A new design guide has been unveiled to help all city leaders, urban designers, early childhood practitioners and property developers around the world to take practical steps to create healthy, protective, stimulating and supportive spaces for children, their caregivers and pregnant women.  

The Proximity of Care Design guide, issued by global sustainable development consultancy Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation, helps tackle issues from air pollution and proximity to facilities and services, social inclusion, and climate resilience. It draws on research and contributions from global experts, as well as real-life experiences of projects from London, UK, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – that have applied the guide’s principles.  

Many cities have reduced space for children and families, with cars pushing them from streets, or narrower walkways and restrictions on public spaces eroding the freedom of children to explore with caregivers and experience nurturing human interactions. 

Those involved in shaping the design of cities often don't consider the needs of children beyond specific areas like playgrounds. The guide urges them to see the whole city as a playground, giving children aged under-five the ideal settings to be safe, healthy, and stimulated. 

By considering their needs, city leaders, planners and developers can make cities more inclusive for everyone – as child-friendly urban planning delivers social and environmental benefits through improved road safety, better access to facilities and services, improved air quality, positive behaviours, and climate resilience. 

The team behind the guide are urging all those shaping cities to look at and experience urban spaces through the eyes of a child to help them see the challenges facing children. Using a specially developed virtual reality headset developed by Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation, they can see how a city looks from 95cm – the height of a three-year-old. Actors, real sounds and a traffic system controlled by artificial intelligence show how a child moves through a city, as well as what a child-friendly environment looks like.  

Originally the Proximity of Care Guide was created in 2021 for vulnerable urban areas, such as informal and refugee settlements, now the guide has been expanded, with nine partners worldwide (listed below) testing it in their city to address a particular challenge their children and care givers were facing. These experiences helped form the new guide, that can be applied to benefit young children and caregivers in any neighbourhood or city worldwide.  

Those shaping the urban environment can get inspired by seeing the partners put the guide’s principles into action: 

In Brazil the guide was used to develop a plan to advocate for safer breastfeeding in public space which included stakeholders ranging from mothers themselves to young schoolboys.  

In Uruguay it was used to integrate deaf communities in public spaces by developing stimulation and protection routes between educational institutions, playgrounds and public spaces.  

In Chile the guide’s principles helped transform a heavy-traffic corridor into an integrated street that supports health, learning, behaviour, and wellbeing of the youngest children, their teachers and parents.  

In Peru it helped to shape a child and family friendly masterplan for the improvement of the public, green and play spaces in the Urranaga neighbourhood in Chiclayo.  

A good start in life for babies and toddlers is one of the best investments a city can make. Yet most children in urban areas don’t have close access to the safe, healthy and vibrant urban environments and services they need to develop and flourish. The Proximity of Care Approach and Design Guide was developed by Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation to change this. This guide, packed with both inspiration and practical tools, belongs to anyone who is ready to reshape their city and create incredible spaces and services for young children, caregivers and whole communities.

Rushda Majeed

Chief Programme Officer at the Bernard van Leer Foundation

Considering children and their caregivers in urban planning is a vital part of creating inclusive cities that work better not only for babies, toddlers, and their caregivers, but for everyone. This new guide highlights the practical steps that city makers and leaders can take to embed child and family friendly design principles into their work, and the many benefits that they can generate by enhancing children’s experience of the city. 

Sara Candiracci

Associate Director, Arup