There’s a theory that you can measure how child-friendly a place is by the lack of playgrounds. Say what? Surely that’s the wrong way round. Playgrounds define a child-friendly place, no? Sometimes fenced to make them safe. Structured play on pine bark or bouncy surface to break a fall. Aren’t playgrounds the ‘Qantas club’ of the children’s world? A safe, exclusive world for little people?
Well, maybe. Or do playgrounds reinforce an age apartheid; “surely playgrounds are for children, and the city for the rest of us”? But would a city without playgrounds try harder to integrate playing, exploring, learning and growing up in everything – it’s streets, footpaths and street furniture, street banners and public art, housing and public buildings? Can streets, footpaths, parks, shopping centres and the rest be safe, fun and inviting to all ages – including young South Australians?
This is a hope we all share, and it’s part of a broader thematic pursued in South Australia through the wonderful Adelaide Thinker in Residence program. Current Thinkers in Residence, Dr Alex Kalache, and Prof Carla Rinaldi are helping to put age – old age, middle age, young age, ageing – back in to our vocabulary. The topic has also been given a lift with the appointment of renaissance man Greg Mackie as ‘ageing provocateur’ within Minister John Hill’s portfolio of Ageing. All of this signals a more combined effort to shift us from our tendency to see ageing as a ‘problem’ (implying sickness, frailty and entropy), to understanding the age spectrum as an opportunity to promote a richer mix in our public places, in the sporting and cultural life of our communities, in volunteerism and in the range of people who feel they can contribute to the civic life of the state.
All of this has an impact on the decisions we make, and the policies and projects we choose to fund. Our urban centres say a lot about how we think about people. And many of us would agree we can plan better for how people ‘use’ our public places (who’s sat on a park bench in summer, begging for a shady tree)?
At a series of forums and events in March 2012, the place for our children and youth was debated in the context of the Integrated Design Strategy for inner Adelaide (5000+). The event was led by the Council for the Care of Children and supported by the Integrated Design Commission SA, the new Urban Renewal Authority (now Renewal SA) and the Dept for Education and Child Development. Teachers and education specialists, researchers, architects, landscape architects and developers, local councils and creatives met to support South Australia’s ambition to be the first Australian state to be formally accredited as a ‘Child-friendly’ state.
Accreditation is an interesting thing. To some it might represent a chance to tick some boxes and apply a stamp of approval to a policy or a project. But in reality, striving for an aspirational target like this is the more important task. Taking the decision to ‘go for it’ is often the high-level signal needed to bring together competing interests and offer a co-ordinating lens for decision makers in different fields; public, private, institutional, not-for-profit. The South Australian government target to increase cycling in the state strategic plan becomes even more critical when seen through a ‘youth’ lens. For instance, how many under-19’s own or have access to a car? How many live within 400m of a bus or train route? We want them to work, right? ‘Stay out of trouble’, yeah? Do we make that easy? To get our kids and young people active and exercising, we might need to take a lateral approach. Would free wifi in our parks encourage young people back to green space?
The forums unanimously agreed that children are not ‘tomorrow’s’ citizens. They are todays citizens. Action is not needed sometime in the future. Action can start now. We need to find ways to involve younger people in decision making if we want younger people to be active contributors in civic life. Involving young people upfront in the design of programs and local projects is more likely to have more impact and support in communities. It’s for this reasons that we trialled a tool called ‘Spaceshaper’ that involved local children (aged 9-14) in evaluating an existing park in Bowden and to help describe what might make it more inviting and relevant to their own age. Interestingly, the tool asked the same questions of adults – with different results. Treating young people as engaged citizens today has its benefits.
A child-friendly place is not just about ‘ask the young people’. We need to understand how a child’s opportunities are linked to the behaviour of carers like parents, grandparents, kindy and childcare providers, older siblings. I can speak from experience. Taking my seven year old to the city skate park on North Terrace one cool morning I couldn’t pick up a coffee or newspaper while he skated. For me to return, I’d like to know my needs are catered for too.
Sometimes, a place that caters to adults will be child friendly. There’s no tick-box. If South Australia does seek international accreditation, it will be a chance to embed ‘age’ in the solution to each program, policy and project. Young, old and other.