day. It was never lonely. On my way, I would meet a lot of my classmates and friends and we would play or chat on our way to school. We would sing, share snacks, or pick wild mulberries. The road at that time was marram – unpaved –, with hardly any cars passing, apart from the occasional truck or public transport. It was safe and parents could relax at home, assured that their children will get back home safely.
Twenty something years later, I am a parent, living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. The situation is different: my daughter will not have the luxury to walk or cycle to school. Instead, she will use the school bus or be driven to school. This will cost us more money and time; and even worse, it significantly contributes to the city’s emissions and congestion. My wish would be for her to walk to school, as it is also healthier. Through walking she can connect with nature, discover new things, and experience the city she is growing up in. Unfortunately, walking is a luxury she will only enjoy in designated city or national parks.
All Children Need Space to Play
Most of the parks in Nairobi have been grabbed by investors and undergone massive redevelopments – into housing, shops, et cetera. The few existing ones are poorly managed and maintained, and hence unsafe for children. They are also not accessible by walking or cycling. The parents now have no choice but to take their children to shopping malls that provide modern play activities and toys. This comes at a cost that excludes the majority of low-income earners in Nairobi.
In addition, taking children to the mall requires parents to plan ahead. Malls have limited space and children don’t come into contact with nature. Play is vital for children’s growth and development. Through play they learn motor skills, coordination, social skills, and also strengthen their muscles and mental capabilities. Play needs to be free and accessible for all children. That’s why parks need to be provided, protected, and maintained for everyone. Not including the children will result in fewer children in our streets.
Wow Mom is committed to improving the lives of children within their jurisdiction by realising their rights. Today, four billion people are living in urban areas and nearly a third of them are children. With rapid urbanisation and population growth, it is estimated that by 2050 the global population will total 9.8 billion and almost 70 per cent of the world’s children will be living in urban areas. With these figures, isn’t it necessary that every city be designed with a child in mind?
How Can a City like Nairobi become Child-Friendly?
- Provide continuous walkways across the city: Children are human beings and humans are created to walk just like birds fly. As such, cities need to provide safe and continuous walkways throughout the city. Their surfaces need to be smooth and be equipped with ramps to make crossings easier for parents using strollers. Pedestrian crossings are crucial for children’s safety. Pedestrian-friendly crossings should be the norm and clearly marked as such in order to warn drivers. Foot bridges should be avoided at all costs. Speed limits should be a maximum of 30 kilometres per hour, especially in school zones. Bollards should be installed to prevent cars from encroaching walkways.
- Provide a safe cycling network: Cycling is not only a mode of transport but also a fun activity for kids. Nairobi needs to implement a continuous cycling network across the city. The cycle routes need to be short and direct to enhance connectivity. In addition, schools and parks need bicycle parking spaces to enhance bicycle safety in the city.
- Public spaces and parks: Parks in Nairobi need to be reclaimed and designed to cater for children, especially in residential neighbourhoods. The parks need to be close to homes and accessible by foot or bicycle, with spaces to play and ample benches for care-givers or parents watching over the kids. In areas where spaces are scarce, for example in slums, churches and school playgrounds can be opened to the public after school hours.
- Priority seating in public transport: Ultimately, Nairobi needs to invest in proper public transport. The current Matatu system fails to prioritise children. There are no designated seats for parents travelling with children, which results in parents having to scramble for a seat with other passengers. This in turn leads to parents preferring to use the car and adding to the city’s congestion. A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is ideal for a growing city like Nairobi so that it can transport a large amount of people at minimal economic and environmental cost. With this efficient public transport, it’s possible to designate seats for parents with children, pregnant women, as well as for the elderly and disabled.
- Baby changing facilities and toddler-friendly toilets: Currently, there aren’t any baby changing facilities in public toilets in Nairobi’s central business district. According to a survey undertaken by Wow Mom Kenya, the majority of parents prefer to leave their children at home due to the lack of public baby changing facilities and toddler-friendly toilets. Over 60 per cent of parents have never used a baby changing facility while the 40 per cent that have used a baby changing facility did so in a shopping mall. 97 per cent of the respondents agree that they would travel more and visit parks and restaurants if they had access to clean and private baby changing facilities. This shows the great need to provide baby changing facilities in cities in order to enable parents to have more time with their children. Toddler-friendly toilets are also essential for children above three years who cannot sit on a normal toilet bowl.
Child-Friendly Cities Equip Children for the Future
Cities are engines of economic growth and development. Developing cities like Nairobi are a great opportunity for children to live, learn, and thrive in. Cities need to recognise that prioritising children is a legal obligation under the UN Convention of Children’s Rights. Thus, they are liable under international law if they fail to consider the children’s needs. Further, children are part and parcel of the human race and they deserve to have their needs included and articulated in the decision making process.
It is important to note that rapid urbanisation, climate change, the public health crisis, and globalisation make children vulnerable. City governments need to act urgently to ensure that all the new policies take the welfare of children into account. If we fail to do this, we will be raising a weak generation that will depend on us even in our old age. We need to ensure that our cities provide a healthy environment for children to enjoy childhood as they acquire skills that they will need as adults. If a city is great for a three-year-old, it is great for everyone!