When we design a place, our first reaction is often to relieve the pressure points and respond to a city’s immediate needs. We rarely take the time to imagine the possible future and how we can design for the next generation.
While the realities of today may limit our imaginations, children are a vital source of inspiration and imagination, with hopes, dreams and fears for the future. Children are the canaries of thriving places, but how often do we listen to their voices to design their future?
By listening to the silent or marginal voices of children, we can imagine a plausible future. Our firm is fortunate to have a strong relationship with the LEGO Foundation, which fuels curiosity, sparks creativity and inspires lifelong learning. When I have witnessed a child pick up the bright coloured building bricks, it has been humbling to watch their excitement, listen to their ideas and observe the subtle registration of their fears.
Earlier this year, at Melbourne Design Week at the National Gallery of Victoria, we asked over 400 children to tell our city designers how they would design Melbourne to be more beautiful, safe and fun to live in. We asked them to build a story through bright coloured LEGO bricks, and this is what they told us.
Cities need to recognise the human experience
A city that works for children, works for everyone. We need to understand what affects young people the most and use this as a framework to influence all aspects of planning, design and city management – ultimately it will benefit everyone. Seeing a city from children’s perspective shines a light on how the urban environment could be improved, both now and for future generations.
Our cities team explained to the children that our cities should be places of happiness for everyone that uses them – including children. Sometimes adults make decisions about our future city without asking children what they want or how they want to use spaces. We asked them what their happy city looks and feels like.
When asked what could make our city better, children gave a range of answers from cities with more animals, green cities, and places where they could connect with their friends. In some cases, it was a smaller, more inviting city, with less tall buildings.
Create spaces for people to gather and play
We are at a unique point in time in Victoria, as we emerge from Covid 19 impacts, and our city recovers to give voice to the city of the future. Understanding children’s needs and what affects them the most is crucial to building cities that work for all people.
Through our research, Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods, we know the amount of time children spend playing outdoors, their ability to get around independently, and their level of contact with nature are strong indicators of how a city is performing, and not just for children but for all city dwellers.
To trigger their imagination, we helped the children understand that playing outside is good for our health and wellbeing but not all children get the opportunity to play outside and children should be able to play wherever they want, whenever they want.
I’m designing a picnic for our city, so it’s really fun for everyone. ” Abigail, 10
With this information at hand, using LEGO bricks, children told us stories of a city with big open spaces where they could connect with their friends and family. Spaces with music, picnics, place to make potions with friends, parks with slides, flying foxes and tree vines for swinging.
More green space and trees, please
Play in outdoor environments can make a positive contribution to wellbeing across age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. There is evidence, in our recent research, that childhood experiences in nature appear to enhance adult environmentalism.
To help set the scene, we explained to the children that cities are full of cars, trucks, buses which makes the air unhealthy. Trees and green spaces help clear the air and make the city beautiful.
It was no surprise to hear from many children already conscious of the climate crisis and the importance of nature, biodiversity and regeneration for our wellbeing. Understanding this challenge, using imagination, they designed a city full of lush greenery and nature-based solutions.
We’re making a big forest, with lots of animals and greenery. ” Charlie, 7
Children responded with rooftop gardens, wild animals from ducks to tigers, and spaces where they could play with their dogs. Their designs were overwhelmed with plants, trees, flowers, and gardens. Next door neighbours became chickens and turtles, adventures were taken in magical forests, and bodies of water were created for fish, seals, dolphins and drinking.
The city of the future is the city we imagine today. As a city maker, I am delighted to be able to give children a voice in curating a city that reflects their hopes, dreams, fears – their reality. These insights help us create cities that work for all generations.
All images © Arup