Julia Steiny: What is a Child-Friendly City? Why Should We Care?

by Julia Steiny

This is Part 2 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-friendly city (Part 1).

In 1989 the United Nations completed a 10-year multi-national negotiation that resulted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  To this day, this treaty signed by 193 nations remains the largest international set of agreements ever accomplished in history.  Its preamble and 42 articles state principles that should be obvious truisms, but aren’t.  Like that children and youth should have protection from exploitation and abuse, a loving family, a safe environment, clean water and air, and so on.  As the Preamble puts it, “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.”

A movement emerged from the Convention called “Child-Friendly Cities” (CFC).  Championed by UNICEF, cities on every continent began working to implement in reality what the Convention lays out as principles in the abstract.  The work was and is vast.  The welfare of children touch virtually every aspect of policy-making from national to neighborhood levels.  So, for example, countries that discriminate against certain ethnic groups had to start the hard political work of changing their laws, regulations, and government services to end discrimination against those groups’ children, per their Convention agreements.  These days annual conferences gather participating cities, of which there are now hundreds, to share best practices, celebrate success and get advice on intractable challenges.

Fortunately, UNICEF has provided a how-to guide for cities.  They’ve boiled down the Convention’s 42 articles to relatively manageable principles, like children’s right to clean water, proper sanitation, a loving family, protection from abuse, shelter, health care, education and the like.  But refreshingly, the Convention also agrees that each young citizen needs to be able to:

*„ Walk safely in the streets on their own

*„ Meet friends and play (my emphasis)

*„ Have green spaces for plants and animals

*„ Be an equal citizen of their city

In short, it’s a city-by-city effort to make a world fit for children.

I should note that “Child-Friendly Cities” is probably not ringing a bell because the U.S. and Somalia were the only two nations that refused to sign the Convention.  They reserve the right to execute or incarcerate for life a child under 18, contrary to Convention agreement.  Some U.S. cities worked on CFC initiatives, but in general, we’ve allowed this encouraging international movement to pass us by.  Our loss.

Crazy-broad CFC partnerships collaborate on unified strategies.

Almost 60% of the world’s children grow up in urban environments now.  Governments at every level divide children’s issues among self-contained public agencies — education, social services, health.  Cities are not in the habit of coordinating their plans with multiple public or private agencies, never mind collectively looking through the lens of what’s good for kids or what kids themselves feel is good.  Children routinely drop between the cracks of those siloed agencies, even though no intractable social problem — take school absenteeism — could be solved by a government agency working alone.

A few examples:  Walking, biking and buses are not safe for kids in most cities.  In 1998 while working towards becoming a CFC, Bogota, Colombia, elected Enrique Peñalosa as its Mayor.  As a bicycle nut, personally, he made safe, accessible, widespread transportation a priority during his administration, which required work from all sorts of agencies.

Bangladesh assembled a large CFC coordinating council made up of previously-unrelated groups of all kinds.  Realistically, they knew they couldn’t abolish child labor however desireable.  Instead, they focused on getting each working child two hours of schooling every day, with the aim of accumulating at least two years’ worth of education.  Their strategy conscripted parents and employers to run local learning centers so costs would be low enough the tactic could be sustainable over time.  The project so successfully helped kids use their learning to escape dire poverty, officials supported an expansion effort in 2011.

Leeds’ CFC strategy focuses on three measurable goals they call “obsessions.”

Leeds, England, is using their CFC initiative to drive an economic-development strategy.  (See last week’s column.)  To create a more attractive, healthier city, Leeds’ officials are asking the public to hold them accountable to three “obsessions:”

*  Reduce the need for children to enter care.  (our Child-Protective Services)

*  Reduce the number of people not in education, employment or training (NEET); and

*  Improve school attendance.

These conditions are especially intractable precisely because of how broad the community-wide efforts have to be.  What they all have in common is the need for healthy, high-functioning families, the gold standard of public health.  Leeds officials are tracking these three areas with hard data weekly “obsession trackers” that arrive in regional department heads’ inboxes.  Examples are linked in this overview.  Widely-shared data keeps the subject public and the goals in sight.

Leeds’ efforts are relatively new, but already fewer children are going into care.  Next week we’ll start digging deeper into the “how” of Leeds’ early success with child-friendliness.

We should care because the world badly needs many more places where kids can thrive.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny