Using GIS to Design Child-Friendly Cities

Mark Altaweel


For middle and upper-class families, there is a common trend of moving to less urban, more suburban areas once they have children. This shift is often driven by the perception that cities are crowded and lack sufficient space. Additionally, city roads are frequently considered ill-suited for children and potentially unsafe.

However, cities can be more environmentally friendly since they tend of promote more use of public transportation and less personal use of a car, and leave more space for other activities. So, the question posed by a recently published study in the journal Nature scientific reports is: can we design more child-friendly cities that better accommodate families and young urban dwellers? [1] Researchers have proposed some new ideas to achieve this.

Using GIS to plan child-friendly pedestrian pathways

New research used GIS analysis and qualitative studies to explore how child-friendly pedestrian pathways could be better designed in cities. The city of Guangzhou was used for the case study. Researchers used drawings to determine areas of interest for 2-6 year old. The results were then combined with quantitative data. A fuzzy analytical hierarchy process was then applied to determine more child-friendly areas.

Sustainable communities and children

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has highlighted that children’s rights are essential for sustainable communities and life. Urban places that accommodate children also promote healthier lifestyles and are better for the environment, as they reduce the need for driving and car-based transportation.

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Benefits of creating child-friendly pedestrian pathways

Among urban developers, there has been a growing movement looking at cities as places where children’s interests have generally not been accounted for.[2] Creating child-friendly pedestrian pathways (CFPP) should be seen as a priority. In designing more child-friendly pathways, these areas should contain both formal and informal play environments that differentiate between structured and unstructured play.

A small child riding a kids red play scooter on a sidewalk.
Walkways that are safe and friendly towards children are an important component of a child-centric urban environment. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Play-friendly environments promote a sense of security and encourage exploration. Child-friendly urban design includes pathways and structures that are safe, healthy, comfortable, and convenient.[3]

Methods to design child-friendly urban spaces

Collaborative methodologies that involve input from users, including children, can help design cities and their pathways to be more accommodating to these demographic groups. This approach can encourage individuals and families to remain in cities rather than move to low-density housing.

One method is to use children’s drawings to gain insight into their thoughts and emotions about how their experience geography. For this case study, researchers encouraged children 2-6 years of age to draw areas that interested them and indicate areas they liked to play in. Drawings can reveal various benefits that can inform the design process.

In children’s drawings, bold and closely spaced lines may indicate stress or strong emotions, while softer marks may suggest a more relaxed state. More expressive lines may indicate children feel more secure and willing to explore ideas among different interpretations researchers can make from children drawings.[4]

A questionnaire-based methodology was also used for the same age group.

These methods were used to provide weighted interests for a fuzzy analytic hierarchy process (FAHP), which determined areas of greater priority and interest from the qualitative data. The weighted analysis was then mapped using a network approach that assigns costs to different areas. The result of this analysis was a map highlighting the most child-friendly areas.

Designs that promote child-friendly development can benefit from using maps and diagrams that depict the area’s layout. This approach allows children and other community members to participate actively in the design and further development of these spaces.

Results of the case study for creating child-friendly pedestrian pathways

The results revealed that mini-public spaces were particularly popular, especially those featuring small fish ponds, pools, or slides. Additionally, pet shops and flower shops were favorite spots for children to walk by.

Researchers suggest several criteria for designing pedestrian pathways. These pathways should:

  1. Utilize existing infrastructure.
  2. Avoid encroaching on land use areas of interest, such as parks.
  3. Be prioritized in highly residential areas, where the need for pedestrian pathways is greater.
  4. Include safety barriers.
  5. Incorporate children’s points of interest, such as play areas.
  6. Feature trees to create a comforting environment for children.

Researchers developed a tool that optimizes for these interests, identifying pathways that best meet the criteria. Urban designers can use this tool to improve or optimize pathways, ensuring they align with these standards.

Overall, this approach shows that incorporating children’s input and using child-friendly design criteria can create more accommodating spaces for children, encouraging both children and their parents to use walking options in urban areas. This, in turn, promotes more sustainable urban living.


[1]    The argument and benefits of designing cities around children’s interests can be found here:  Tayefi Nasrabadi, M., García, E. H. & Pourzakarya, M. Let children plan neighborhoods for a sustainable future: A sustainable child-friendly city approach. Local Environ. 26, 198–215 (2021).

[2]    A review of children and their involvement in urban planning can be found here:  Ataol, Ö., Krishnamurthy, S. & Van Wesemael, P. Children’s participation in urban planning and design: A systematic review. Children Youth Environ. 29, 27–47 (2019).

[3]    For more on the need for incorporating child-friendly design in cities, see:  Adams, S., Savahl, S., Florence, M. & Jackson, K. Considering the natural environment in the creation of child-friendly cities: Implications for children’s subjective well-being. Child Indic. Res. 12, 545–567 (2019).

[4]    The research demonstrating how child-friendly criteria and planning can be developed for walking pathways in cities can be found here:  Fang, K., Azizan, S.A. & Huang, H. GIS-based intelligent planning approach of child-friendly pedestrian pathway to promote a child-friendly city. Sci Rep 14, 8139 (2024).

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.