Who is this guide for?

Children’s lives and wellbeing are being shaped by the cities they grow up in, so we should shape our cities to provide the best environment for our next generation to reach their full potential.

Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation have combined their design and early years expertise to provide guidance, tools and tailored advice to city authorities, developers, urban practitioners, and early childhood development practitioners to create urban spaces that cater for the needs of children and families, and support and promote healthy caregiving practices and behaviours.

Why do we need to focus on children growing up in cities?

More than a billion children worldwide are growing up in cities. Although cities are rapidly expanding, they are not being shaped to meet the needs of children, caregivers and pregnant women.

The early years of a child’s life are crucial for their physical, socioemotional, language and cognitive development. Neuroscience shows that a child’s early experiences with family, caregivers and their environment provide the foundation for lifelong health, learning, behaviour, and wellbeing.

To develop to their full potential, young children require more than the minimum basics of good nutrition and healthcare, clean air and water, and a safe environment. Children also need plenty of opportunities to explore, to play, and to experience warm, responsive human interactions.

For young children to make the most of their surrounding environment, places and the people in them need to cater to age-relevant developmental needs. This includes enabling and supporting caregivers to provide healthy and nurturing care.

The Proximity of Care Design Guidebuilds on the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s Urban95 initiative, which asks a bold question:

If you could experience the city from 95cm – the height of a 3-year-old – what would you change?

The guide is designed specifically to respond to the needs of three groups of people: children 0-5 years old, their caregivers, and pregnant women living in urban contexts. Although, when the guide is put into practice the whole community benefits.

Child and family-focused interventions have the power to strengthen the local economy, open-up safe and welcoming spaces, bring communities together and create great places to live, work, play and invest.
When a neighbourhood works well for young children, their caregivers and pregnant women, the whole community is empowered and enlivened.

A guide for all urban contexts

The Proximity of Care Design Guide has been developed to be applied to, and benefit children and caregivers, in every urban context.
Currently, not enough attention or investment is being focused on the development of environments for children in cities globally by governments, developers or urban practitioners. As a result, space for children is being reduced. Cars have pushed children from the streets, sidewalks are narrower and public spaces reduced or restricted, eroding the freedom of children to explore independently. City decision-making and planning rarely hears the voices of young children and caregivers, let alone considers the variety of needs of children of different ages and abilities.

The guide also includes specific tools and case studies that can be applied to vulnerable urban contexts, including informal settlements and refugee settlements.


Learn more about the research undertaken in vulnerable urban contexts.

Vulnerable urban contexts are cities or parts of cities that are subject to ongoing shocks and stresses that result in a vulnerability of lives, livelihoods and the social, economic and governance systems we rely upon. These contexts tend to be overcrowded, polluted, and characterised by insecure housing, limited access to city services and good-quality public space, and with incomplete or unsafe infrastructure. Despite the challenges and lack of support, it is important to acknowledge the creativity, innovation and resilience of people living in these communities who have come together to improve their living conditions and support each other. Enabling and empowering communities is critical to improving cities for children and caregivers


Investment in child development is the most effective approach to the long-term improvement in security and prosperity of communities worldwide.


The benefits of the guide

An approach, that prioritises care and proximity in urban planning is a vital part of creating inclusive cities that work better not only for babies, toddlers, and their caregivers, but for everyone. Arup’s publication Designing for Urban Childhoods highlights the many benefits that cities around the world have achieved where steps have been taken to enhance children’s experience of the city.

These multiple benefits show that focusing on the needs of the youngest children has the potential to act as a unifying theme to navigate complex challenges and gain support for progressive ideas. Child and family-friendly urban planning can be an effective catalyst in response to different urban agendas such as road safety, air pollution, sustainable behaviours and supporting an active population.

Health and wellbeing

Creating cities that offer children of all ages and backgrounds an opportunity for everyday freedoms, as well as organised activities such as sport, can help to increase fitness, develop stronger immune systems, decrease stress levels and foster greater respect for themselves and others.

Local economy

Parks and public spaces that are child and caregiver-friendly are good for business. Parts of cities where families with young children choose to visit signal better than any marketing material that an area is clean, safe and fun. Retail, leisure and business-occupiers increasingly recognise that this is good for business.


When public areas are busy with children and families enjoying cultural activities, they become cleaner and more secure. The key is in focusing on removing danger from the road environment and public spaces, not the removal of children from danger. Equally important is focusing on perceptions of safety and the other barriers to safety, which can be physical, psychological, or emotional, such as crime, discrimination and negative behaviours.


Social connection is essential to health and wellbeing. Meaningful and positive social interaction between community members of all ages helps to build relationships and foster a sense of community.

Nature and sustainability

A connection with nature is associated with a range of physical and mental health benefits, including lower rates of obesity, depression, stress and attention disorders. Urban green spaces have been shown to particularly benefit the elderly and young, tackling age-related inequality while improving health.

Climate resilience

Embedding child-friendly principles in measures that improve climate resilience can also create opportunities to enhance children’s wellbeing and development. Cycle paths and sports pitches can, for example, turn into waterways and reservoirs, while bouncy floor panels above underground storage tanks power water pumps to activate nearby water features.

The Partnership

Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation have partnered to combine their design expertise and knowledge of early childhood development to create the Proximity of Care Design Guide. Our aim is to support professionals and decision makers working in urban contexts to make lasting positive change for young children, their caregivers, and pregnant women, with benefits for the whole community.

Journey so far


Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation begin collaborating

The first version of the Proximity of Care design guide begins development, created primarily for vulnerable urban contexts such as informal and refugee settlements, that are home to hundreds of millions of children worldwide.


Partner organisations support developing the Proximity of Care Design Guide

Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation partner with four experienced organisations operating in informal and refugee settlements, and pilot the Proximity of Care approach in four sites: Catalytic Action in El Mina, Lebanon; Civic in Azraq, Jordan; Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in Kibera, Kenya; and Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) in Khayelitsha, South Africa.

A Technical Review Committee is setup to inform the guide

This committee is made up of experts and decision makers from city government, humanitarian, and development sectors at the forefront of policy, design, and construction in vulnerable urban contexts: UNDP, UN-HABITAT, UNICEF, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, ImagiNation Afrika, NACTO, World Health Organization, World Wide Fund for Nature, Norwegian Refugee Council, European Network for Child Friendly Cities, Municipality of Tirana, Cuidad Emergente,  Qendra Marrëdhënie (The Relationship Center), American Red Cross.


The first version of the Proximity of Care Design Guide is launched

The first version of the Proximity of Care Design Guide is launched to support practitioners working in vulnerable urban contexts in developing child-friendly initiatives.

The Proximity of Care Design Guide is part of the Urban95 Academy

Arup is a knowledge partner of the Urban95Academy, a leadership programme supported by the Bernard van Leer Foundation and the London School of Economics & Political Science, to help city leaders design better cities for young children and their caregivers.


Work on an expanded version of the guide begins

After a number of city authorities, private developers and urban practitioners expressed interest in applying the guide to a range of projects and initiatives, Arup and the Bernard van Leer Foundation decided to further develop the guide to benefit children, caregivers and pregnant women in any neighbourhood or city worldwide for a wider range of users. 

New partner organisations pilot the guide

The guide is further developed by training and working with nine new partners to apply and test the principles and approaches to a challenge in their own cities, including non-vulnerable contexts: arki_lab in Denmark, London Borough of Waltham Forest in the UK, Institute for Spatial Policies and Pazi!park in Slovenia, Huasipichanga in Ecuador, Espacio Ludico in Uruguay, Cidade Activa and E+1 in Brazil, and Ciudad Emergente in Chile.


The new version of the Proximity of Care Design Guide is launched

A new guide is launched incorporating knowledge, expertise and practical experiences from the new partners, offering additional content to a broader audience, tools and case studies to guide and inspire child and family-friendly solutions in cities worldwide.

City authorities
If you are part of any governmental authority overseeing the administration, design, planning or policy making of any element of city life, from housing and social infrastructure, to transport and public spaces – this Guide is for you. The Guide could be used by a mayor or any other decision-maker looking for guidance and methods to strengthen policy, advocacy, investment and planning approaches to make a difference to early childhood development in their city or municipality.

The Guide offers specific steps, tools and case studies that can be used to improve the existing engagement process and policies, or offer ideas for starting new projects.
Urban practitioners
If you are a professional involved in urban planning and design, this guide is for you. You may already be familiar with child-friendly approaches to design and planning but looking for additional insight and tools to specifically target the needs of the babies and toddlers, their caregivers and pregnant women. The guide is equally useful for practitioners new to designing and advocating for interventions supporting these groups and would benefit from the comprehensive overview of how best to start and which steps to take.

The guide offers tools and case studies that can be used in the main stages of a project life cycle to approach design considering all necessary elements, to co-create with the communities that will benefit, and to build partnerships and advocacy plans to bring a project to fruition.
Early Childhood Practitioner
If you are an early childhood practitioner working with civil society in an non-governmental organisation, educational institution, public or private organisation, and you’re interested in bringing urban planning and design considerations into your work on child development, this guide is for you.

The guide offers you the tools and case studies to help you connect and collaborate with city authorities, urban practitioners and developers to design and implement urban interventions that consider the developmental needs and preferences of young children from pregnancy up to school age and the people that care for them. It can also contribute to your understanding of the life cycle of an urban project, so that you can identify the best opportunities to bring your expert insight into the design and creation of city spaces.
If you are an investor or decision maker guiding, managing and delivering city development projects, and want to generate social and commercial return in line with your corporate and community commitments, this guide is for you.

The guide sets out how to benefit all residents or members of the community you are working in by creating popular and valued spaces. It provides different approaches to community engagement and participation, as well as practical ways to apply ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) principles to inform decision-making and investments. Also, it includes useful evidence that developers can use to demonstrate and win support for an approach that supports early childhood development.
Children at age 0-5
The first 1000 days from conception to 24 months is a critical window of rapid brain development. Optimal development for a young child is characterised by an expansion of the number and complexity of a child’s relationships with other children and adults across a variety of settings.

Children 0-3 should experience a variety of stimulating, sensorial and nurturing relationships as well as opportunities to learn and explore with their caregivers, interacting with their home and neighbourhood environment. Health, nutrition, responsive caregiving, learning and play opportunities, and safety are essential.

Play is the natural language for a child at age 3-5, their main source of learning and their natural way of interacting with their environment. A child at age 3-5 requires more varied and complex sources of stimulation and opportunities to play, discover and learn.

Urban planning and design have a significant impact on the way children play and independently interact with the environment, and interact with their caregiver. Considering the impact at home, neighbourhood, and city scales highlights a variety of ways in which urban design and planning can stimulate or challenge these core elements of development.
A child’s direct support network is made up of caregivers, which could include mothers, fathers, guardians, grandparents, siblings, extended family and non-related carers. Parents and guardians, as primary caregivers, are crucial initial influences. They provide safe and trustful relationships, demonstrate affection, introduce language and make the child’s world safe and interesting to explore.

All young children need frequent, warm, responsive and playful interactions with loving adults. A caregiver sensitive to an infant’s signals and responding appropriately, helps build stable and responsive relationships and positively supports child’s development, especially language acquisition and behaviour.

Caregivers need the time, energy and space to nurture themselves and their children and, for those bringing up children in cities, urban planning and design can create barriers and opportunities for positive caregiving. From enabling easier connections with supportive local communities, to quick access to essential support services, providing spaces for breastfeeding, for resting or learning with children through play, how we design and plan our cities has the power to support positive caregiving.
Pregnant women
During the antenatal period, health, nutrition and safety are essential for both mother and unborn baby. The physical and mental health of the mother, the support she receives from her community, and the access, safety and quality of the environment are particularly important.

Supportive partners, or wider family and friends, and regular prenatal health check-ups, are critical components of a positive pregnancy. Urban design influences how safely and easily women can access public services and spaces, as well as other parts of a neighbourhood. Considering the needs of pregnant women in the built environment, with clean and safe places to rest, access to water and bathrooms, efficient transport and accessible public services, for example, will also help ensure that urban spaces are inclusive for everyone.
Informal settlements

UN-Habitat describes an informal settlement as a residential area where the people living there are likely to face three primary challenges: no security of tenure over their land or dwelling; lack of access to basic services and infrastructure; and, housing that does not meet planning or regulatory standards, often in environmentally hazardous areas.
Despite these challenges, people continue to move to informal settlements due to the pull factor of economic opportunity, often with future generations in mind

Refugee settlements
The design guide can be applied to refugee settlements, which are urban areas where refugees settle in unclaimed properties or join pre-existing informal settlements. It does not encompass planned refugee or internally ‘displaced persons’ camps. These areas generally arise on national borders in response to armed conflict, political unrest, natural disasters, resource shortages, or other crises. Migration to refugee settlements is largely due to conflict or, increasingly, climate-related displacement.
Whether from another region or nation, weak ties to the new city expose refugees to obstacles not faced by existing residents. This is addressed in the guide, alongside the fact that while refugees tend to cluster in clearly identifiable areas in their new city, it is not uncommon for refugees to be distributed across the city, rather than in a specific geographic zone