Bridging the Gap from 95 cm

Early childhood development and urban planning

Katie Beck reflects on experiences from the second residence week of the Urban95 Academy, a fully-funded leadership programme to help city leaders design better cities for young children and their caregivers.

20 January 2023

The Urban95 Academy was a very important programme and we will carry the learnings from this week back to our municipality. In the future, our programmes concerning the urban realm will be changed and much more fine-tuned to the needs of the youngest members of our community.

Tackling obesity, rethinking how we measure “comfort” on urban roads, designing places where kids can take risks and get dirty, these are some of the local challenges teams from 10 cities around the world brought to The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) for the second residence week of the Urban95 Academy.

28 municipal and state-level leaders came to London in October 2022 determined to focus on solving the complex urban challenges negatively impacting young children and caregivers in their communities. Each team was encouraged to examine their local challenges through different lenses. City Leaders were asked to complement their physical design solutions with behavioural and campaign strategies by targeting social level obstacles to change, and were introduced to tools to effectively communicate big ideas.

U95 Week 2 Islington TourUrban95 Academy participants walking through the city (Islington)

Renca Chile’s Mayor Claudio Castro said participating in the programme helped him and his team to reorient how they approach urban projects:

“The (Urban95 Academy) residence week was like a huge punch for us. It’s very impressive and useful for me to be able to identify that 80% of the time should be about engaging the community – how to tell a story, how to communicate better, how to make sense out of a project. Back in Chile I would say that the focus is always on new infrastructure and design and not the whole project, so I saw here the importance of that, and I learned some essential tools to take back with me.”

U95 Week 2 Team rencaThe Team from Renca, Chile viewing the city from the height of 95cm

The Urban95 Academy aims to bridge the gap between early childhood development and urban planning. Throughout the residence week, participants were asked to think about and experience urban space from a child’s perspective. Indoors, participants were invited to wear a virtual reality headset and watch a streetscape transform through phases of a project. Out and about in London, the programme included walking tours through regenerated areas with design elements that cater to the needs of children and caregivers. Participants pushed strollers and carried “babies” on public transport, and crouched to 95 cm – the height of an average 3-year-old, to experience the cityscape from that vantage point.

The Mayor of Mafra Portugal, Helder Sousa Silva, said that thinking about the city from this perspective was crucial in recentering urban space projects around young people and their experiences:

“It (The Urban95 Academy) was a very important programme and we will carry the learnings from this week back to our municipality. In the future, our programmes concerning the urban realm will be changed and much more fine-tuned to the needs of the youngest members of our community.” 

Beyond the theories encompassing wholistic and inclusive child-friendly city design, the in-person course consists of a range of guest lectures from varied disciplines and backgrounds. Former politicians reflect on how they surpassed challenges to create change in their communities, practitioners who are implementing interventions and impacting policy in their fields, share some of their methods and findings, and current advocates share what strategies are most impactful in motivating the public.

U95 Week 2 PresentationsUrban95 Academy participant present thier project during residence week two

Peer to peer learning also plays a central role; throughout the week, participants are encouraged to work across teams and provide feedback to each other, taking advantage of the vast and varied skills and experiences in the room.

The course has a longer-term practical component. Each team is paired with a technical assistance partner, specific to the particulars of their local challenge, for a period of six months so that they can develop and further hone the proposed projects and move towards implementation.

The challenges teams brought to London in October are as diverse as the geographical locations they come from:

  • The team from Kohima, India are focused on transforming unused neighborhood spaces into pocket parks through a multifaceted piloting scheme.
  • In Riobamba, Ecuador the challenge is to revitalise a historic railway plaza to create safe and inviting spaces for families and young children.
  • The team from Tower Hamlets in London face an uphill battle with obesity levels of over 50%. They plan to start by developing strategies to increase physical activity among children by improving the quality of the daily journey to and from school.
  • In Rourkela, India the priority is to address the needs of vulnerable residents in slums and tribal areas through systematic and physical interventions.
  • In Mafra, the team is focused on designing play and social spaces for young children and caregivers.
  • In Abu Dhabi the challenge is to increase community facilities in a dense urban area while also expanding knowledge around the importance of early childhood development.
  • From the US state of Massachusetts, the team are exploring how to create a new child/ caregiver-centric decision-making metric for road projects.
  • In Mogi daz Cruzes in Brazil the team wants to combat social isolation which has grown during the pandemic.
  • In Recife, also in Brazil, the challenge centers around food instability and reconnecting the community with nature.
  • In Renca, Chile the team is looking at improving air quality and active mobility through cross departmental collaboration with a pilot focusing on the iconic hills that surround the city.

The Mayor of Mogi das Cruzes, Brazil Caio Cunha, said being able to collaborate and share ideas with such an international group was rewarding:

“The opportunity to exchange experiences with other cities is so relevant to us. We want to make our city and example to other cities in the matter of Early Childhood Development and child-friendly city design.”

The programme, which has now delivered three sessions, is a collaboration between the Bernard van Leer Foundation, who have pioneered Urban95 Initiatives around the world, and LSE Cities, which has drawn the various strands of knowledge and case studies into a comprehensive curriculum.

City leaders from over 115 cities have completed the programme’s six weeks of online learning in three separate cohorts. From each cohort, 10 cities have convened in London for an all-expenses paid intensive week of in-person learning and connecting. Cities from the first cohort of the course have now begun implementing the plans they developed and advanced in London.

The programme will continue for a second year and registration is now open for cohorts beginning in 2023.

Katie Beck is the Urban95 Academy Programme Manager at LSE Cities