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Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, socialist cities in Central and Eastern Europe often saw themselves as places where children – “the living flowers of the earth”, in Maxim Gorky’s famous phrase – would get the best start in life. While socialist regimes were highly adept at building schools and youth clubs, they weren’t overly competent at designing streets or public spaces that were child-friendly; priority was instead given to impossibly huge squares and wide avenues. That’s not to say that their counterparts in the West were any better; during the past few decades, many such cities have become increasingly choked with traffic, leaving little space for young people and their parents.


Still, it’s striking that Start with Children (arguably the first dedicated summit on how to place children’s welfare at the heart of urban thinking) took place in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, a city still recovering from its socialist past. But then, as its mayor, Matúš Vallo, said, with tongue in cheek, “Bratislava must be the best city in Europe in something, so we decided to be the best city for kids.” Across two days at the end of May, Vallo, who is an architect by training as well as a rock musician and a father, joined some delegates to debate what starting with children actually means.

The answers offered at the event, held in Bratislava’s beautiful pre-socialist Old Market Hall in front of an audience of about 600 people, were many. Erion Veliaj, the larger-than-life mayor of Albania’s capital, Tirana, told the story of how, as an experiment, he had let children take over the city’s main Skanderbeg Square for one day. This proved such a success that he decided to make it a car-free and child-centred environment in perpetuity. Xoli Fuyani and Laís Fleury – both women running ngo's that encourage child activism – put the focus squarely on the need to reconnect gadget-hooked children with nature, be it through planting more trees in school playgrounds or tweaking the curriculum to create more outdoors time. Legendary Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl, for his part, called on city builders to downsize residential buildings so that children may feel more grounded. “Anything above the sixth floor belongs to the meteorological department,” he pronounced to much laughter.


Jokes aside, however, there was also recognition of how hard change can be. In a conversation with monocle, Petra Marko, the newly appointed director of the Metropolitan Institute of Bratislava, said that a wide-ranging shift in behaviour across all levels of society was needed, especially in post-socialist countries such as Slovakia. “We are still a young democracy here in Bratislava and in our region as a whole,” she said. Indeed, discussions of how to bridge political divisions featured prominently at the Start with Children event. Speaker after speaker acknowledged that even if, as a civic leader or activist, you succeed in pushing through change, there is inevitably going to be resentment from what another attendee and urbanism legend Gil Penalosa of urban reform group 8 80 Cities called “Cave” people (citizens against virtually everything). There was also another, more important consensus: that if you do what’s right for children, it will, inevitably, be right for everyone. — L

Hear our full report from Bratislava’s Start with Children summit on Episode 660 of ‘The Urbanist’, our city-focused radio programme and podcast. Listen at

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