By: Stephanie Watt, Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque, and Kate Butler
Children are active participants in city life and deserve to be the focus of city planning, just as adults are. As rights holders, young people should be considered in public policy decisions about city activities, places and events. Unfortunately, that’s rarely been the case. For instance, for several decades now, city streets have been oriented toward car transportation “to the detriment of their friendliness and accessibility as a space for socialization and play for children and youth.” (1)
However, the shift in our everyday lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic has broken the mold in which children were usually confined: home, school and playground.(2) Despite the pandemic’s heavy impacts, new opportunities for adults and children alike to use cities has opened. In this paper, we explore challenges and opportunities for children’s rights in the city as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic, possibilities for change and what adults need to do to step up.
Seeing the city in a new light
During the strict confinement phase, in spring 2020, simply leaving our homes for a walk revealed a new perspective on the city. Few cars on the road meant that streets were relatively empty, which only highlighted the little space reserved for pedestrians. Sidewalks, it turns out, make up only a small part of our urban centres. Familiar spaces, such as parking lots, were suddenly empty and could be used in ways not planned for. Cities were quieter and some even had cleaner air. Many quickly built wide and secure bike paths for the enjoyment of diversified crowds, including children and teenagers. Anecdotal evidence even showed more girls than usual in public space and bike lanes.
Alternative models that reinvent urban streets to actualize children’s rights in different ways never made more sense. These models–play streets and school streets–reconnect youth to play, a right embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).(3) On top of benefiting children’s physical and mental health, social skills and development of adaptation and resilience within their local communities, these alternative street models designed for and in collaboration with youth enhance children’s safety in the city with a decrease of vehicular traffic while allowing greener and cleaner spaces to emerge.(4)
Reflecting on the equity and quality of the city environment
The pandemic and its series of confinement measures fostered adaptations and initiatives for safer cities in terms of COVID-19 transmission, but it also brought in its wake questions around the equity and quality of the city environment for children’s well-being.
For example, even before the pandemic, “young people [were already] acutely aware that other than age, there [were] considerations of gender, place of residence, and cultural and ethnic origin that shape young people’s experiences and appreciation of Montréal and the resources it has to offer.”(5) In addition, 2020 has further illustrated to all of us the ways that race shapes all of our interactions with and experiences of the city environment.
Indeed, the pandemic galvanized discussions and actions around children’s rights and inequalities in terms of access to safe spaces, green spaces and technology. During the first wave, in Montréal for example, municipal facilities, such as libraries, playgrounds and community centres, were closed, along with cafés, restaurants, schools and malls. Safe spaces to meet became scarce. Stories of young people not able to do their schoolwork because of limited Internet access became prevalent, not just in Northern or rural communities, but in cities as well.
The pandemic also brought to light the gaps in child-friendly housing and the legislation surrounding it. Under confinement, apartments without balconies or with small ones only seemed to exacerbate inequalities. Suddenly, the idea that children might require more than bedrooms in a home made sense. How could family housing in dense urban environments have been reduced to size and bedroom numbers all these years?
Rethinking the status quo
Nonetheless, children and youth were active online and in the streets to make their voices heard and ask for changes in terms of the sexism, racism and discrimination they face in their everyday lives in the city. For instance, the recent example of youth activism in Montréal-Nord over a teacher that repeatedly made racist remarks shows that youth have the ability to shape their city and hints us towards what social change may look like.
Similarly, youth have been at the forefront of activism on climate change in recent years, and this shows no sign of stopping, even during a pandemic (see Fridays for Future for instance). They have clearly pointed out the need to elevate the work of policy makers and responsibility bearers. Climate change advocates are even taking the CRC to new places by broadening the scope of Article 3. While it was originally drafted with welfare and care in mind, climate change action is now another layer added to what adults can do for children’s best interests.
Indeed, COVID-19 is not the only challenge facing us. Climate change has devastating consequences, and we all have a responsibility to future generations to combat it. Adults need to take into account children’s views when making decisions that affect children, which is a core article of the CRC. In fact, the youth manifesto presented at UNICEF’s first Child Friendly Cities Summit in Koln in October 2019 references the need for children and youth focused solutions to urban problems.(6) What children want is what will make cities more resilient to pandemics and climate change.
In that sense, the pandemic has highlighted the need to think about the ways cities in general, and neighborhoods in particular, are built in connection with children’s rights. While 2020 has proven to be a difficult year, perhaps we can salvage a few positives from it. Children are ready for changes connected to non-discrimination, anti-racism, mobility and climate change, but many adults are still holding back.
There is a need to elevate the rights of children in the work of policy makers and responsibility bearers and to start working with children and young people to build urban spaces that allow for children’s rights to be respected and actualized, and at the same time, that lead to more well-being, inclusion and participation of children and young people in society.
1 Torres, J. (2020). Why is it important to provide child- and youth-friendly streets, in J. Loebach, S. Little, A. Cox & P. E. Owens (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Designing Public Spaces for Young People – Processes, practices and policies for youth inclusion (pp. 52-63.), New York, Routledge.
2 Sanderson, M. (2020). The city at small scale: Children’s urban play in a global pandemic, NEOS, 12(2). http://acyig.americananthro.org/neos/neos_current_issue/the-city-at-small-scale-childrens-urban-play-in-a-global-pandemic/
3 Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal. (2020). Revue des exemples inspirants de rues ludiques et de rues-écoles, https://urbanismeparticipatif.ca/sites/default/files/upload/document/tool/clrdj_revue_vf.pdf
4 880 cities https://www.880cities.org/ ; Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal. (2020). Changer les règles du jeu. https://urbanismeparticipatif.ca/sites/default/files/upload/document/tool/clrdj_fiche_vf.pdf
5 Blanchet-Cohen N., Torres, J. & Grégoire-Labrecque, G. (2020). Youth and their Multiple Relationships with the City: Experiences of Exclusion and Belonging in Montréal. Sociological studies of children and Youth, 26. p. 85-103.
About the authors:
Stephanie Watt is a City Councillor for Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie in Montreal. She is the co-founder of Change ta ville (CTV), a series of neighbourhood-based participatory workshops. Before becoming a City Councillor in 2017, she was an editor and indexer, specializing in food, geography and politics.
Geneviève Grégoire-Labrecque is a PhD Candidate at Concordia University. Her PhD research aims to understand the ways youth participation is understood, practiced and experienced by youth and school staff in a youth-led and an adult-led school initiative on environment and climate change in two high schools in Montreal.
Kate Butler, PhD, is a child rights researcher and consultant with over 15 years of experience working with structurally vulnerable youth in Canada and around the world. She is the Chair of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children.