Child looking out onto city landscape; Child looking out onto city landscape;

Design Guide for Urban Early Childhood, Jordan, Lebanon, South Africa, Kenya 

Design guide for early childhood in vulnerable urban areas

Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation have partnered to develop a guide to assess, design and implement child-centred interventions in vulnerable urban contexts, such as informal and refugee settlements, which will improve the living conditions of young children and their caregivers, with benefits to the broader community.

The guide builds upon the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 Initiative, which asks a bold but simple question: “If you could experience the city from 95cm – the height of a 3-year-old –what would you change?”. Urban95 leverages urban planning, policy and design to improve the very youngest children and their caregivers experience, play in, interact with and travel through cities.

Children, caregivers and expectant mothers living in rapidly urbanising informal and refugee contexts a particularly vulnerable population, among the most severely affected by a lack of basic services, inadequate living conditions, and limited opportunities for individual and community growth. In addition, these populations are often on the front line of climate change impacts, compounding the difficulty of their situation.

Project Summary

300million children currently live in informal settlements

4case studies from pilot sites in Jordan, Lebanon Kenya and South Africa 

0-5age group focus, along with caregivers and expectant mothers

The guide seeks to be a practical tool, with design principles, processes, set of standards, and policy recommendations that key urban practitioners, decision makers, and development actors can use to mainstream the needs of young children and caregivers, and to profile their work as child and family friendly. It will be developed in close collaboration with key players in the development and humanitarian sectors as well as the design industry, to ensure that the needs of the final users are properly addressed from the project’s onset.


Children play in an informal settlement Children play in an informal settlement

A growing population in critical need

With cities growing exponentially and population displacement on the rise globally, more and more children are likely to find themselves living in informal, resource-restricted, and otherwise vulnerable urban areas. In the coming decades, children’s health, lives and futures will be increasingly determined by the shape of urban development.

The early years of a child’s life are critical for their long-term health and development. Neuroscience research indicates that a child’s experiences with their family, caregivers and the environment around them sets the foundation for learning and behaviour later in life. To develop to their full potential, babies and toddlers need not only the minimum basics of good nutrition, regular healthcare, clean air and water and a safe environment – they also need plenty of opportunities to play and to experience warm, responsive human interactions with their relatives and community. However, in contexts with multi-source vulnerabilities, such as informal urban settlements, the needs and constraints of the youngest and most vulnerable are often left out of decision-making and planning. In addition, children between 0 and 5 have significantly different needs than older children, but are often invisible to municipal leaders or lumped in with older children from a planning perspective.

It is our responsibility as urban practitioners, to design and plan for cities that cater towards the most vulnerable groups, by answering children’s needs and aspirations and enriching their development from early childhood. This will determine our global future and will benefit us all ”

Sara Candiracci Arup Sara Candiracci Associate Director, Inclusive and Resilient Cities Lead

Child crossing street with caregiver, courtesy of Jon Spaull / Bernard van Leer Foundation 

A collaborative process

There is no shortage of existing publications addressing the need for a child-centred approach in design and planning; these reports, however, tend to feature an array of example cases, design principles and methodology frameworks, which can be difficult to sift through for overburdened government authorities, urban practitioners and development actors. In addition, existing development guides frequently overlook the specific needs of children 0-5 in vulnerable urban contexts. Arup’s guide aims to provide robust, easy to use context-sensitive tools for implementation across cultures and at various scales. . As children under 5 require representation for engagement, caregivers (be they parents, siblings, or members of the wider community) are positioned at the core of our objectives. Our tool aims to be a resource of first resort for aid workers, community organisers, municipal authorities and planning specialists.

Planning and designing a neighbourhood to better meet the needs of all families with young children – who are at the most foundational and sensitive time in their lives – is one of the best investments a city can make. We’re glad to be collaborating with Arup’s dedicated and expert team to set out guidelines to support the basic human rights to decent housing, safe water, sanitation and play ”

Patrin Watanabe Patrin Watanatada Knowledge for Policy Director, Urban95 Coordinator

To succeed in framing relevant and applicable urban design principles, standards, processes and policy recommendations, a sound contextual understanding is imperative, along with the involvement throughout the process of young children, caregivers, pregnant women, and key urban actors. To this end, the guide will be created in consultation with critical stakeholders from across the international urban development community, and in close collaboration with Save the Children, Civic and KDI. These partners will work with us in four pilot sites to assess a spectrum of urban contexts in Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, and South Africa. Through a range of applied research methods, we will engage with both children living in vulnerable urban areas, and with the broader community. This will allow us to assess their needs, understand their aspirations,, and design meaningful interventions that will contribute to developing inclusive, liveable, safe and climate resilient urban settlements where young children can thrive

Download Arup's capability statement on child-centred design and planning

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