Family Friendly Cities
With thanks to

A multimedia synthesis of discussions and findings from Conscious Cities Festival 2019, Family Friendly Cities Day. Workshop curated and report written by

Ecosystem for Change

Children are the future. Today, over a billion children are growing up in cities where their needs are often given low priority. It is estimated that by 2050, 68% of the world population will live in urban areas and the majority of them will be under 18.§

On October 16th, 2019 a think tank of community experts, designers, policy and governance leaders, urban innovators, science informed architects, and private sector compatriots from across NY and surrounding areas came together to discuss, dissect, and reimagine what it means to design spaces and cities with families, caregivers, and children in mind. Every attendee was an active participant; Through speaking about their work, engaging in panel discussions, and group exercises, the Conscious Cities Festival laid the foundation for a powerful, transparent, and collaborative network of urbanscape stakeholders.

Find out more about:

The Conscious Cities Movement

The 2019 Conscious Cities Festival

The Centre for Conscious Design

 An Introduction to Conscious Cities 

Child Development,

Caregiving, and the City

Family-responsive urban planning is an emerging field. It advocates a coherent and systematic approach to planning and designing cities that improve children’s development, health and access to opportunities. During the first five years of life, children go through an immense period of growth with more than a million neurons forming and pruning within one second§. Neurons are nerve cells that make up the basis of the brain. Development begins with sensory pathways including hearing and vision and then advances to language and cognitive functions. A child’s brain development is not random or purely genetic, there is a significant contribution by caregivers and the environment that determine outcomes such as gene expression, brain plasticity (the ability for the brain to adapt to new and changing situations), emotional wellbeing, social competence, ability to buffer stress, resilience, physical and emotional health, hope, confidence, self-regulation, optimism, and executive function (the cognitive processes needed to regulate behavior)§. Just as child development can benefit from a healthy physical and social environment, an unstable environment, bad caregiving, and poor caregiver well-being can be detrimental and even damaging. Housing insecurity, for example, means a child is more likely to experience chronic stress that can lead to negative effects such as depression, heightened apathy, increased risk for cardiovascular disease in later life, and decreased intrapersonal bonding§. In addition to environment, the caregiver’s wellbeing and treatment of the child is an essential factor in the child’s development.

Children are by and large a product of their environment; and one major component of the environment is people. Both caregiving behaviors and caregiver well-being are crucial factors that influence development. Caregiver mental health issues, in particular, are found to be negatively associated with infant and toddler development. For example, as mental health issues among caregivers grow, so do the incidences of language, social-emotional, and motor delays among infants and toddlers§. The negative impacts on toddler and infant development could be due to changed caregiving behaviors, such as less patience, good behavior modeling, or interactive parenting practices. When parents model good behavior and habits, toddlers and infants are significantly more likely to mimic the same patterns- good or bad. This can lead to beneficial effects, such as healthier eating behaviors§ and greater exercise routines§. Not only does a caregiver’s mental health affect the behavior they model, it affects how able they are to take care of and respond to the needs of a child.

When one struggles to take care of themself, it can be even more difficult to take care of someone else. In particular, during development infants and toddlers need responsive relationships, in which a caregiver is able to quickly identify and respond to a child’s needs. This not only makes the child feel cared for and heard, but models to them quick and responsive problem solving and care for others. In addition to modeling good behavior, children with secure attachments and healthy, responsive, relationships to caregivers are taught to trust themselves and their needs, and establish a healthy basis for trust, empathy, communication, and future relationships§. In addition, responsive relationships boost a child’s mental health, physical wellbeing, and ability to handle stress. On the other end, if their needs aren’t met, infants or toddlers can become emotionally detached, weakening their emotional intelligence and ability to form future relationships. The caregiver’s behavior is an essential component of a child’s development. Because behavior is so heavily influenced by mental and physical health, and because caregivers are facing more and more accounts of stress and responsibilities, it is critical to prioritize their wellbeing. By reducing caregiver stress, we can simultaneously improve infant and toddler wellbeing and development.

While stress is inherently neutral, when chronic, it can have many devastating effects on children. Chronic stress can shut down the body in preparation to survive an oncoming threat. In addition, chronic stress can interrupt the development of brain architecture, leaving a lifelong mark on health, learning, and behavior. One such way stress could manifest in a child’s life is through low socioeconomic status. Those with low socioeconomic status might be exposed, at a greater rate, to stressful situations. This, in turn, may detrimentally impact the brain and central nervous system development, and further the divide with cognitive and scholastic-achievement§. Responsive relationships increase healthy brain development and increase lifelong resilience. Secondly, it’s important to strengthen skills in children’s executive function and self-regulation. It is through these skills that we first learn to focus our attention, set limits, follow rules, adjust to new contexts, and learn to resist impulses. Finally, it is important to reduce the sources of stress for caregivers, in addition to children. Almost all people will become caregivers at some point in their life, either to a child, the elderly, or to an individual with a disability. While rewarding, caregiving responsibilities and tribulations can place significant strain on the caregiver. Increased stress for caregivers can lead to worsening health issues such as depression, anxiety, obesity, weakened immune system, increased risk for chronic disease, and dementia. Other symptoms might include feelings of frustration, isolation, anger, anhedonia, and tiredness§. However, increased accessibility, such as through community resources (ex. daycare services) and increased walkability has the potential to significantly lighten a caregiver’s load.

As dependents, children have a reduced ability to freely navigate and experience the city. This means that opportunities for social interaction, chance encounters, playful journeys and discovery are the products of both what the city has to offer and how caregivers decide to use it. Despite their power, cities will not always be used to maximize human potential. Cities can help families thrive, but they can also become an environment that prevents an individual, young or old, from having a place to think and grow. 

Neighborhoods and communities are powerful; particularly as a unit of change. Due to inequality, a lack of safety, or inadequate access to resources, a community might not be able to meet the needs of its residents. As mentioned by Janelle Farris, a city cannot be equal if its citizens are not. Farris believes inequality can result in community members feeling uncomfortable, out of place, and unable to advocate for themselves to improve their surrounding environment: home, city, or otherwise. The world is continuing to urbanize rapidly, shaping our habits and behavior. This holds particular importance as recent studies suggest where someone grows up drastically impacts their life and mortality. One study found two similarly populated neighborhoods, only 2.3 miles apart, drastically varied in incarceration rates ranging from about 7% in one to 44% in the other§. Another study found that during a heatwave in Chicago, more than six times as many people died in North Lawndale as in South Lawndale§. Despite these neighborhoods being in similar areas, these studies show neighborhood design and residents’ demographics have a huge effect on wellbeing and life within the communities.

Infrastructure can greatly impact all levels of life. Infrastructure denotes the basic facilities of a given area that allow it to function, such as transportation, schools, and housing. By increasing accessibility to places in the city that can enhance social connection, such as public green spaces, infrastructure can stimulate and engage the public, as well as boost infant and toddler development. Distributing public, play, and green spaces within neighborhoods can contribute to better social infrastructure, which leads to benefits for all community members.

Children and Family Oriented Cities

Children, particularly those between the age of 0 to 5 remain dependent upon their caregivers throughout their adolescence. Therefore, in order to design cities for infants and toddlers, we must also design for caregivers§.

How do we go about creating cities for families and caregivers? In this report we will focus on three macro themes:

  • Reducing caregiver stress
  • Increasing social interaction of caregivers
  • Integrating opportunities for play and interaction in the public realm

The environment, in particular, plays an instrumental role in fostering healthy child development. Prominent ideas that emerged out of the workshop to meet our macro goals include:

Increase Green Infrastructure

Green infrastructure emerges when access to nature is integrated into cities. Suggestions to increase green infrastructure include ‘wild spaces’, green streets, parks, broad sidewalks, regulated or slow traffic routes, places to sit and rest, and rooftop gardens. 

Promote high-quality public space, schools and daycare

It is essential that public spaces, schools, and daycare remain inclusive to all and create opportunities for encounters, meetings, and interactions between community members.

Increase accessibility to resources

The best neighborhoods for families are accessible; they are reported to be walkable and mixed-use in which a family can access everything they need on foot or through nearby public transportation. Basic resources include access to water, health, education, food, emergency response programs, and public green spaces.

Design infrastructure for children, which enhances everyday freedom and playful learning

Improve access to playgrounds, sports pitches, multi-use games areas (MUGAs), and creative play places. Integrating these into every-day infrastructures like streets and squares, and close to where people live means they are more likely to be integrated into a routine.

Increase healthy and affordable housing

Safe and comfortable shelter is vital for healthy child development, as well as for lowering caregiver stress. Housing insecurity should be addressed by policies that promote affordable urban development.

Allow residents to have stock in their community

Buy-in is essential to the creation of a happy and healthy community. If you want people to invest in their community, they need to feel heard, integrated and represented. The same applies to children; we cannot expect kids to open themselves to a space in an impactful way if they are not included in the learning and planning process.

How can nurturing local leadership and increasing self-determination support families?

Oftentimes, the degree to which an individual, family, or community can meet their cognitive, social, and esteem needs is indicative of their self-sufficiency. However, often communities fail to meet the needs of its population, as demonstrated by inequality, lack of safety, or inadequate access to resources.

Inequality can make a community member feel uncomfortable, out of place, and unable to advocate for themselves to improve their surrounding environment (home, city, or otherwise). According to workshop speaker Janelle Farris, the pressure to take care of an issue is often pushed onto non-profits. However, Farris believes the idea that nonprofits can be left alone to act as society’s safety net ignores the limited resources they often have, and is a product of capitalist theory. Capitalism believes in the privatization of production and distribution, which sets each person up to be responsible for their individual wellbeing. Non-profits often fill the void between for-profit and government work, but Farris urges supporting self-actualized individuals to become well-collected organizers for change. To Achieve self-actualization means to reach one’s full potential and obtain a grasp on the real world.

One such organization doing this work is Brooklyn Community Services, whose goal is to empower families and individuals by: (i) connecting them with organizations and (ii.) ensuring community member’s voices are heard. Brooklyn Community Services measures their impact and success through their clients’ resilience. Through fostering grassroots advocacy, local leadership, and self-determination, Brooklyn Community Services empowers the local population and helps communities meet the needs of all of their residents and their families. Specifically for families, increased equality means greater safety for children, better health, and more avenues for parental and caregiver advocacy.

The louder the voices of families can be, the better their community can reflect the needs and wants of each and every family. 

What work is currently being done in this field?

A number of case studies on the benefits of child-friendly cities were noted during the workshop, exploring a range of child-friendly interventions, their benefits, rationale, and potential.

  • Health and Wellbeing (Barcelona Superblocks, Spain · The Livable Cities Project, India · Belfast Healthy City, UK)
  • Local Economy (Darling Quarter, Australia · River District, Canada · Building Blocks for a child-friendly Rotterdam, Netherlands · King’s Cross Central, United Kingdom)
  • Safety (Children’s priority zone, Colombia · Global Street Design Guide, USA · Freiburg Green City, Germany · School Zone Improvement Project, South Korea · Crianca Fala project, Brazil)
  • Designing Streets for Kids (Publication by NACTO-GDCI)
  • Stronger Communities (Bicentennial Children’s Park, Chile · Housing Design for Community Life, United Kingdom · Rotterdam social infrastructure, Netherlands · Banyoles old town, Spain · Cantinho do C.u Complex, Brazil)
  • Nature and Sustainability (Natuurspeeltuin de Speeldernis, Netherlands · Natividad Creek Park, USA ·  Sanlihe River Ecological Corridor, China)
  • Resilience (New York City schoolyards, USA · Copenhagen Cloudburst Plan, Denmark · Disaster resilience parks, Japan · Child-friendly floodable green space, Indonesia)
  • How Children-Friendly Cities are acting as a Catalyst for Improving Cities (Leeds pop-up parks, United Kingdom · Protest for change, Netherlands · Car-free experiment, South Korea · Tirana’s agents for change, Albania · Playground Ideas, Australia)[13]
  • Organizations doing Innovative Urban Design and Playwork:
    • Urban 95 (Bernard Van Leer)
    • Real Play Coalition
    • Playful Learning Landscapes (Brookings Institute), i.e. The Urban Thinkscape project, designed by the architect Itai Palti with help of Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff, both pioneers of ‘playful learning’ is an example of urban design project creating opportunities for children and caregivers to play and learn. The project’s pilot phase was launched in the Belmont neighborhood of West Philadelphia during the fall of 2017. The rich literature on the subject of playful learning demonstrates that it can boost socio-emotional skills, executive functions, language, mathematics, and scientific thinking hence contribute to child development.

 A Neuroaesthetics approach to family friendly cities 

Talks from day two of the Conscious Cities Festival focused on design for families and began with Susan Magsamen,  the Executive Director of The International Arts+Mind lab from John Hopkins University, School of Medicine. 

Susan Magsamen began with the question: “What is scientific research telling us about the role of the built environment on family health?” Magsamen believes each of us carries a story of our life and that home is where our stories begin. She went on to state safety as key for family life, both within the home and outside. Under her leadership, the Arts+Mind lab further explores methods to understand and amplify human potential. 

Magsamen shared one such method found in their research was the reduction of trauma through art-making, which she believes gives children back a voice silenced by trauma. Speaking about the healing potential of other arts, she mentioned writing and its importance for individual resilience and the development of the ability to see oneself from a different perspective. Other ways that art can impact us included the power of dancing to improve the lives of patients plagued by Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerative, chronic disorder characterized by impaired muscular coordination and tremors. In these patients, singing and music have the potential to change and elicit memories, as well as reduce tremors in dance, improve social bonds, and decrease negative mood and depression.

What is home about? When and where does home begin?

The focus of Magsamen’s talk was on the importance of art for community building. Susan Magsamen challenged the participants to critically examine the concept of home. “What do you need home for, from a developmental point of view?” What is home about? When and where does home begin? Does it start in the womb? To Susan Magsamen, home is key because if we don’t have hope at home, we don’t have the ability to thrive.

According to Magsamen, Neuroaesthetics studies how art, architecture, and music impacts the human brain and behavior. According to the Aesthetic Triad, we all see and experience the world in different ways based upon the combination of our unique knowledge-meaning, sensory-motor, and emotional-valuation. To Magsamen, these factors merge into an “aesthetic fingerprint”, which means while we may share values, we ultimately perceive in different ways.

To understand perception, Magsamen and her research colleagues focus on understanding how the brain processes stimuli and its effect on the hippocampus, reward system, and amygdala. Magsamen questions how we can use sensory experiences to positively trigger the amygdala or reward system. One such way, Magsamen mentions, is transcendent or “awe” experiences activate the reward system and resonate similar to opioids. Other models Magsamen mentions is the default mode network: which helps you understand what is important to you, implicit bias: unconscious attitudes, prejudice, and stereotypes, and embodied cognition: the idea of being more in tune with how you feel and interact with the environment. 

Magsamen is particularly interested in exploring the moments and places that matter most to families and how we can collect and share stories in natural settings. To do this, Magsamen uses an Impact Thinking approach to understand where those natural storytelling elements are for families and how we can expand upon them within urban spaces. Impact thinking employs a collaborative approach to a 9-step process that investigates, disseminates, and scales evidence-based art and mind approaches to solving different issues. Magsamen and IAM Lab’s Impact Thinking Framework explains the impact thinking process is as follows: 

  1. Identify the Problem: What are we trying to solve?
  2. Collaborative Discovery; How do we solve the problem?
  3. Hypothesis; What will happen here?
  4. Research Design: What’s the best study design?
  5. Research Implementation: Test our hypothesis using the research, then record and translate the research process for broader audiences. 
  6. Analysis: Analyze data and decide if more research is needed. 
  7. Refine, Retest, and Recommend; If needed, refine and retest the solution to enhance understanding and make recommendations for people in governance, design, and research. 
  8. Dissemination and Scaling: Spread information accrued from the studies and apply it into the built environment.
  9. Impact of Dissemination: What are the metrics for success and what does success look like? After implementation, is the project having the intended effect?

It is through this process of impact thinking that Magsamen and her lab can identify the ways in which Neuroaesthics can design interventions using art, architecture, and music to improve wellbeing. Some examples Magsamen gave involve reducing trauma and storytelling through artmaking, building resilience through writing, using dance to alleviate Parkinsons, eliciting memory with singing and music, strengthening families by communal art-making, and to help decision making on gun violence using poetry. In a more recent study with Google, Magsamen and her team emphasize how strongly the built environment affects you, even if you are not aware of it. 

The talks and panels recorded in this report represent domains of change to prioritize urban design for family-friendly cities. The festival workshop fostered conversations among experts in different fields in order to build a holistic perspective on issues that affect caregivers and children. The following delves into summaries and key insights from testimonials presented by experts on the day.


How do communities approach family health?

Organisations working within the community with deep knowledge of context and needs.

 Nurturing Local Leadership and Increasing Self-determination to Support Families 

Janelle Farris, Brooklyn Community Services

Farris believes the role of urbanscapes in child-friendly cities is to connect families and individuals in low-income communities with organizations that empower them and elevate their voices

The best to measure success by an individual’s resilience to hardship, not by money or other measures of social status.

Farris contextualized this thinking by speaking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; she believes that to support self-actualization, we must first meet basic needs to achieve safety, love, belonging, and empowerment.

The first two tiers of Maslow’s pyramid concern physiological and safety needs. A community becomes unstable if there is no place to think and grow. She urges that treating community issues doesn’t end at awareness, it requires action and systemic change.

Can a city be equal when its citizens are not?

Janelle Farris

A critical issue that Farris highlights is that we are deceived by the myth of the safety net. Farris points out that the economics of capitalism creates non-profits that fill the void between for-profit and government work, and that they are left to do so with minimal resources. She urges that there are issues that cannot be addressed solely by contracted agencies and encourages participants to join movements that create fair and equitable cities.

Organizations Farris recommends include: Andre Lordy project, Rivers alliance, Close Rikers, and PURPOSE. 

 Empowering Youth and Strengthening Leadership 

Amanda A. Ebokosia, The GEM Project

The GEM project helps kids unlearn the uneven power dynamic between adults and children by encouraging youth to be active participants in their own environment.

Ebokosia believes in working alongside youth in civic engagement projects that create a sense of ownership and agency over the community’s space. In addition, she advocates for youth organizing, which is a tool that sees youth at the forefront of change by giving them the space, resources, and tools needed to address community issues.

 Strengthening Families and Tackling Poverty through Social Services 

Barbara R DiGangi, Director and Social Impact Strategist, University Settlement Society of New York

Barbara R. DiGangi, the founding director of Families Striving at University Settlement, spoke about poverty and the city. To DiGangi, it is vital for cities to include spaces for people to go for mental health support and other resources that allow families to empower themselves. Advocating a holistic view on the experience of families which includes the effects of racism and inequality, DiGangi believes there is a need to be explicit in our messages to families and probes the questions: How do we ally families? How do people know or find out about our services? How do we get to families instead of them getting to us?

 How can city development that engages communities focus on family health outcomes?  

Iwona Alfred, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)

Iwona Alfred explained ITDP’s role as a global non-profit helping local governments and communities to develop sustainable transportation and urbanizationAlfred explained that insights on how families move can be leveraged to improve transport design. Those in full-time employment outside of home tend to make direct trips, while caregivers tend to include multiple stops and a combination of routes, making it imperative to think about how different public transport modes connect and the overall experience of traveling with dependents.


What can cities do to support families?

Evidence-based design interventions.

 Family oriented urban interventions using the science of Playful Learning 

Brenna Hassinger-Das, Psychology Department, Pace University

Playful Learning Landscapes was started by psychologists, educators, and others in academia and focuses on how we can improve social-emotional outcomes for students. Even though children only spend about 20% of their time in school, we traditionally leave the development of socio-emotional skills up to their formal education without harnessing the other 80%.

Hassinger-Das believes the answer lies in spurring playful learning, physical activity, and caregiver-child interactions in everyday places. She encourages partnerships with cities, communities, and families. A proponent of participatory design, she believes we should approach communities and ask what they are interested in as well as share the process, outcomes, and learnings.

Codesign, Co-implementation, Coevaluation.

One past example she gave was turning supermarkets into children’s museums with simple but engaging signage that promotes interaction and learning. In a pilot area, this was shown to increase communication by 33%.

The last example Hassinger-Das shared with us was the transformation of a vacant lot in a Belmont neighborhood in a project called Urban Thinkscape. Community leaders and members worked together to create 5 different sensory and physical evocations to transform the Bus Stop from a “trapped space” to a place for play and learning. 

 Supporting Family Health using Strategic Allocation of City Resources 

Nidhi Gulati, Project for Public Spaces

Nidhi Gulati from Project for Public Spaces believes providing opportunities for healthy physical and cognitive development can help children in becoming independent in part of their use of the city. Gulati sees the design of streets and public places as a tool in this transition, embracing a participatory approach to the creation of shared spaces.

We need to help children in becoming an empowered, rather than an invisible and dependent population.

Nidhi Gulati

Gulati suggests 10 ways to create cities for kids
1. Child-friendly legal framework
2. Citywide strategies and plans that put kids and caregivers first
3. Playstreets
4. Look beyond play
5. Stewards for kids rights
6. Child-friendly smart cities
7. Budget support for plans
8. Parental leave mandates (Sweden)
9. Infrastructure that supports the needs of families
10. Child autonomy

To do this, Project for Public Spaces looks at impact analysis and data, child wellbeing dashboard, self-assessment tools (Korea), awareness building, stroller training, knowledge sharing, and cross-agency collaboration. 

 Watch Anna’s talk during the day’s public event: Designing Streets for Kids 

Anna Siprikova, Senior Program Associate, Streets for Kids Program at NACTO

Anna Siprikova from NACTO-GDCI’s Streets for Kids program believes streets can be enriched with opportunities; she posits that we should view streets as a living room (i.e. a place for social interaction and engagement), a place for rest, and an environment for learning. Siprikova spoke about how kids and caregivers in a better-connected community are more likely to be more engaged with public spaces in the city. Keeping in mind commutes with dependents take longer, streets should be designed inclusively for families traveling together.

 How Can City Agencies Collaborate for Better Family Health Outcomes? 

Will Yang, Executive Director of the NYC Children’s Cabinet

Yang believes that in order to tackle problems that don’t fit neatly into any one discipline we need an interdisciplinary Ideas lab to extend innovative culture. He advocated for disposal of the myths holding us back such as the American dream, and the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”.

The Children’s Cabinet is a framework of 5 or 6 agencies. Their greater purpose is to positively impact children’s lives and lead to better policy decisions. The bigger picture is organizational; Yang claims, long term change looks into people’s needs a few years down the line. Therefore in practice, the cabinet is an incubator of long- and short-term change.

Opening video in presentation: Credit to Amanda Wilder for the Alliance for Childhood

 Encouraging children to discover, play, and learn 

Yoni Kallai, play:groundNYC

Play:ground NYC advocates and provides opportunities for children to play. Yoni Kallai featured their “Junkyard Playground” where children can choose how they play and choose to take risks. The best part of the Junkyard Playground, Kallai explains, is that kids are able to discover and build on their own. This gives the kids freedom and opportunity to make mistakes. Kallai assured it’s safe, Playworkers only intervene when fighting or something dangerous could happen.


How does decision making in governance affect families?

How is policy shaped, and what are its outcomes?

 How can research inform family health programs? 

Marnie Davidoff

Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of Children, Youth and Families at NYC DOHMH

The panel participants believed good design requires a participatory approach; emphasizing the need to involve local communities in the planning and creation of their cities. Representation is essential in order for the investment to be directed at outcomes that reflect the community’s needs. A speaker of the panel, Rebecca Hinkhouse from UNICEF, spoke about two important aspects of governance: inclusion and safe living environments.

What about mental health in school settings? 

Workshop participants highlighted that schools must be given opportunities to transform their spaces, recommending using exterior spaces: green spaces, mediations, murals, and lounges. These transformations can extend beyond schools into other social spaces around the city that are important to children’s social wellbeing.

What’re the economics of child friendly cities?

Prabal K. De from the City College Center of New York (CUNY) spoke about health economics and policy. Health economics looks at the effectiveness of incentives, how people respond to them, and the resulting health outcomes. De mentioned a study done in New York City which revealed that discrimination in healthcare resulted in worsened physical and mental health. Interestingly, while the survey revealed discrimination for gender, sexual orientation, poverty, and more, the highest category that people feel discriminated against was health care status. Participants noted that child-friendly cities that benefit every child must take into account discrimination and invest in equity in all public spaces and services.

 The importance of representation in the decision-making process 

Lawanna Kimbro, Chief Diversity and Equity Officer for the NYC Department of Social Services

Lawanna Kimbro, Chief Diversity Equity Officer for NYC Department of Social Services, civil rights attorney, and mental health counselor focus on providing services from a dignity and trauma-informed lens.

Kimbro challenged workshop participants to consider the following questions on how policy decisions are made: Who is present in the room? Who decides who is present? Which groups are under-represented? Why are these groups not present or under-represented?

People who are closest to the issues are closest to the solutions.

Lawanna Kimbro

Her work has highlighted that accurate representation is needed to ideate relevant and purposeful solutions that consider dignity and trauma.

The voiceless can speak, we should pass the mic.

Lawanna Kimbro

Erick Gregory and Ryan Jacobson from the NYC Department of Planning discussed planning initiatives aimed at helping public spaces thrive with city-wide initiatives like Earth Day, and Summer Streets. They also highlighted the benefits of sharing data with people to increase the frequency of collaboration with local communities.

 City Planning for Families 

Ryan Jacobsen, NYC Department of City Planning
Erick Gregory, NYC Department of City Planning


Imagining the potential of a multi-stakeholder approach to supporting families

Outlining a holistic approach to family friendly cities

 Imagining the potential of a multi-stakeholder approach to supporting families 

Natalie Dabney, Vice President ideas42

Dabney is Vice president at Ideas 42 is a non-profit behavioral design consultancy. She stressed that the perception that humans are either rational or impulsive doesn’t reflect a reality in which context is a powerful determinant in our behavior. Behavioral science helps us to understand who we are; understanding who we are can in turn affect the way we design for better outcomes.

 What are the benefits and challenges in community stewardship of built environment projects? 

Tiffany Briery, The Trust for Public Land, NYC Playgrounds

Tiffany Briery spoke about participatory design as the cornerstone for Trust for Public Land’s efforts to bring resources directly to communities. In her experience, there are no shortcuts to genuine relationship building, and stories from the community need to be captured in a way that celebrates them.

 Integrating engaging environments for families in everyday places 

Jonathan Grajeda, Community Outreach at KaBOOM!

Grajeda believes that community drives the design process, speaking about the power of play. He cites that one of the more important barriers is lack of affordable access, as often play becomes part of family expenses. Grajeda also believes responsibility lies in the community to build and provide playgrounds, designed for the community by the community. Playgrounds and public spaces should be designed for all age groups, says Grajeda. This can be accomplished through the inclusion of multi-sport courts and creative play solutions. Put simply, Grajeda believes in “play everywhere.”

He also spoke about his part in a project, which involved consultation with refugee organizations. While a small change, areas with a playground and swings, increased the visibility of immigrants in communities, and created a humanizing effect. This helped with refugee integration into the neighborhood and reduction of negative stereotypes through increasing exposure and social connection. 


The science of child development

What can research tell us about the potential of the environment to contribute to child development?

 How can research on STEM education inform the design of learning experiences? 

Helen Hadani, Brookings Institution

Hadani explains STEM thinking and learning begins in infancy, not later in life. However, the way education is designed introduces opportunities for certain types of learning too late. She explains how research can shed light on the nature of the experience that can become opportunities to develop important cognitive and social skills in the first 5 years of life.


What are the built environment determinants of family-friendly cities?

 Maximising impact on family focused place-making 

Philip Winn, Vice President at Project for Public Spaces

Winn began by speaking about the imagination center and anchor spaces: a place in public space one can call home. Winn believes there is a need for beauty in-between time. He spoke about a public community program funded by Southwest Airlines in Providence, RI. Similar to earlier speakers, Winn also embraces the concept of participatory design. He believes you need to let people mold the space as they want (ex. move a bench). Some ways he’s seen individuals take ownership in their community was through teaching yoga classes, setting up a clinic for house plants, and hosting drama labs. Because these citizens were encouraged and given the space to share their passions, they were able to make the community much stronger. Sure enough, these individuals soon became the friendly faces who showed people the sky’s the limit with community involvement. Winn further emphasized the importance of civic center commons and the need for diversity of work.

Winn believes change must occur holistically, and not just through design. He said, “You can’t just throw a bunch of stuff at a space and think people will have fun, you need to model the right kind of behavior.” Winn believes that design matters, but with design must come community participation and collective action. All voices should be heard and all voices matter. Along with this, Winn commented one way to do this is by ‘Taking individuals who have experienced homelessness and giving them impactful things they can do in their communities’. Those in homelessness, and other marginalized groups, are often excluded from planning; resulting in a community that is not fully representative of its inhabitants. The best way to combat this, Winn suggests, is to go directly to the marginalized populations and embrace their story and hardships as wisdom to plan better spaces and better cities. In addition, don’t just stop at the planning space, make sure every population has a seat at the table, and allow people from all different backgrounds to have buy-in and opportunities to contribute to and design the community. 

One example he gave was the park in Providence, RI. Project for public spaces worked with Southwest Airlines to engage local storytellers in Providence in the local park. This event was available for kids of all ages as well as adults. The end result? It only further enhanced people’s ideas of home.

 What is the role of the government in protecting and promoting safety and well-being of children and families through the built environment?  

Anna Colares, NYC Administration for Children’s Services

Anna Colares shared key design points for the creation of a homey environment for kids in government care. She said it was most important to: (a) ensure the child’s safety and wellbeing, (b) provide a translator if needed, (c) provide emergency protective care through social workers, psychologists, and doctors without judgment, (d) provide access to an area of privacy such as through a bedroom as well as centers for play and social interaction: playground, juvenile gym center, outside recreation, and common area, and finally, (e) encourage areas of family connection, such as through providing colorful and fun rooms for parent and kid interactions.

 How can research inform governance and policy towards family-friendly initiatives? 

Moira O’Neill, Columbia University’s Urban Community Health Equity Lab

O’Neill discussed how research can support local governance and policy implementation through engaged research.  She provides an example by discussing a study that examines an urban school district’s efforts to implement school meal reform through a systems change strategy. O’Neill describes how the school meal reform initiative came about, and what circumstances and conditions created opportunity and obstacles to implementation. She then describes how the academic study design focused on answering research questions that could support the school district’s implementation of the school meal reform initiative by prioritizing questions that the community cared about. In this study, the research team collected data to determine how well the current meal program shifts were serving students in need of free healthy food. The team found that whether the improved school food was freshly prepared and served on a tray, or prepared in advance, plastic-wrapped, and reheated, impacted student consumption and parent perception of the quality of the school meal.  O’Neill also described the importance of sharing research findings in a format that could be used by the district and its nonprofit partners to adjust and improve implementation. In this example, the district’s nonprofit partners were able to take the research findings and then develop a low-cost strategy to improve meal presentation.

 Production of space and place and its social effects of families. 

Reilly Wilson, Environmental Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center

Reilly Wilson is a researcher at the Children’s Environments Research Group, housed at CUNY. She spoke about human and environmental interaction. Her research focuses, in part, on adventure playgrounds. These playgrounds are beneficial because children have autonomy and responsibility for their actions and can play how they choose to play. A part of this too, Wilson explained, is that a lot of public space for play comes almost entirely from capital grants, meaning that funding is constrained to initial physical investments. While playgrounds are important for place-making, there is often no long-term funding to staff and maintain them.

Coryn Kempster spoke about how play apparatus’ can breathe new life into a city. He explained that play structures contribute to the urban environment and infrastructure of a city. Kempster finds playgrounds to be of the utmost importance as they are one of the only places people of different backgrounds come together to share the same space. Kempster believes play is an expression of freedom and choice and also a way of engaging others in the city.

 How can design invite engagement and play? 

Coryn Kempster, Designer, Artist and Educator

Macro Theme 1

Reducing caregiver stress

How might cities / the public realm be planned, designed and managed to integrate opportunities for play and interaction in everyday spaces and moments?


Poverty and inequality are detrimental in many ways to any given person, but hold increased risk for caregivers. Individuals facing poverty have more limited resources than the general public. Therefore, it is essential for neighborhoods to be designed to offer free or affordable access to essentials, such as 10 to 15-minute walking access to a grocery store, a public green space, and public transportation.

Poverty can result in many other areas of increased stress for caregivers, such as housing instability, food security, and income opportunity. Efforts to reduce caregiver stress can be aided by city design, for example by providing low-income housing options. However, workshop participants noted that efforts cannot end at the design of places, but must also extend into policy and opportunities for learning and employment.


People need to get places; However, factors such as poverty, safety concerns, or comfort may limit mobility. For this reason, safe and accessible public transportation is a key factor in reducing caregiver stress. Not all caregivers have the means for a private vehicle, nor would that make practical sense in many urban settings.

In today’s economic reality, many individuals (especially single parents) suffer from time poverty. Comfortable and time-efficient public transportation to places that aren’t accessible by walking can greatly reduce stress for caregivers and the family as a whole.


Safety and stress go hand in hand. When you feel unsafe, your body mobilizes a stress response to help you cope with the present issue. However, sometimes fear can be overactivated due to different environmental qualities.

Tactical lighting and attention to visibility are ways to improve a sense of security for people, particularly women, traveling at night. Improved wayfinding can lower stress, especially in less frequented spaces.

The social dimension of public space can also greatly affect the perceived safety of an environment and can depend on a community’s social cohesion and an individual’s sense of belonging. These are aspects of community building that can be aided by urban design through social spaces.

Coryn Kempster: “Public space of course has always offered opportunities to encounter strangers but today… individuals may occupy a common space [and still have] their experiences… remain solitary and so we see our social infrastructures as analog prompts that are meant to encourage playful encounters in the public realm in an effort to allow people from different economic, political, and racial backgrounds come together and share experiences.” According to Kempster, having play spaces in neighborhoods increases the visibility of immigrants which has a humanizing effect while reducing negative stereotypes and ‘othering.’

Case Studies

Solutions and interventions to reduce caregiver and children stress levels presented by speakers.

  • Location and importance of placing services (ex. healthcare, childcare) and amenities (ex. parks, playgrounds) frequently used by caregivers with young children closer to where they live and close to each other (co-location)
  • Designing public spaces (ex. streets, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, plazas) with a special attention to the experience of caregivers and young children. Public spaces should be safe, accessible, comfortable and stimulating
  • Improvement of public transportation and reduction of the space allocated to cars in cities
  • Improving walking infrastructure to support routes most frequently used by caregivers with young children
  • Increasing the accessibility, safety, affordability, and comfort of public transportation. 
  • Reducing levels of air pollution
  • Increasing access to nature and green spaces

Susan Magsamen gave an example of how poetry-based projects positively affected Baltimore. This report “Creating Healthy Communities: Art + Public Health in America” looks at 25 communities and their policy issues around the United States.

Nidhi Gulati from ‘Cities for kids’, where she is a Program manager mentioned Urban95, Tel Aviv Yafo, and Montclair community street quilt as examples of coordinated interventions. 

Philip Winn stressed the importance of public community programs. He gave an example of the public community program funded by Southwest Airlines.

According to Jonathan Grajeda, normally, it takes someone 400 repetitions to learn a new skill, but, through play, it takes about 10-20 repetitions. According to Grajeda play nurtures creative skills and problem-solving. Grajeda challenges us to think about the barriers to play. One barrier he mentions is ‘money,’ because it is needed for access to play. Grajeda also believes responsibility lies in the community to build and provide playgrounds, designed for the community by the community. Playgrounds and public spaces should be designed for all age groups, says Grajeda. This can be accomplished through the inclusion of multi-sport courts and creative play solutions. Put simply, Grajeda believes in “play everywhere”.

What’s the Evidence?

Do these interventions really improve mental health and wellbeing for young children (0-5) and/or their caregivers?

A child’s development is not the sum of individual mechanisms, but rather a process. Development is the product of ongoing interactions between the individual and the environment. This perspective has been frequently used to understand the influence of parent-child interactions on various aspects of child development, such as a child’s temperament, problem-solving skills, self-regulation skills, and emotional adjustment§

The stressors which could potentially disrupt parenting can be:
1. Extrafamilial. Such as low socioeconomic status, unemployment, stressful life events, and daily hassles. Any circumstance that occurs in the world or society as a whole, outside of immediate family dynamics.
2. Interfamilial/ Interparental. Such as divorce, being a single parent, or marital distress stressors.  Any event that occurs within the home or immediate family dynamic.

Parenting stress has been linked to increasingly apathetic, neglectful, and controlling parenting, which, in turn, has been associated with worsened development and outcomes for the child§. In extreme cases, family and home associated stress may lead to the development of psychopathology such as depression or anxiety.

Some studies suggest that improved caregiver’s emotional regulation skills, subsequently improve the relationship between child and caregiver as well as increases the child’s emotional development§. For example, if a parent responds to a child’s meltdown in a calm manner and has them consider the alternative ways they could have behaved, they are modeling good alternative behavior and reactions to a negative situation. If parents are highly stressed, they may not model good self-regulation for their children, which could lead to more behavior problems§. Children are sponges of their parents; in line with observational learning theories, children will learn to react to situations similarly to their caregivers.

However, the relationship between behavior problems and parenting stress is bidirectional; just as parent stress can increase children’s behavioral problems, toddler and infant’s behavior problems can also increase parenting stress§. According to Abidin’s (1995) ‘Parenting Stress Model,’ parenting stress is derived from: 
a/ attributes of the child, such as temperament, learned behaviors, or health problems, 
b/ the parents themselves, depending on their sense of competence or depression, 
c/ the interaction of the parent and child§.

This model doesn’t take into consideration environmental factors. However, it demonstrates that neighborhood characteristics such as residential mobility, family disruption, housing density, population density, and resource deprivation all contribute to weakened community processes in low-income neighborhoods. Parents from higher-risk, lower resource neighborhoods may focus more on protecting children from dangers than on fostering children’s skill development§. Parents participate in the education of their children through behaviors that range from ideological support of education to active communication with school personnel. For children from low-income families, parent involvement in education can be a key protective factor that fosters cognitive and emotional resilience in the face of multiple stressors§. For example, students with greater resilience are more likely to persevere and perform better on a task, such as a test, than students with lower emotional or cognitive resilience. Studies of the role of socioeconomic status (SES) in parent involvement suggest that single parents and lower SES parents are typically less involved in their children’s schools than middle or high SES parents§. Parents with higher levels of education have also been found to be more involved in their children’s learning than parents with lower levels of education. Low-income parents are more likely than middle- and upper-income parents to view teachers as the experts in education, which may lead to a lower rate of involvement in educational activities with their children§. In addition, single parents and lower SES parents often are more constrained by work and financial limitations and might not have the time, resources, or information needed to properly advocate for their child. 

Individual differences among caregivers also influence their perception of the child, interactions with the child, and the effect of the child on their wellbeing. Grandmothers raising children reported greater distress compared to mothers§. Mothers of multiple children reported greater parenting stress than mothers of single children§. Non-employed women reported more negative perceptions of and more difficult interactions with their children. For some women, multiple roles, such as work and parenting, are sources of stress, whereas others find caregiving and employment to be beneficial to their health and well-being§. Women’s involvement in multiple roles, especially employment, might be potentially beneficial because other roles provide additional opportunities for satisfaction and validation. Women who have more roles have higher self-esteem and lower depression§. An effect of race on caretaker stress was also demonstrated. Caucasian women perceived higher levels of stress than African-American women, regardless of caretaker status§. Caring for a child with a severe physical disability can affect parents and families in many ways, including increasing parental stress; causing negative emotions such as guilt, anger, and frustration and adversely impacting the social activities of the family§. Studies have found that parents of children with disabilities have less frequent contact with friends, participate in fewer family activities, tend not to participate in outside social events, and even lose contact with extended family§.

While demographic factors play a role, they are not the primary determinants of whether and how parents become involved in their children’s development and education and they should serve as proxy variables. Proxy variables are variables that are not directly relevant in and of themselves, but rather serve in the place of an unobservable or immeasurable variable.

Parenting efficacy, the belief of a parent in his or her own competence) has been identified as a key determinant of parent involvement§. There is evidence that parents with an internal locus of control are more involved in educational activities at home and at school than parents with an external locus of control§.

Parents with an internal locus of control believe they have an influence over their child’s learning and development, which encourages greater involvement. When a parent has an external locus of control, they believe their child’s development and academic success is more so controlled by outside factors or figures, such as their educators. Therefore, parents with an external locus of control are less likely to involve themselves in their child’s academic activities.

Macro Theme 2

Increasing social
interaction of caregivers

How might cities / the public realm be planned, designed and managed to strengthen social ties between caregivers and their community?

Continuing the talks from the Conscious Cities Day 2, a series of series of speakers, we identified three main areas of focus.
These focus points include:
A.     Stability
B.     Social Equity
C.     Civic Engagement


Stability is critical for caregivers, and any resident to feel safe and comfortable within their community. A lack of resources, necessities, or comfort might lead to prolonged stress; which can be damaging to one’s sleep quality and duration, decrease the development of grey matter, and increase the risk of developing a mental illness later in life. Decreasing the development of brain tissue, grey matter, can be dangerous as it is associated with weakened performance, memory, attention, and language. Insecurity, in whatever form it appears, is only worsened by discrimination and inequality. For example, evictions, which are disproportionately related to race, can easily snowball, leaving families homeless or in severe poverty. In one study, by the University of Washington, they found 1 out of every 6 black adults had an eviction from 2013 to 2017 despite only comprising 5% of the population in the country.

Social Equity

Equity is key to achieving stability. If each person is afforded equal access to essential services and goods, such as housing, education, food, water, and healthcare, we will have a more stable, humane, and just environment that can lead to stronger and more powerful communities. Social equity is defined as when all people within a specific community have equal status, treatment, and opportunity. To achieve the proper balance some people need more support than others. In addition, to achieve equality, community members must believe in equality; everyone must accept themselves as equal to any other community resident. However, to truly reduce inequality, such as microaggressions and implicit prejudice, residents need reciprocal exposure and interaction. Microaggressions are subtle everyday, commonplace comments or actions which communicate hostile, discriminatory, or negative slights or insults to a person based upon the person’s characteristics such as
race, gender, or ethnicity. For example, in the classroom, this could appear, unintentionally, as a teacher commending a non-white student for their excellent “English” use.

According to Kempster, even something as simple as seeing immigrants in communities, such as at a playset, had a humanizing effect and reduced negative prejudice. However, this doesn’t only apply to minority groups, repeated exposure to any group of people can help improve liking of and connection to the group or individuals. 

Civic Engagement

The more engaged people are with the community, the greater exposure they get to others and the greater sense of connection they feel with surrounding members and space. Civic engagement is critical for social cohesion; according to a report from ICMA, civic engagement is essential to engage citizens and create stronger communities. This is particularly important for younger generations so that they can have a role in decision-making processes. In particular, benefits to Civic Engagement include:

  • Greater buy-in to community-based decisions
  • Enhanced trust between community members people in power
  • More organic, creative, and community-based decisions
  • Implementation of better and more well-accepted policy ideas
  • Increased community involvement 
  • Expanded sense of community

Lawana Kimbro advocates for considering the rights of those who are not present in decision-making. “Who is in the room and who is around the table?” She points out that children lacking in representation can often face worsened or dangerous paths. Kimbro went on to assert we leave behind entire communities in our plans and design, to the point where our neighbors become outsiders. We reject them from the community, intended or not. We forget that poverty, inequality, racism, and homophobia can be deadly; just because these issues do not affect the majority, does not mean they are absent from the community. It’s a guided principal. And yet, Kimbro reminds us the solution is simple: people closest to the issues are closest to the solutions.

Case Studies

In summary, the interventions mentioned which can foster relationships between caregivers and community are:

  • Designing public spaces (i.e. streets, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, plazas) to support social interactions
  • Improving walking infrastructure (i.e. sidewalks, roads, paths, etc.) to support routes most frequently used by caregivers with young children.
  • Supporting the organization of local events and programs for families/caregivers with young children in the public realm
  • Use of digital tools (applications, social media) to create an online community of caregivers
  • Using a community based participatory design approach

During Family Day workshops, organizations such as the: Andre Lordy project, Rivers alliance, Close Rikers, PURPOSE, were mentioned to be active agents working towards these interventions and the goal of family-friendly cities.

Iwona Alfred: Public space must feel and be as safe as the home environment. Within the public realm, opportunities for social interaction are very important. However, rather than designing cities with people in mind, we have designed them for cars and engaged in redlining. As we did this, Alfred believes, we simultaneously stripped the city from being family-friendly. Alfred advocates for a shift in cities to a families’ first model; believing that designing for children will benefit all ages. The success of outcomes relies on public participation and agency, as well as NGOs and policymakers. As an example, she brought up community-driven development in Melrose, Bronx where the local community developed their own vision for the neighborhood to guide development.

What’s the Evidence?

Do these interventions really improve mental health and wellbeing for young children (0-5) and/or their caregivers?

Social support is defined as having one’s needs met through the presence of and interaction with others§. It could take a form of:

  1. emotional support through the provision of love, understanding, and acceptance, 
  2. information support through the provision of knowledge and facts, 
  3. instrumental support through the provision of concrete resources, such as money or childcare§

Social support is found to be positively correlated to improved health outcomes§. The idea is that individuals with higher levels of social support, suffer fewer negative health consequences following stressful events than those with lower levels of support. Stress can have many negative consequences when excessive; Therefore, health effects might be due to several potential stress-buffering mechanisms of social support such as social influence/social comparison, social control, purpose and meaning, self-esteem, belonging, and perceived support availability§.

Weiss (1974)§ described six different ‘provisions’ that could be obtained from relationships with others. Furthermore, Weiss’s provisions can be divided into two broad categories: 

  1. assistance-related provisions (external)
  2. non-assistance-related provisions (internal)

The first category of ‘assistance-related provisions’ looks at how relationships and social interactions can provide essential external social components of (a) guidance (i.e. advice or information) and (b) reliance (i.e. assurance that others can be counted upon). Weiss proposed that guidance is most often obtained from teachers, mentors, or parent figures, whereas a feeling that you can rely on others is most often provided by family members.  

A second category of ‘non-assistance-related provisions’ looks at how relationships and social interactions can foster self-esteem. Weiss proposed that an important aspect of interpersonal relationships is feeling needed by others and having an opportunity for nurturance. To Weiss, interpersonal relationships are about giving and receiving. The most frequent sources of opportunity for nurturance are through one’s offspring, spouse, or partner. The other dimensions of ‘non-assistance-related provisions’ are a sense of attachment (a sense of belonging) and social integration (a sense of belonging originating from sharing similar interests, concerns, and recreational activities). Whereas attachment is provided by the spouse, close friendships, or family relationships, social integration is acquired most often from friends, sometimes neighbors, and other members of the community. All these ties have been identified as a source of comfort, security, pleasure, and a sense of identity and are shown to positively impact health. Additionally, feelings of attachment and social integration are known to promote well-being§.

Several studies were conducted to measure the nature and extent of the caregiver’s social network, coping abilities, and life stress§. The research reveals that single parents tended to be more socially isolated than married parents. They also, on average, have less stable social networks and experience potentially more stressful life changes§.

Anna Siprikova spoke about the Streets for Kids initiative, which focused on changing transportation in Mumbai. In this case study NACTO-GDCI strove to change driver’s perception and improved access to transportation and safe walking options. One such way NACTO-GDCI did this was by maximizing and redesigning streets with colorful crosswalks. This one simple design manipulation helped curb road traffic and crashes, which remain a leading cause of death in Mumbai. Reducing traffic flow could also help to decrease air pollution, which remains a big issue affecting healthy child development.

Macro Theme 3

Integrating opportunities for play and interaction in the public realm

How might cities / the public realm be planned, designed and managed to integrate opportunities for play and interaction in everyday spaces and moments?

Responsive relationships consist of “serve and return” where the caregiver is able to respond to a child’s needs quickly and effectively. By responding to their needs, a child feels cared for and heard, strengthening the child to caregiver relationship. This also reduces the child’s exposure to stress. While stress is inherently neutral, when chronic, it can have many devastating effects on children. Chronic stress can shut down the body in preparation to survive an oncoming threat. In addition, chronic stress can interrupt the development of brain architecture, leaving a lifelong mark on health, learning, and behavior. One such way stress could manifest in a child’s life is through low socioeconomic status. Those with low socioeconomic status might be exposed, at a greater rate, to stressful situations. This, in turn, may detrimentally impact the brain and central nervous system development, and further the divide with cognitive and scholastic-achievement§. Responsive relationships increase healthy brain development and increase lifelong resilience. Secondly, it’s important to strengthen skills in children’s executive function and self-regulation. It is through these skills that we first learn to focus our attention, set limits, follow rules, adjust to new contexts, and learn to resist impulses. Finally, it is important to reduce the sources of stress for caregivers, in addition to children. Almost all people will become caregivers at some point in their life, either to a child, the elderly or to an individual with a disability. While rewarding, caregiving responsibilities and tribulations can place a significant strain on the caregiver. Increased stress for caregivers can lead to worsening health issues such as depression, anxiety, obesity, weakened immune system, increased risk for chronic disease, and dementia. Other symptoms might include feelings of frustration, isolation, anger, anhedonia, and tiredness§. However, increased accessibility, such as through community resources (ex. daycare services) and increased walkability has the potential to significantly lighten a caregiver’s load. 

There are ways in which the environment can be molded to the best interests of the child, caregivers, and society.  To increase responsive relationships, we need increased flexibility with benefits that understand the struggles of the working mom, increased time for connectivity between children in out-of-home care and family members, and a diverse array of service programs and well trained and compensated social workers. The better social workers are treated, the lower the turnover rate, and the better they can help clients. To increase impulse control and executive function, kids can be given new opportunities to learn and role play, such as in school, and be coached on how to go about working through their goals. Finally, to reduce stress, families need greater access to resources such as nutritious food, safe shelter, and medical and mental health services. A part of this access is increasing funding to services in order to prevent an unexpected loss§.

Some of the ways in which expression of creativity can have a positive impact

  • Reduces Trauma – Art-making allows children to regain the voice they lost through trauma. 
  • Resilience – Writing allows one to see herself/himself from an outside, fresh, identity point of view. 
  • Quality of Life – Dancing for Parkinson’s improves the quality of life and patients report no tremors when dancing. 
  • Memory – Singing and music can change and elicit memory.
  • Community – Communal art-making can strengthen communities and families

Finishing the talks from the Conscious Cities Day 2 on Caregivers, we ended with the question: How might cities / the public realm be planned, designed, and managed to integrate opportunities for play and interaction in everyday spaces and moments? From the series of speakers, we identified three main areas of focus to improve opportunities for play and interaction in public spaces. These focus points include: play as a means to foster deeper family bonds, child development, and playful learning. 
a. Play as a means to foster deeper family bonds
b. Playful learning and child development
c. City as a canvas for playful learning

Helen Hadani: Encouraging kids to use imagination, engage in counterfactual thinking, question everything, and take part in STEM playful learning is healthy for their brain development.

Case Studies

From the above talks, the following interventions were recommended by speakers:

  • Integrating playable elements into the design of streets, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, plazas
  • Making transit stops and other waiting spaces playable
  • Play streets (closing streets for cars) and other events in the public space.
  • Increasing access to nature
  • Storytelling and interaction prompts (murals, sculptures, games, signs..)

Reilly Wilson: Playgrounds are beneficial when children have autonomy and responsibility over their actions and have a choice of how to engage in play. Wilson explains that a lot of public space for play comes almost entirely from capital grants, meaning that funding is constrained to initial physical investments. While playgrounds are important for place-making, there is often no long-term funding to staff and maintain them.

What’s the Evidence?

Does doing these things really improve mental health and wellbeing for young children (0-5) and/or their caregivers?

Play could be defined as a spontaneous, imaginative activity, which is relatively risk-free and not always goal-orientated. It is an activity that requires a child’s intrinsic motivation: an internal desire and interest to engage in play§.

Classical and modern theories of play have identified many ways in which play may have a positive effect on the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children§. Children while freely engaging in play develop many skills:

  1. self-reflection and abstract thinking
  2. Verbal and nonverbal communication and skills
  3. emotional self-regulation
  4. exploration of the roles and rules of functioning in adult society§

Although play is universal, the amount of attention devoted to play in various societies depends on the cultural beliefs about the nature of childhood, and on the adults’ beliefs and goals for their young children. Researchers have also found that whereas some parents consider themselves social partners for their young children, in many communities peers or siblings are viewed as children’s primary play partners§. Nevertheless, children learn better through social interactions with more knowledgeable members of the culture§.

Bronfenbrenner (1979)§ proposed that every child grows up in between a number of social systems that interact with each other, i.e. family, school, neighborhood, peer network. According to his model, there are different levels at which these systems interact: 

  1. The level of microsystem consists of children’s direct interactions with the family, caregivers, teachers, and peers. This focuses on dynamics within the home.
  2. The level of mesosystem. encompasses interactions between various microsystems (e.g. the links between home and school). This focuses on interactions between child and secondary environments, such as school.
  3. The level of exosystem affects children’s development indirectly, these are policies in the parents; workplace, municipal plans which might have an impact on a child’s development, even though a child might have no direct contact with them§, i.e. town may decide to build new parks and playgrounds, giving the children space to play, or the company may decide to enact more ‘family-friendly’ work policies and decide to change the parents’ schedules, sometimes even enabling them to work from home. This focuses on interactions between the child and third variable factors, such as parents’ workplace.
  4. The level of ‘macrosystem,’ comprising the cultural values and beliefs about the importance of play§. This focuses on the influence of the beliefs or traditions of society as a whole on the child.

Previous research suggests wealthier parents are more likely to favor academic pursuits over free play, whereas parents with less money tend to focus on the child’s role as a worker. However, the economic factors seem to play an important role on all four levels§. Adult beliefs about play have been shown to influence how likely parents are to become involved in children’s play. In some cultures, mothers are less likely to consider themselves appropriate play partners for their children, i.e. East Indian, Guatemalan, and Mexican, whereas mothers coming from other cultures, i.e. American or Turkish, consider play as culturally appropriate behavior§. When it comes to cultural beliefs, many non-Anglo cultures do not share the view on the importance of pretend play. A survey found that in only five of 16 countries surveyed (the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, and Argentina) do the majority of mothers say their children (ages 1–12) often participate in imaginative play§.

Many cognitive (learning) strategies are exhibited during pretend play, such as joint planning, negotiation, problem-solving, and goal seeking§. Studies linked play to young children’s further mathematical development, linguistic skills, cognitive functioning, self-regulation and impulse control, and problem-solving skills. If children lack opportunities to play, their long-term capacities related to metacognition (awareness of one’s own thought processes), problem-solving, and social cognition, as well as to academic areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science, might be diminished§.

Play results in positive emotions and these may promote long-term health§. Active play increases attention span and improves the efficiency of thinking and problem-solving. It was suggested that two hours of active play per day may help reduce attention deficits and hyperactivity. Research confirms that children’s self-initiated play nurtures overall development§. Play increases brain development and growth and helps to establish new neural connections. It helps to develop empathy and adaptability to ever-changing circumstances. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp found that play stimulates the production of a protein, which helps to grow and mature neurons in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. By stimulating the growth of neurons in these areas, play increases one’s ability to organize, monitor, and plan for the future. In one study, two hours a day of play with objects produced changes in the brain weight and efficiency of experimental animals (Panksepp 2003, Rosenzweig 1976)§.

Play is more frequent during the periods of most rapid brain growth, such as during the first 5 years of life; however, play still remains an important activity for adults beyond those years. So long as adult brains remain capable of learning and developing new neural circuits, adults also continue to play. 

Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of infants, toddlers, and adolescents. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced. Children today receive less support for play than did previous generations in part because of: a more hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free play§.

The benefits of play could be grouped into emotional, social, and physical components. 

On emotional level, play:

  • Reduces fear and anxiety
  • Creates joy, intimacy, self-esteem
  • Improves skills
  • Improves emotional flexibility, 
  • Increases resilience, 
  • Can heal emotional pain§

On a social level, play:

  • Increases empathy
  • Creates options and choices, such as through problem-solving
  • Helps to model inclusive relationships
  • Improves nonverbal skills
  • increases attention and attachment§

On a physical level, play:

  • boosts positive emotions which in turn boost immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems 
  • decreases stress 
  • aids agility and coordination§

A review of more than 40 studies found that play is significantly related to creative problem-solving, co-operative behavior, logical thinking, IQ scores, and peer group popularity§. Creativity increases following free play. According to research by Anthony Pellegrini, providing children with play breaks during the school day maximizes their attention to cognitive tasks§. Because of its significance in development, play may provide an opportunity to develop social skills, i.e. a sense of fairness and cooperation§. For elderly people, play carries health benefits different from those for the growing child. In elderly adults, play helps to maintain strength and coordination. Positive emotions generated during play, contribute significantly to a sense of well-being and health, and improve the quality of life for children and adults§. Play deprivation has adverse consequences. Without play, optimal learning, normal social functioning, self-control, and other cognitive functions may not mature properly§.

Ecosystem for Change


After concluding the talks, remaining participants received the opportunity to complete two activities. The first activity mapped their professional ecosystems and identified components, strengths, and weaknesses of stakeholders in their field. These partners could include designers, private sector, urban innovators, community experts, policy and governance, and science-informed consultancy. In the second activity, participants shared three of their performance measures, how these measures are quantified, and how they affected their work. These metrics can be subdivided into two groups: system (collective) and human (individual) metrics. Below is a synthesis of participant insights.  


In the Ecosystem Mapping activity, participants were asked to write down the opportunities and challenges that arose from working with three of their main stakeholders. While all types of stakeholders were chosen more than once, Community-Experts, Policy and Governance, Private Sector Representatives, and Designers were chosen most frequently. Across numerous stakeholders, there were some consistent themes; a universal transmission of information and community-centered design.

The first theme focused on the transmission of information. According to participants, many stakeholders struggle with finding ways to translate their information and expertise into a universal language which can be used and adopted by other stakeholders, partners, and clients. For example, some participants remarked that science-informed Consultancies often struggle to translate their research into a language the stakeholders might understand (for example, concrete rather than abstract metrics). Likewise, this issue might also occur between community experts and designers. Some participants reported that designers often misinterpret the will or ideas of a community when planning a space. In addition, many participants also highlighted the importance for designers and urban innovators to design for the community rather than aesthetics. Designers can do this by listening to local populations and digging down to the root of the issue.  

Participants generally agree that the private sector offers valuable funding opportunities, but many also believe the private sector sometimes struggles to play a role beyond finances. This, among other reasons, makes it hard to initiate buy-in to projects and sometimes, participants believe, the private sector puts too large a focus on economic gain and the bottom line. 

Policy and Governance, participants agreed, are generally valuable for funding and to create large scale impact. However, some participants agreed that Policy and Governance is generally disconnected and misrepresentative of the local community. Participants believe these issues often stem from the lack of relationships and the prevalence of red tape between the government and community.

As mentioned previously, the main critique of Designers is to recenter on people rather than aesthetics. In addition, some participants suggested a greater need for Designers to engage with the built environment. Participant responses suggested there is a push to make community ideas more understandable and integrated into the designer’s plans. 

Finally, the most widely selected stakeholder was community experts, which suggests in and of itself the importance of the community in the design process. Participants expressed difficulty with community-wide engagement, equal representation, and meaningful participation from community members. According to participants, this might be due in part to the “we vs them” mentality and the misconception that researchers only want to take and not give. In some cases, participants even reported a NIMBYism: an opposition from residents to certain proposals for local development. Participants also said that while community experts can offer deep and meaningful insights to an area, their ideas and plans are not always feasible, and they are often challenged by budget and safety constraints. 


In the second activity, on Shared Performance Measures, we asked people to list their three most commonly used metrics. After looking at what participants wrote, the metrics broke down into two clear divisions: system and human

System metrics look at collective components of the environment which further divide into three main categories: Use, Permeability, and Impact, Access and Mobility, and Desired Engagement and Qualities

One such example of an Use, Permeability, and Impact System Metric is uptake of beneficial service and programs. This was introduced at the Conscious Cities Festival by Natalie Dabney, VP of Ideas 42. According to Dabney, Uptake is measured through “the number of people touched or [reached by a product or service] + the number of people who use the product or service.” Dabney continues to write that this must be taken in context, i.e. qualitative data, which looks into “understanding why uptake is low or high.” This impacts Dabney’s, and others, work because qualitative and quantitative measurements on uptake can tell one both if their product and service is working and why. This is important because, as Dabney says, “for a program/ service/ product to be successful, people need to use it.” 

In the next cluster, Access and Mobility, one such example of a systemic metric is accessibility. This is mentioned both as accessibility to public spaces and fresh food, but can also be looked at through a lens of accessible design to people of all abilities, backgrounds, and ages. During the festival, one such mention of accessible design, mentioned by Tiffany Briery from the Trust for Public Land,  looked at the “number of New Yorkers within a 10-minute walk of a park.” Briery mentioned this impacts her work because it adds insight into “site selection.” Briery and her team aim to choose future sites that continue to make public land and parks available to different people. 

In the last category, Desired Engagement and Qualities, one example of a systemic metric is social cohesion. This metric looks at how members of a society engage and mesh with one another for the betterment of the group. Introduced by Jonathan Grajeda from kaBOOM, this metric can be measured through “surveys and self-reported data.” Grajeda wrote that it influences his work because it allows KaBOOM to “see whether or not [their] build model works and [if it] really increased perception of pride for one’s community” particularly after kaBOOM integrates the community in the planning process. Full list of system metrics available in the shared performance measures annex. 

In addition to system metrics are Human metrics; these metrics pay attention to the individual aspects of the environment- such as feelings (of safety, satisfaction etc.), engagement (online, physically, or otherwise), and agency. 

The largest area of agreement between Conscious Cities Festival participants was engagement as a human metric. Engagement metrics focused on the quality and quantity of people interacting with, using, and positively transforming a virtual, physical, or social space. Specifically, participants mentioned physical, online, and process/ participation engagement. Some methods participants mentioned to measure physical engagement include “observation of play sculpture / social infrastructure and its use and informed questioning of/ discussions with neighborhood residents/ community organizations” (Coryn Kempster). Measures such as park usage showed both engagements with the physical environment and acted as an indicator of which areas needed improvement. The purpose of these measurements is to more fully understand the impact of an organization’s work and its ability to engage users. 

Through this activity, participants were able to find commonalities between the strengths and weaknesses of their stakeholders as well as identify common and important metrics and areas of focus for their work. Moving forward we hope this exercise and day of conversations will create a domino effect for long-lasting change and collaboration to better design cities and spaces for families and residents.  

System Metrics

Uptake of beneficial service and programs

How does it impact your work? For a program / service / product to be successful, people need to use it. 
Ways to measure? Quantitative (number of people the product or service touches/reaches and number of people who use the product or service) or Qualitative (surveys, interviews, etc. to understand why uptake is low or high).

Engagement of families and communities

How is this measured? Quantitative (e.g. # of people who attend programming) and Qualitative (via interviews & focus groups around perceptions).

Vehicular Speed, Mode Split

How is it measured?  Human/ pedestrian experience counts speed guns.   How does it impact your work? These metrics are important to measure before and after the project to show the direct impact on pedestrian experience/workability.

Number of women in decision making

How is this measured?  Counts, observations [of who’s in governance].   How does it impact your work? This metric helps understand the broader impact of transportation policy.

Physical Environment / Human Pedestrian Experience

How is this measured?  Through GIS maps and including “15 minutes” neighborhood proximity, number of continuous sidewalk crossings, cycling network.    How does it impact your work? Helps select target areas to invest resources for improvements.

Access to fresh food

How is this measured?  (Number of quality food sources like daily markets, vendors, or grocery stores) x (number of population within the smallest geography).    How does it impact your work? Ensures even access outcomes, but involves land use – may also be a way of prioritizing qualified vendors’ use of vacant land.

Safe Outdoor Play

How is this measured?  Safe and continuous routes and safe engaging public realm at the neighborhood level.
How does it impact your work?  Helps think about infrastructure conditions and design decisions that make these spaces safe and engaging.

Free Communities to Child-Services

How is this measured?  Reliable transit & services accessible within walking or reasonable distance.    How does it impact your work?  Informs where people live within the transit services and helps match where services need to be.


How is this measured? Readers of blogs / audience metrics. Comments & answers. Social media analytics.
How does it impact your work? Informs the communication strategy and refines the focus areas, based upon the needs of our readers.


How is this measured?  Training attendees. Surveys post-training. Engagement with interactive exercises.    How does it impact your work?  Informs the development and maintenance of a training curriculum, focus areas and prioritizes audiences and geographies. This supports the achievement of their mission.

Impact on Quality of life

How is this measured?  Number of projects; participation in community engagement activities; socio-economic data; visitation to particular sites; beneficiaries/ audiences.  How does it impact your work? Supports achievement of the mission, ensures the sustainability of one’s organization, creates case studies and best policies, allows for the refinement of tools.

Positive Use

How is this measured?  Number of programs, attendance, surveys (perception), physical education classes outside, more competitions in the park, and positive change.  How does it impact your work? These measures allow for buy-in, programming angles, & investment in programs.


How is this measured?  Air Quality Monitors.  How does it impact your work?  Informs site selection, trees /garden elements and placement.

Access to play areas

How is this measured?  The number of New Yorkers within a 10-minute walk of a park (4 million).
How does it impact your work? Informs site selection.

Repeat Commission

How is this measured?  If we are asked to repeat an installation or make a new social infrastructure for the same client.    How does it impact your work?  Majorly – this represents nearly half of the work we do and being “invited back” is taken as a measure of success.

Social Cohesion

How is this measured? Surveys and self-reported data. Quantitative.  How does it impact your work?  We are able to see whether or not our build model works and if it Increased perception of pride for one’s community following community involvement in the planning process.

Physical/ Park Usage

How is this measured?  Currently reported by the agency who oversees the project. They ask residents or track students/ children.    How does it impact your work?  We are developing play spots to track park usage by piece of equipment as well as the park in general. 

Understanding the link between Play and Learning

How is this measured?  Survey Data (parents).  How does it impact your work? Provides evidence that intentionally designed learning environments can shift how parents view play.