img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Favourite books: What we can learn by taking a child’s view of the city

Interested in future agency and where it is instilled, Shumi Bose’s ‘lockdown treat’ raised more questions about how to achieve rights of access to the city for all – a perquisite for change

Credit: Shumi Bose

This book was one of the first treats I gave myself in lockdown. I knew of Colin Ward for his anarchist position, particularly on planning and housing, and had downloaded a PDF of his book Streetwork: The Exploding School. But I ended up reading The Child in the City first, after tracking down a nicely yellowing, ex-library copy.

It’s not an especially heavy read. Illustrated by Ann Golzen’s poignant street photography, the book considers the place children occupy in the city by looking at the rights they have to access it, their behaviour, and their experiences.  Rooted in Britain, it also brings in research from the Americas and further afield, together with a generous pinch of Ward’s anarchist perspective.

As a teacher of potential architects, I’ve been thinking a lot about future agency and where it’s instilled, and trying to understand the spectrum of experiences my students have lived through. I grew up in Kolkata, and moving to Derbyshire aged 12 must, on reflection, have been mildly traumatic. Instead of chaotic urban intensity and noise, you could hear owls at night.

Ward explores how children experience the city first in terms of scale and access to spaces, with a fascinating discussion of the extent to which children can map their surroundings at different ages (a plan visualisation is possible at 10 years old). There are also different experiences of the city depending on gender, with girls generally being expected to occupy the domestic realm in a way that boys aren’t.

One great chapter looks at the ways in which a child might experience the city anarchically, challenging the rule of adults in clearly subversive and resistant ways. Another is about the ‘alien’ child in the city, as Ward describes immigrant youth. This resonated not only because of my background, but as a teacher of a gloriously diverse student body. In academic institutions, we are asked to look at ‘attainment gaps’ between home and overseas students, and between those with English as a first language and those without. This doesn’t account for the variety of lived experience that could be valued, yet serves to alienate some students from others. 

It is difficult to read such things, because anecdotally at least, these conditions and barriers haven’t really shifted since the book was written in the mid-70s.

A few things in particular crystallised for me after reading this book.  As an educator, Ward’s explicit idea of using the city as an educational resource is inspiring, and at Central Saint Martins we encourage our students to see the city as an active space of inquiry. Earlier this year, labour strikes halted teaching across more than 70 UK universities. We were still meeting students, although not necessarily in university buildings. It was exciting to realise that I could meet them anywhere, harnessing and recognising the city itself as a terrain of learning, which is one of the basic arguments of both of Ward’s books.

I also found that it led me to consider how we use the city and what kind of agency we’re demonstrating. We need to talk about social justice and consider why some children aren’t accessing certain parts of the city. Only by increasing the diversity of people who have access and rights to the city, can we increase those who have agency in changing it.

During lockdown particularly, the book made me think about the shape of the family unit – the cis-hetero, normative, 2.4 family unit – which frames our national attitude towards the design of housing, neighbourhoods and cities. I haven’t given myself the time to have children of my own, but the strain on parents (aka the workforce) while children stayed home was drawn into the political centre-stage, in terms of the toll on children’s wellbeing but also – rather more pressingly perhaps – the impact on the economy.

Perhaps this links to one of the more recent titles I’ve been reading, such as Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family by Sophie Lewis (Verso, 2019). This got me thinking about the assumed and articulated shape of families, and what form alternative structures could take and make. I was not raised in a nuclear family – intergenerational South Asian families are as rhizomatic as our patterns of migration. The queer/LGBTQI+ community has a rich history of the extended and constructed family – so why do our homes, towns and cities cater largely for a singular image?

Architecturally speaking, one possible junction for all these strands is in the provision of high-quality inclusive housing, and the importance of prioritising access to civic space.

For anyone reading it, the shift in perspective that Ward encourages by imagining the experiences of the child, enables us to take a valuable look at the city away from our entrenched viewpoints. Intersectionality is a recent buzz-word, but as with so many old things and true, it’s not such a new notion after all.

The Child in the City, Colin Ward, New York: Pantheon Books/London: The Architectural Press, 1978

Shumi Bose, senior lecturer in architecture at Central Saint Martins, was in conversation with Pamela Buxton

See more favourite books, how Who Owns England chimed with Sarah Featherstone’s VeloCity and why Murray Kerr is not convinced by Houses for Sale on home designs without clients. Or delve into the archive of favourite books with Peter CookTszwai SoOwen HopkinsAnnalie RichesMatthew Barnett Howland