In the words of Gil Penalosa, “A great cities is where people sleep at home and live outside.” This is a very simple definition of how great cities ought to be. Living outside means that all people including children, young, elderly, women, men and disabled are able to undertake various activities outside their home such as meeting with their neighbors, playing with friends and most importantly connecting with nature.  Are our cities giving us the opportunity to be outside? Is it even safe for a three year old in a tri-cycle go anywhere? Do cities even provide basic facilities such as baby changing facilities for infants and toddlers that can encourage parents to travel often with a baby? Can parents even use a stroller?  What about public transport? How many parks, healthcare and other services are accessible within proximity of walking or cycling? What if infants, toddlers and children would speak? What would they say about how we design the spaces they live in? What if we designed our cities with a lens of a 3 year old? What could we do differently?

My name is Peninah Ndegwa, the founder of Wow Mom Kenya (http://wowmom.co.ke/) a platfor tha advocated for children friendly cities by bringing to attention policies that plaque mothers and children in cities as well as offer personalized, evidence-based information, advice and tips on parenting.  It’s my deep desire to empower other women to pursue their careers even after having kids and to bring to attention the antiquated policies that plaque mothers in Kenya and beyond. I grew up in a cold yet green village in the slopes of Abadare ranges in Murang’a county in Kenya. We are coffee and tea farmers. I still love picking the red berries and plucking green leaves to date. I went to a nearby public school located approximately 400m from my home. I walked to school every day. It was never lonely. On my way, I would meet with a lot of my classmates and friends and we would play or chat our way to school. We would sing, share snacks, pick wild mulberries. I loved school. We had amazing teachers and I loved break time when we would play all sorts of games. It was refreshing. We didn’t have sophisticated toys. We practically made all of them using the available materials from the balls, to dolls, carts, bicycles, cars and the buses. Our evening walk was even better. We chased grass hoppers and beautiful butterflies on our way home. We loved cow dung because it gave us the beetles! I remember going home every day looking all dirty and tired over an eventful day. The only time my parents accompanied me to school was my first day in school. The rest I walked alone. Not because they didn’t love me, the village was safe for me.  The road at that time was marram with hardly no cars passing apart from the trucks coming to collect tea from a nearby tea buying centers. Occasionally, some public transport would pass by to pick and drop passengers travelling to the nearby urban areas. It was safe and parents could relax at home and assured that their children will go back home safely.

Twenty something years later, am a parent, living and working in “Green City in the sun” Nairobi Kenya. The situation is different. With the status quo, my daughter will not have the luxury to walk or cycle to school. As it is now, she will either use the school bus or have her dropped to school. This will cost us more money and time and even worse contribute significantly to traffic emission and congestion in the city. Well, why not public transport? One would ask. Currently, the public transport in Nairobi is unreliable and inconvenient. Sometimes the public transport buses (matatus) change the routes to avoid traffic jam. Sometimes dropping and picking passengers from any point and would be worried over her safety. My desire is that she walks to school as it even healthy for her.  She can easily achieve 30 minutes daily walking target and keep off obesity and heart diseases as well as improve her mental health.  It’s through walking that she can connect with nature. It’s through walking that she can discover new things. It’s by walking she can experience the city she is growing up in. Unfortunately, walking is a luxury she will only enjoy in designated parks and nature walks eg Karura forest. This is why we need to urgently act and make the city more children friendly.

Speaking of parks, there are very few parks in Nairobi. Most of the parks especially within residential neighborhoods have been grabbed and massive development constructed. The few exiting ones such as Uhuru Parks, Gevanjee gardens, Uhuru gardens are poorly managed and maintained and hence unsafe for children. They are also not accessible by walking or cycling. The parents now have no choice but to take their children to shopping malls. Whereas, the shopping malls provide modern play activities and toys, the play facilities comes at a cost hence excluding the majority low income earners in Nairobi. Further, taking children to the malls means that even for the parents who can afford to take their children have to plan ahead of time. Malls have space limitation and hence children may not connect with nature. Play is vital for children growth and development. They learn motor, coordination, social skills as well as enhance their muscle and mental strength. Play need to be free and accessible for all children. That’s why need parks to be provided, protected and maintained for use of all people. Failure to provide parks means that we are robbing childhood from our children. Not including the children mean we will have fewer children in our streets. In the words of Enrique Penalosa “Children are kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.” Is it not time that we designed children friendly cities

What do I mean by child friendly city? A child friendly city is a city/community committed to improving the lives of children within their jurisdiction by realizing their rights (https://childfriendlycities.org/what-is-a-child-friendly-city/).  Currently, 4 billion people are living in urban areas today and nearly a third of them are children. With rapid urbanization and population growth, it is estimated that by 2050 the global population will be 9.8 billion and almost 70% of the world’s children will love in urban areas. Isn’t necessary that every city designed with a child in mind? Over the last half century, we have been designing cities as though everybody is youthful and abled. We never put any consideration of children because we have often thought that children’s voice doesn’t count. I mean, they don’t even have the right to vote!   What we forget is, if a child can cycle everywhere in the city, if a child can cross all roads safely, if a parents and care givers with infants and toddlers can comfortably use public transport then, that city is great for everyone.

How can a city like Nairobi become child friendly?

  1. Provide continuous walkways across the city– Children are human beings and humans are created to walk just like the birds fly. As such, cities need to provide safe, smooth continuous walkways citywide. They surface need to be smooth and with ramps at grade changes to make it easier for parents using strollers. Pedestrian crossings are crucial for children’s safety. At grade pedestrian crossing should be provided and clearly marked and signaled to warn drivers on crossings. Foot bridges should be avoided at all cost. Speed limits should be a maximum of 30kph especially in school zones. Installation of bollards is key to prevent encroachment of walkways by cars.
  2. Provide a safe cycle network- Cycling is not only a mode of transport but also a fun activity for kids. Nairobi need to implement continuous cycle network across the city. The cycle routes need to be short and direct to enhance connectivity. Cycle parking even in schools, and in parks is crucial to enhance bike safety in the city.
  3. Public space/parks-Parks in Nairobi need to be reclaimed and designed to cater for children especially in residential neighborhoods. The parks need to be close to homes accessible by foot or cycle, with spaces to play, ample benches for care givers and parents watching other the kids. For areas where spaces are so scarce like in slums, churches and school play grounds can be opened to the public after school hours.
  4. Priority seat in Public transport- First of all, Nairobi need to invest in proper public transport.  The current Matatu system fail to prioritize the children. There is no designated seats for parents travelling with children and it makes it difficult for parents to scramble for a seat with other passengers. This promote use of private cars causing congestion in the city.  A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is ideal for a growing city like Nairobi so that it can move majority of people at the least economic and environmental cost. With this efficient public transport, it’s possible to designate seat for parents with children, pregnant women elderly and disabled.
  5. Baby changing facilities and pediatric toilets- Currently, there are no baby changing facilities in all public toilets in Nairobi CBD. According to a survey undertaken by Wow Mom Kenya, majority of parents prefer to leave their children at home rather than travel with them due to lack of baby changing facility and pediatric toilets. 0ver 60% of parents have never used a baby changing facility while the 40% that have used a baby changing facility have used it in a shopping mall.  97% of the respondent agree that they would travel more, access parks, restaurants and even engage in other family facilities if only they could access clean and private baby changing facilities. This shows the great need to provide baby changing facilities in cities to enable parents to have more time with their infants and toddlers. Pediatric toilet is also essential for children above three years who cannot sit on normal a toilet bowl.

Cities are engines of economic growth and development. Developing cities like Nairobi present a great opportunity for children to live, learn and thrive. Cities need to recognize that prioritizing children is a legal obligation under the UN convention of children rights and hence are liable under international law if they fail to consider children’s best interest. Further, children are part and parcel of the human race and they deserve inclusion and their needs articulated in decision making. It is important to note that rapid urbanization, climate change, public health crisis, globanization makes children very vulnerable. City government need to act urgently to ensure that all the new policies take into account the welfare of children. Failure to do this, we will be raising a weak generation that will depend on us even in our old age.  We need to ensure that our cities provide a healthy environment for children to enjoy childhood as they acquire skills that they will need as adults. If a city is great for three year old, it will great for everyone!