The reality for many urban children is too much time spent indoors playing on smartphones – but a few cities are fighting the tide with innovative ways to keep kids healthy, sociable – and outdoors
by Laura Laker
“Don’t underestimate the power of children,” says Tirana’s young mayor, Erion Veliaj. After a survey showed the city’s parents spend more on their cars than their children, Veliaj has used this statistic as moral leverage to refocus priorities.
In a city short on funds, businesses have sponsored the transformation of kindergartens and nurseries from run-down “prison cells” into beautiful spaces, with 10 new ones on the way via public-private partnerships.
Repeated traffic closures on the huge Skanderbeg Square for play convinced residents to accept it as a permanent car-free space. Every three months the pedestrian zone expands by one more street, until the city centre eventually goes completely car-free. PM10 pollutants have already dropped by 15%.
Change isn’t always easy in a city where the car is a potent status symbol. The construction of a large playground at Tirana’s artificial lake attracted protests, some of them violent.
“A vocal minority who are well-connected, with vested interests, will make a lot of noise,” says Veliaj. “You have to trust that the silent majority will turn up when it opens.” And they did.
In his first year Veliaj took 40,000 sq m of land from illegal developments, making way for 31 new playgrounds.
A city forest ring is populated by kids’ “birthday trees”, which families plant at given locations. “When other countries are talking about walls, we are building a wall of trees, to oxygenate the city,” Veliaj says. About 60% of trees are provided by citizens and businesses, which plant two per company car. A further city ring for walking, cycling and public transport is on its way.
Tirana also boasts a “city council for kids”, where young representatives meet the mayor, debate and take their findings back to school. The great thing about kids, Veliaj says, is they have no hidden agenda – and they are the best advocates to persuade their parents to recycle, walk and bike to school.
If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone