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Child Friendly Cities, Tsunamis and Russia

Karen Malone talks about children’s independent mobility and child-​friendly cities

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An interview with Karen Malone

An interview by Valeria Kurmak

We live in the postindustrial era. The strategies of industrial city development no longer suit us today, let alone in the future. Cities need not only new approaches to sustainable development, but also new marketing tools. UNICEF’s Child Friendly City programme (CFC) was used in different crisis situations all over the world to prevent people from leaving the city and to support children and families in case of natural disasters. One of the most important issues for today and the future is children’s independent mobility, because it provides us with a sense of safety and danger, the way parents feel in terms of their own fears.

Karen Malone is a Professor of Education at the University of Western Sydney. She researches and teaches in the areas of child-centred research methodologies, children’s rights and participation and child-friendly cities. She is currently the Chair and Founder of the UNICEF Child Friendly Asia Pacific Network, a member of the UNICEF Child Friendly Research Advisory Group and African and Asia Pacific coordinator of a global study on children’s independent mobility.
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Let me start with a personal question, if I may. I know that UNICEF was asked to leave Russia. Have you had such an experience anywhere else?

No! There have been some countries that have signed up for a program but never really managed to implement them because of money or resources. In many of those very low developed countries in Africa the main focus for starting UNICEF’s Child Friendly City programme (CFC) is to make sure children live to the age 5. So their focus is really different.

To have UNICEF completely eliminated from a country is an unusual event and a the justification I’ve heard is “we don’t need UNICEF anymore because we are now highly developed nation and there is no role for that organization”. Many highly developed nations still do have UNICEF offices. When a country becomes wealthier, you see that they have a disposition to be responsible for children all around the world. Actually, Russia is not that high on the Human Development Index. It is not very far from the situation I saw in Kazakhstan, were there still is very strong UNICEF visibility.

Measles is possibly the biggest killer of children in emergencies. Crowded camps with many children not vaccinated are very vulnerable to sudden epidemics. Part of UNICEF’s emergency response is to vaccinate all children for measles and mothers for neo natal tetanus. In the spontaneous settlements around Muganga over one week we vaccinated about 22,000 children.

22,000 children received measles vaccine in the spontaneous settlements around Muganga. Part of UNICEFs emergency response is to vaccinate all children for measles and mothers for neo natal tetanus /​Photo: Julien Harneis /​Flickr​.com

You are an expert on the Child Friendly City programme. What is it about?

The fundamental idea is to put into practice the Convention on the Rights of the Child in cities. It is a policy that a city has to follow, but actual implementation varies. So child-​friendly cities is a programme that helps cities to understand what rights would look like in action. One of the ways to do this is to consider the facilities, services, infrastructure and physical environment. But it is also important to consider the social environment, in terms of what cultural position children have within cities, what roles they have and what contribution they might make in the decision-​making process.

When a country becomes wealthier, they have a disposition to be responsible for children all around the world

Adults who operate cities every day usually don’t see issues that the children or the disabled might face. When we are young and mobile, our lifestyle is very different. Often it is only when professionals have children of their own they suddenly realize how unfriendly their city is. So it is very important for governments to be aware of the need to create an accessible environment. But there is no reason why a city can’t become child-​friendly without having UNICEF offices in its country. In some countries around the world child-​friendly cities were supported and initiated by local administration without the whole country being involved.

I have found such an example in Holon, Israel. People were leaving Holon for other cities, but the implementation of child-​friendly initiatives allowed to keep and attract residents and even tourists. I know that there was a similar situation in Australia.

Bendigo was a small town in Australia. A lot of people were moving away because agriculture was no longer sustainable. The city was starting to die and the mayor was really worried that the economy of the town is in decline, and so when CFC was introduced to him, he saw it as a way to market his city. They developed serious policies and implemented very strong actions, creating a very family-​friendly environment. Many families are not really interested in roads and bridges, but parents are interested in the lifestyle that a city provides for their children.

Another example is Rotterdam, the Netherlands. They were feeling that a lot of families were moving away and the inner city area was becoming deserted. Rather than just focus on gentrification, maybe creating lifestyle for professional young people, they wanted to keep the diversity of families in the city, so they decided to use the СFC as an impetus for redesigning the whole port area in Rotterdam. So they decided to take part in CFC research projects. They employed a lot of young architects and urban designers to work with and conduct research and then they put the whole urban renewable program with children in the neighborhood into action.

You work all over the world. Could you tell me about some future global trends that are connected to children and cities?

Sustainable development is going to be a very strong focus for the next 20 years. In January 2015 my paper will be published in International Journal of Child Rights “Child Friendly Cities Initiative and Sustainable Development: addressing rapid urbanization and children’s rights through local and global partnerships”. It is about the role that CFC plays in a new sustainable development agenda.

Sustainable lifestyle is really important. Often it is the poorest that are impacted the most because they do not have access to resources that help them adapt to changing conditions. It will also be really important to have good data about what is going on for children and families in the cities around the world. Data collection should be much more accurate to be able to make better decisions on the national level, but also on the global level. It is something we have been focusing on a lot. If you think about Holon, what strategies mayor could imply, and how it changes the demographics, you realize that just putting it in practice is not enough. It is important for cities to document these projects and their outcomes so that other cities are able to see how they may use some of those strategies. Cities often work in isolation, not sharing information. A global project like CFC has the capacity for networking and sharing ideas and experiences.

Many families are not interested in roads and bridges, but parents are interested in the lifestyle that a city provides for their children

You worked a lot on the problem of children’s independent mobility. Can we regard it as a future trend for child-​friendly cities?

Children’s independent mobility is a very important issue because it provides us with good sense of how a city is in terms of the risk, safety and danger children may be exposed to. How parents feel in terms of their own fears and insecurities. For cities, children’s independent mobility means not just improving the physical environment, but also doing cultural work to ensure parents engage children’s safety.

Are there any cities where independent mobility today may be an example for other cities in future?

In Tokyo there is a strong commitment to the idea that children from a very young age should be independently mobile. Japanese parents have a strong sense that children are competent and able to be independent. Many parents are working long hours, they often work quite a distance away from their houses and they are very dependent on their children to be able to get home from school and play clubs on their own.

In most countries there has been a very strong deterioration in allowing children to have freedom. The age they get some independence is going up, and in many highly developed nations children don’t have independent mobility until they are 11 – 12 years old. But in Japan it is very stable. Not that Japanese parents don’t have the same fears that other parents do, they definitely do. But they have set up strategies to ensure children are safe in the environment. One such strategy is a GPS system given by the city council, they call them ‘Mamoruchi’, it is like an emergency alarm and a child support line, where children can call if they need help or if they are scared.

They have a lot of educational programs going on in schools. They do a “peer walking to school” program, where children walk groups to and from school. They also have parents who ride on bikes around the neighborhood to check if everything is okay. Businesses are signed on to child-​friendly programs. So the work has been done to understand the concerns that parents might have and then try to act as a community, to set up strategies to overcome these problems. 

How do local cultural aspects influence program realization?

UNICEF is a global project, but each country takes on the project individually, because every country is unique, and every city is different. People often say “OK, we want to be a child-​friendly city, just tell us what to do”. But there are no universal guidelines.

Brazil is a very interesting example. To implement the program in small to medium towns, they created a competition where cities where competing for the presidential seal of the most child-​friendly city. So it is a very much festive approach, and they run lots of cultural events.

Another example would be Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan has a very similar program which I imagine many of structured industrial nations do. Their government develops an accreditation or recognition program, structured to fulfill the requirements of a national children’s program. And then mayors work with their communities at a grass-​root level to see if they can fulfill these indicators. If a city fulfills the indicators and if there is evidence of outcomes and change, then it gets recognition. It can be financial support or a place in the top ten child-​friendly cities list. It is much more structured and less ‘festival-​like’.

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Japanese education about mobility safety, The ‘Mamoruchi’ Safety Device, Stuff and parents patrol /​Photo: courtesy of Dr. Karen Malone)

Do you think this child-​friendly program in Kazakhstan will be implemented?

I think it will. But it is transforming into a top-​down approach, the president and the president committee are the ones who make decisions. They are using a soviet style of implementation, like ‘you will do this and that’, and if you don’t do this you might lose your job. So lots of mayors say ‘Ok, I’ll do it’! But how well will they do it, what skills do they have, will they really do it, or are they just showing off? How can mayors be honest about the real issues when they are always judged for their performance? It takes a lot of work to get locals to be honest with their mayor about their problems. One of the real issues for them is that you don’t talk to the community about your difficulties or the challenges. The mayor always says that everything is great, and if it is not you just get fired behind closed doors. There is a lot of work that has to be done for people to feel safe and be honest about things that are important in governance.

It takes a lot of work to get locals to be honest with their mayor about their problems

Was it different in Brazil?

Yes, there is a much more participatory approach. The political advocacy that individuals have in that part of South America is very strong. If you can drive that energy into something that can make changes and improve their communities, then it could be a really strong momentum.

Sometimes cities start the program because of a disaster. Slow demise in Holon and the loss of children showed that if we don’t do something, then we are going to lose focus on community. In Haiti they started a CFC programme because of the typhoon. Actually, it was similar in Japan: after the tsunami and the earthquake in Sendai UNICEF activated CFCfor the very first time. So it can be initiated from in different ways.

So we need a tsunami to have a CFC in Moscow.

Sometimes to start a process it might be enough to run a big festival or do a big event. But I can’t imagine everyone in Moscow going ‘Hey, let’s have a party together, it is good for the children’. That’s part of culture. Different approaches to motivating people are often a reflection of the culture of the country.