|The Eighth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2006|
Discover the City
The bell has gone, school is over! Manoeuvering through the ‘big people’, I dash across the road to get into a taxi. Some days we would first play football or ‘dul’. Other days I would use my transport money to buy pancakes, which are cheaply sold by roadside, and then walk home: by the hospital, through the valley… When it rains, the whole route is muddy, water puddles here and there; one gets to splash and slide in the water. Those are some of the memories I can recall from my after-class escapades, when I was a kid.
Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is still an urban-rural town, with so many people in a poorly planned city centre: there is a lot of congestion because of the haphazard developments. Making this city better for children is no easy task. Today there is little space for the pedestrian: the high vehicular traffic even runs over the sidewalks. In the city centre, children can barely squeeze through the grown-ups. There are few guardrails, and many of the walkways have a ditch, a broken slab or an open manhole. It is growing though, new buildings shooting up at every other corner, businesses and offices being setup along the outskirts, extending the city boundaries.
Cities play a vital role in “meeting the needs and aspirations of children and youth in cities," (Abdullah Al-Ali Al-Nuaim, president of the Arab Urban Development Institute, AUDI). It is the route however, that fascinates me: where the children pass, walk, run as they move through the town. Where do they step? Why do they choose this over that? What they touch as they move! Why? How do they feel? There is overwhelming evidence that various kinds of child environment interactions have substantial effects on the development of children. One researcher who has had the longest, and many would say the most profound impact on the field of infant cognition and perception is Jean Paiget. His view on infant development is that children develop an understanding of the world based on their interactions with objects, space and time with in the environment.
I want to make the children stop and stare, ponder and question, learn and understand: turn this route into an experience, a memory. I want to add another dimension to it though. The children should be able to decide part of the experience, an environment where they not only play but can also create their play; a design that accommodates the ever changing interests of children. The target group are children between the ages of 5 – 10, because their thought process at this stage is engaging: they see (curious, question) then investigation: move (around, under, over) touch (feel, press, mould), smell and taste.
I will explore this idea on a small scale at the threshold to a primary school, along the pedestrian route: rethink and redesign the walkway (pavements, footpaths), street furniture (handrails, shades, street lights, and roadside seats), edges of the routes (wall, window display, corners etc.): create a composition that tells a story. Professionals (local architects, engineers, designers) should be encouraged take part in design and execution of such projects at a larger scale, especially near a children’s facility such as schools, parks, cinemas etc.
The route is to be redesigned using three main concepts. First of all an educational theme should be chosen. This could vary from: a history of the country’s leadership, the traditions of courtesy and greetings, to the logic behind math sums or just an introduction to the computer.
With the knowledge of how children respond, an educative scheme can be developed, taking part of the learning to the street. Children attach meaning to objects and events, for instance umbrella equals rain.The deductions and conclusions they come with are rather unique and interesting.
On a walk through part of town, 6 year old Anna pointed out to me a billboard advertising milk (with images of a cow), and said ‘cow’. And as we walked by she continued saying the same word repeatedly, ‘cow … cow …’. Jean Piaget, noted that “behind their (children) seemingly illogical utterances were thought processes that had their own kind of order and special logic.”
The layout of the street should hold a topic that calls out to the children. It can range from a composition of the pavements, railings, lampposts, bins, shades (things the children can touch, prod, move round, change), to simple and direct elements that hint at the topic: relief, paintings, billboards... The challenge is to develop a scheme that doesn’t overwhelm the adults’ domain but harmoniously fits in. The effect should be subtle enough to blend in and yet arouse the child’s curiosity.
One way in which the environment can foster development is to provide children with an opportunity to use their senses. The physical environment becomes a valuable teacher if it is inviting, engaging and pleasing. The setting and layout should all give the children opportunities to challenge themselves through seeing, touching, feeling and moving. In surroundings that are safe to explore, children learn to map and master their environments. Critical design aspects include legibility, safety, complexity and exploration.
In her discussion paper (Investing in Young Children), Mary Eming Young highlights the importance of integrated early child development projects and explores the benefits of trying out non-formal programs models. “Evidence from the developed and developing world indicates that some interventions can increase the efficiency of primary and secondary education, contribute to future productivity and income, and reduce costs of health and other public services…” along with a host of indirect benefits.
The second concept is to preserve the ‘good’ changes that develop with time in the city: work round them, enhance or highlight a few. It is interesting to note that some of the aspects that adults deplore in the town are what fascinate children: broken rails, potholes, water puddles or poles. What we adults, (more so planners, architects, engineers) see as dilapidation, children look at in interest and play with. With time, as a city grows, cracks appear, potholes deepen, paint peels. Positive effects also occur: stone benches weather to a rough block, grey-green copper panelling turns to a rusty brown, young trees spread out forming a canopy. Such changes add a certain richness to the urban environment, create landmarks and places. Time is the designer.
We can borrow some aspects that children appreciate and incorporate them into new designs. For example, 6 year old Anna and her friends always stop by an old tree trunk outside school just to peep in and look at their reflections. We can integrate the past and present features of the route into future designs to give character to the setting and create environments that both adults and children can enjoy.
The third idea is to bring part of the local physical nature onto the street. Kampala city sits on seven hills; almost every street has an obvious slope. Because of the tropical climate, one would rather be outdoors during the day. The vegetation is luxuriant and full of contrasts in terms of spread, colour and texture. One European visitor on tour through the outskirts of town remarked “your city is actually in a forest”. Part of this nature can be incorporated into the street. It would be enlivening to walk through a tree lined street, sunrays filtering through as the birds chirping above and the wind blows by, lifting the leaves off the green. The children get to feel the breeze and textures on their skins, they see things moving, various colours and shadows. Others can’t resist the freedom to run and make loud noises.
The local people also attach a lot of value to plants. Some fibres are ceremonial or medicinal; others are used in construction or craft-making. Local techniques, materials and symbols can be introduced onto the street, in order to ensure cultural relevance and appropriateness. For example, earth-blocks can be used as facing to a wall or a bamboo grill serving as a screen in a street-side window. The innovative use of local artifacts and materials not only represents a fusion of modern technology and the traditional practice, but also reduces expenses.
The street wouldn’t be what is without the people, the activity and movement. Nakasero market, right in the heart of town, presents an interesting example. It is teeming and bustling with activity: vendors bargaining with customers, porters pushing for a way through, to the left taxi-conductors hanging out the car-doors desperately calling out for passengers, all in the midst of heaps and stalls of food and fruits. This is just a normal day at the market. Graven (2004) points out that cognitive development in human infants is strongly dependent on proximal environment or the space immediately surrounding the children including physical space, people and their different activities.
Parents also a play a role in the child’s development, not only at home but even outside. How do children discover the world outside home’s door? From the parents’ routine, lifestyle: where they go and hang out. Is it to church, school, the park or market? Do they take their children along? Are they driving through or walking? It is from this that children get to learn, experience, explore and attach meaning to certain things, elements and activities.
When 8 year old Tony sees the red cross sign of the clinic, he hides behind his mom, afraid of taking medicine again. If it is the familiar gray stone walls of the chapel, he runs ahead to meet his friends. When he recognises the buildings on Bomb Street, he jumps in anticipation of the sweets uncle Phil will give him when they reach his shop at the corner.
Family and community involvement increases the impact and sustainability of the project. Active participation of NGOs & community groups in design, implementation and evaluation also substantially lowers costs. The local government/council can also be persuaded to raise funds since the project solves a number of the current infrastructure and circulation problems too. Other possible development partners that support early childhood programs and interventions include The World Bank (which already funds some programs in Uganda) and International Youth Foundation.
Children often seem to enjoy their ventures into the city, taking the chance to find out new places and objects in a self-paced manner. It shouldn’t be just another walk through town for the grown-ups. Maybe as the adults use the route, they too will learn to experience the freedom and thrill of exploring and discovering the city.
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