The environments where children grow up have immense impact on their health and wellness. And places where children can thrive are places where all of us want to be. What do child-centered communities look like? And how might we work together to create more of them in America?
Over the past 9 months, Raising Places explored these questions in six diverse U.S. communities. This report is a synthesis of the trends, insights and lessons we’ve learned.
A healthy environment has an outsize effect on children. And places where children can thrive are places where all of us want to be. What do child-centered communities look like? And how might we work together to create more of them in America?
Our collective future is inextricably linked to the success of our youth. But in America, where place is a proxy for opportunity, not all children have the same chance of success. Designing communities for children ensures a positive future—for all of us.
This is more than a problem; it’s a crisis. With so many U.S. children falling farther behind in areas from educational achievement to health and wellness outcomes, we must look to the places where they are growing up if we want to make systemic changes.
The environments where children grow up have an outsize effect on how well and how long they live. Levels of poverty and violence, access to jobs, transportation, healthy food, and outdoor spaces in a community play critical roles in the physical and mental health and development of the children who live there—both directly and through their parents and caregivers.
And the younger you are, the more place matters. Recent analysis of The Equality of Opportunity Project shows that exposure to a better environment during childhood is a key driver of long-term success. What’s more, community environments affect children not only during childhood, but throughout the course of their lives.
All children deserve the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong. Yet many of the nation’s youngest residents live in communities where they and their families face significant obstacles. Too many U.S. youth are growing up with significant health challenges, from obesity and diabetes to adverse childhood experiences.
The Raising Places process elicited applications from 156 communities across the US. These places provide a snapshot of the wide range of conditions that keep children from thriving. These issues are clearly interrelated, with no single issue taking major precedence; a comprehensive approach is required.
Many neighborhood planning processes don’t prioritize the needs of children and families. Evidence for this can be found everywhere—from cities and intersections built for cars, to “workforce” housing intended for single adults.
Furthermore, even though their goals of health and well-being are parallel, professionals focused on better childhoods and those focused on better neighborhoods may not be at the same tables. Differences in language and culture exacerbate the divide. And perhaps most critically, particularly in neighborhoods with chronic disinvestment, children and families still don’t typically have a voice in the world that is being created around them.
Children are an investment in the future. Investing in children might mean better understanding their unique needs and assets, or more deeply engaging them in the process of solution-building. But one thing is for sure: we all win when this investment pays off.
By understanding the unique needs and strengths of children, we can design great places for all generations to live. This is because laws and programs designed to support vulnerable groups, such as children, often end up benefiting all of society—a phenomenon known as the Curb-Cut Effect.
Conversely, as mentioned in Cities Alive: Designing for urban childhoods, if communities fail to meet the needs of children, they risk economic and cultural impacts as young families move away. It turns out that designing for the next generation is more than a nice-to-have—in our mobile society, it’s an imperative.
Children and teens are very well-equipped to participate in community change initiatives. Not only are they closest to their own lived experiences of a neighborhood, but they also have unique perspectives. When leaders view youth as a resource, rather than a beneficiary, it can result in powerful partnerships. Co-creating with youth creates compelling advocates and long-term ownership for the work.
The choices we make depend on the choices we have. And not all U.S. children have the same choices available to them. For example, regardless of family income, children of color are more likely to live in disadvantaged neighborhood environments.
Investing in our most inequitable places will make America stronger. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, initiatives across the country like Promise Neighborhoods and Best Babies Zone are addressing the unique challenges that low-income children and children of color face by strengthening the places where they live, learn, and play.
As a nation, we’ve come a long way towards identifying the challenges inherent in children’s environments. Today, efforts are moving rapidly from diagnosis to action.
Many people, organizations and networks are focused on finding solutions to community challenges that impact kids and families. Raising Places is just one of many efforts to pick up the pace.There are great examples of funding, policies and action to support this work—such as Funders for Housing and Opportunity, the Family Friendly City Initiative in San Francisco, and Columbus’ “smart city” projects. The Raising Places application process illuminated both the nationwide demand for efforts that support cross-sector work, and all the ways in which it is already occurring.
There is a growing awareness around the interrelated nature of health and place, as well as how both affect kids over their lifetimes. Cradle-to-career initiatives like Promise Zones and Strive Together include improving key community-level outcomes as key to their success. Similarly, neighborhood transformation efforts like Purpose Built Communities and HUD Choice Neighborhoods put youth and families at the heart of their work. These reports provide examples across the spectrum of youth and community elements; many more resources can be found on our Purpose page.