I remember sitting in the Great Hall at the Arts Centre a number of years ago and listening to someone called Dr Bruce Perry talk about the importance of the first three years of life in terms of brain development. I remember tears welling up in my eyes as he put up a picture of the brains of two 3yr olds side by side – one the child brought up in a loving nurturing environment and the other the child of neglect. The scale of the difference in size between the two has always haunted me.
My tears were for the seeming futility of it all – these children incubated in neglect.
My memory of that one presentation opened up to me the importance of ensuring that babies were nurtured in safe, secure, warm, stimulating environments. And although the emphasis is on the first three years it carries forward beyond the home and the immediate neighbourhood to the city where they grow up.
That is why creating a child-friendly city is so important – and when I say child friendly, I mean all those things I said before – safe, secure, warm and stimulating.
But do we think of children when we think of city matters?
And if we do think of children in what context do we think of them - as current citizens or as future leaders or both?
In 1993, New Zealand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), relevant to children from birth to18 years old. The four principles of UNCROC are:
· Best interests of the child
· The right to life, survival and development
· Respect for the views of the child.
UNICEF Child-Friendly Cities is an international initiative that gives effect to UNCROC at a local level. It supports the role that local government and communities play in improving the wellbeing of families and children. UNICEF New Zealand is promoting a version of the initiative in New Zealand.
We are committed as a city to exploring tangible ways in which the city can achieve the objective of being child friendly. We are seeking to work collaboratively with a number of government and community organisations who share the aim of making Christchurch "the best place to grow up in Aotearoa/New Zealand."
We also see this approach as very much in line with building resilience.
I remember Mike Moore saying when I was elected to Parliament 25 years ago that our grandchildren would be doing jobs that hadn’t even been thought of back then. The only thing he got wrong was how long it would take.
Another Moore, Gordon Moore, predicted the annual doubling of capacity of transistors and an accompanying exponential reduction in cost. I think that is the way to think about how rapidly change will occur in what are being referred to as the disruptive technologies, but are simply progress.
Who would have thought Kodak would collapse, but the digital camera made it inevitable that a company that produced film would do so.
Uber, Air BnB, 3D printing, autonomous electric cars, the Tesla power wall - just to name a few – are the kinds of disruptions that can change the course of history.
What these will mean for our children today, we need to be thinking about as a city now – how we ‘ride the great tailwinds of our time’ as Dutch Leonard, Professor of Public Affairs from Harvard University said when he was here. The future is now.
Our Deputy Mayor, Vicki Buck, is the city’s champion for children – everything has to be seen through the eyes of a child. Arranging free tram rides for children coming into the central city was an important initiative that she spearheaded, along with the Imagination Station.
The Imagination Station is a charity run, not for profit play and education centre full of heaps of Lego and is free to access. They also have a suite of 12 iMac's that they use for classes in stop motion animation with lego, robotics and digital lego design. When classes aren't running, the computers are available to play on!
There are other initiatives underway – and to quote Vicki:
"I don't care if we have some accreditation but I do care that we have kids in bad housing and who have not got enough to eat and who we don't plan for."
She said it was the basic things the council could start with, including having a toy box in the council chamber and making the civic building more appealing for children.
"It's (the civic building) stark for children. There is nowhere with a play table for when mum is paying the rates. I'd think it was dead boring if I was four or 10 and I still do."
That’s the attitude that got our longest serving (and second youngest) councillor involved in local body politics. Skate-boarding youngsters were annoying city pedestrians so the Council decided to ban them.
Yani believed that a better solution was a skate park where young people could do what they loved and they weren’t made to feel unwelcome in their own city.
That is what was done and what a great facility it has turned out to be. A win-win!
This is how a child-friendly city would go about making decisions all the time, but it is often in response to a problem raised by adults that children’s issues are considered – but as you can see – they are framed as problems to be solved for the benefit of adults. And the issues can become highly politicised – with demands that action be taken. This is almost never the way to make good decisions.
I had the chance to hear Bruce Perry speak again just before I left Parliament and I heard him tell another story that I thought I’d share – one that gave me hope that there were ways to reconnect neglected and abused children with the natural rhythms of life that had been disrupted in those early years.
He spoke about the work he was doing with some of the First Nations people of Canada and the drumming signalling an important meeting about to take place. He said what had become clear was that this drumming was not to call people together, but to calm the mind for decision-making.
I’ve been tempted to start Council meetings that way ever since.
Calming the mind in as much as it assists reflection and focus, offers a real opportunity to children who have had their early years disrupted. Developing environments for children of all ages to safely explore themselves and the world around them must be a focus of our city.
We have all been disrupted in different ways by the experiences we have shared since that first earthquake shook our world in more ways than one.
Being alert to and understanding the needs of children who have often experienced the stress of the adults around them in a way that has left them quite fearful and disconnected even though it is the last thing the adults would want them to feel will prove to be our biggest challenge. But accepting this as a collective responsibility and getting it right will help us achieve our ambition of being the best place to raise children.
We need the Brainwave Trust at our side and it is wonderful that you are re-launching in Canterbury. We need you more than ever.
“Creating a child-friendly City that will benefit the next generation.”