by Julia Steiny
This is Part 1 of 5 on Leeds' efforts to become a Child-friendly city (Part 2).
If a municipality or state got really serious about investing in the health and welfare of their kids, wouldn't the economy also get healthier?
I don't mean political blah-blahing about "the children are our future." I'll scream the next time I hear that. I mean brutal honesty about how government undermines the health of families. Healthy extended families wrap themselves around kids and old people and manage their own affairs well. Governments support them with good schools, parks, safe neighborhoods and so on. And when family life does spiral into chaos, responsive government services are right at hand, but working as if to put themselves out of business, with a keen focus on getting the family to sustainable independence. Such government support would not involve enabling, shaming or blame, nor would it become an adult jobs program.
Then, since healthy families raise fewer traumatized, chaotic or anti-social kids, the demand for social services would drop. School attendance would rise. The emerging workforce of young people would improve. The economic benefits seem obvious.
But no American city I know has ever gone down a child-centered road with honest whole-heartedness, even though emerging research argues that efforts to become a "creative" city would be better deployed towards becoming a "procreative" city.
But this is precisely what the City of Leeds, England is doing right now. They're becoming a "Child-friendly City," a movement which is big internationally, but little known here in America. They are doing it as an economic-development strategy. People after my own heart.
Like so many gritty old industrial cities, Leeds has to reinvent itself to be viable in the modern economy. It's the third largest city in England, but has little to recommend it. The online travel guides steer you away from Leeds to nearby York. It has the usual assorted urban problems of poverty, challenged schools, teen pregnancy and the like. And in 2009, their Children's Services (like our child-protective services) failed to meet standards according to the British Inspectorate system. This black eye prodded the City Council to go long, get brave, take a road less traveled.
In 2010, they hired Nigel Richardson, who was instrumental in Hull's becoming the first Restorative City in the world — another story I will pursue soon. But for now know that one of the strategies he brought with him from Hull was to assemble all the city's child-serving agencies to get them to work together. The head offices of social services and education are now across the hall from one another. It's cheaper and more effective when agencies leverage each other's efforts instead of working in the usual public-service silos, which are often little fiefdoms. Wrestling hidebound agency cultures, from police to schools, into adopting one child-serving mission can produce impressive outcomes relatively quickly. Already the number of kids in Leeds' foster care — "looked-after children" — has dropped by 200, from 1,480 in 2012 to 1,288 now.
Richardson says this about revitalizing Leed's economy: "Disproportionately investing in children and young people as part of a clear economic regeneration tactic is the right thing to do for children, of course. But it's the right thing to do at this moment to invest in the future of Leeds and its future leaders, and movers and shakers who can have a massive say in the long-term sustainability" of the city.
"Disproportionately" investing in kids is a bold strategy in these days of international economic contraction. In America and the UK, resources for social and public services are being cut, often radically. The Great Recession continues to play havoc on tax receipts at the same time as driving up the need for social services. Leaders work to spread the pain of the cutting to appear fair in doing so.
But rather than hunker down and hope that times get better, Leeds' investment strategy is working toward an actual long-range solution that does not depend on the luck of random factors like the nation's economy. Just as maintaining roads and buildings protect investments in civic infrastructure, so Leeds' support of healthy families will enhance the social infrastructure. The City Council has developed a set of metrics by which the public and communities can hold them accountable — like improved school attendance and reduced numbers of young people out of employment, education or training.
Similarly, right out where everyone can see them, the Council's Child-friendly action plan states: "We will know that Leeds is a child-friendly city when:
* people choose Leeds as the city where they want their children to grow up, live and work.
* children and young people choose Leeds as the city where they want to grow up and make their future; and
* people that want to work with children and young people choose Leeds as the city for them.
I'm already attracted to a place that has such goals. More importantly, I'm attracted to politicians and bureaucrats who consider kids a winning strategy and are willing to do whatever's necessary to get it right. More on this great story next week.
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 [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.