Child-Centered Planning: A New Specialized Pattern Language Tool | Jason F. McLennan

With the rise in the global human population, the urban population is growing rapidly alongside new innovations in city design and development. However, with new concepts in urban planning on the horizon, our most vulnerable citizens are being left out: children. In the excerpt below from his book of essays, Transformational Thought II: More Radical Ideas to Remake the Built Environment, Jason McLennan lays a blueprint for designing Child-Centered cities that ultimately benefit the general population by centering designs and concepts good for social, emotional, and environmental health. 

Jason F. McLennan is one of the world’s most influential visionaries in contemporary architecture and green building, is a highly sought-out designer, consultant, and thought leader. A winner of Engineering News Record’s National Award of Excellence and of the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Prize (which was, during its 10-year trajectory, known as “the planet’s top prize for socially responsible design”), Jason has been showered with such accolades as “the ‘Wayne Gretzky’ of the green building industry and a “World Changer” (by GreenBiz magazine).

Jason McLennan will be delivering a keynote address, “From Reconciliation to Regeneration,” at Bioneers 2022. Register to see him in May.

This last year global population crossed the seven billion mark, and within less than two decades another billion are projected to live on planet earth. The hidden statistic is that almost all of the last billion and likely the majority of the next will be city dwellers. It was only in the last several decades that we moved from a predominantly rural civilization to an urban one. As megacities grow, even as small and midsized cities grow around the world, our technologies, especially our cars and other modes of transportation, continue to have the largest impact on the nature of the City: how it looks, functions and is experienced. What’s obvious is that nature is continually being squeezed out of our urban experiences, as are the kind of experiences that are good for people. Especially telling is the lack of attention placed on our most vulnerable and important citizens: our children. We might design communities fit for auto transport and auto storage, but too many cities are cruel and inhospitable to our most impressionable. 

I have written previously about the wisdom of designing buildings and communities that deeply consider children first as a way of ensuring that communities are well designed for people of all ages. (See “Our Children’s Cities: The Logic and Beauty of a Child-Centered Civilization” in my first book in this series titled Transformational Thought: Radical Ideas to Remake the Built Environment, 2012.) What can be more important than ensuring that our urban habitats are nurturing and supportive of human development, and that we create environments that maximize human potential? 

Recently I returned to my decades-old copy of Christopher Alexander’s seminal work, A Pattern Language, which had a profound influence on the design world (and on me) following its publication in the late 1970s. With child-centered design on my mind, I began to think about how one might apply an Alexander-esque pattern language to plan children-centric cities that are safe, beautiful and enjoyable for children of all ages. After all, if great places share common patterns as Alexander asserts, then great child-oriented communities also should reveal certain patterns that can form the basis of planning. The beauty of planning cities for their youngest inhabitants stems from the idea’s simplicity. Designing places for our most vulnerable citizens allows us to create places that better serve everyone. The focus on the young has particularly strong benefits for the elderly. Rather than constructing communities around the automobile, we should treat our children as our highest priorities. Doing so will keep them safe and keep us sane. What follows is a preliminary list of 40 patterns that I have identified as necessary for a child-centered community to be successful. Over time we hope to expand and add to this list as an important new design tool for architects, planners and community leaders to use wherever civic engagements are happening.

Child-Centered Patterns

The Child Centered Patterns are organized into the following categories. Many of the patterns relate to multiple categories at the same time, and are especially important.

  • Education
  • Beauty 
  • Resilience
  • Connectedness
  • Biophilia
  • Accessibility
  • Safety
  • Playfulness 
  • Joy
  • Health

Pattern 1: The Story of Place

Education, Beauty, Resilience, Connectedness, Biophilia

The more children who understand the places where they live, the more committed they will be to celebrating and protecting their regions. In child-centered communities, youth must be taught the social, ecological, climatological and even architectural histories of the areas so that they can fully grasp the complexities–and make the most of the unique offerings–of their homes. Tools such as community weather stations and public interpretive elements will help children place their communities in a global context while rooting them more solidly in place.

Pattern 2: The Child’s-Eye View

Beauty, Safety, Connectedness, Accessibility

Respecting a lower ground plane lets us all see what children see. To enhance visibility, safety and beauty, accommodate individuals who stand 3-4 feet tall rather than following the old standard that assumes everyone walks or wheels 5-6 feet off the ground. Sight lines are clearer, barriers are less restricting, and spaces are more open.

Pattern 3: Humane Scale

Beauty, Safety, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

This is another way of thinking how to keep things at a child’s-eye view. Any component of the built environment that is disproportionately scaled can make even a tall adult feel diminished. Imagine how oppressive such elements are to a child. When a community’s infrastructure is outsized, it makes all residents feel insignificant. Retaining a humane scale means that building heights, parking lot footprints, signage square footage and more all stay within reasonable limits. See the Living Building Challenge for more specifics on what constitutes humane scale.

Pattern 4: Safe Crossings

Beauty, Safety, Playfulness, Joy, Accessibility

Painted cement doesn’t do much to keep pedestrians out of harm’s way.

Develop more interactive crossing signals with sounds, colorful flags, visual pattern changes and a host of other features. This will do more to keep people engaged, entertained and protected when crossing the street.

Pattern 5: Finding Home

Safety, Playfulness, Joy, Connectedness

Identify pathways or individual neighborhoods using dedicated iconography or color palettes to help children navigate safely and independently through communities. A certain animal species’ footprints could lead to schoolyards, or certain city blocks could use common front door colors.

The idea is to help children find their way while making them feel celebrated instead of simply tolerated.

Pattern 6: Revealed Systems

Education, Beauty, Resilience, Playfulness, Connectedness

When we expose occupants to the systems that power their buildings, we help connect them to their built and natural surroundings. Reveal water, energy and transportation systems within structures and communities to provide living classrooms (that never close) for students of all ages. Don’t hide vital operational functions; show them, study them and celebrate them so that our children can discover how to improve upon them.

Pattern 7: Tamed Commercialism

Beauty, Joy, Biophilia

Children, like all of us, deserve to walk down the street without being barraged by advertising. Cities that cater first to children and prioritize nature over marketing will limit commercial signage that barks at residents about what they should buy, do and prefer. Choosing products and services will then emerge from a more organic decision-making process based on needs instead of manufactured wants.

Pattern 8: The Child and the Seat

Beauty, Safety, Playfulness, Health, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

Since children need and want to sit with greater frequency than other people, their cities must feature a variety of seating options. Such amenities will also serve the elderly, individuals with mobility challenges and anyone who chooses walking as a primary mode of transportation. Offer seating at multiple heights, similar to the way drinking fountains and even urinals are situated in many public spaces. Seating should be located frequently on every street.

Pattern 9: Biophilia and Unstructured Play

Beauty, Playfulness, Health, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia

Add plentiful opportunities for children and adults to interact with nature, even in the midst of urban settings. Design around fishponds, water features, fountains, climbing trees, sandboxes and anything else that allows citizens to expand on their relationships with the environment, particularly in spontaneous ways. This is one way to protect our children from what writer Richard Louv calls nature-deficit disorder. Children want to get dirty because it’s fun, and it’s good for them. Let’s show them we approve, and then we should join them.

Pattern 10: Access to Nature 

Beauty, Playfulness, Health, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

Nothing should stand between children and the natural world. Ensure that they have direct and ongoing access to non-design-based water, sunshine, trees and vistas wherever they live. Give them opportunities to visit the natural world, support their rights to nature and never let the built environment stand in the way.

Pattern 11: The Sense of Danger

Education, Resilience, Safety, Playfulness, Joy

We need to reintroduce elements of “safe danger” to our cities so our children learn how to test and master suitable boundaries. Give them balance beams, zip lines and climbing apparatus that offer them experiential knowledge of what they can and can’t do. Children are better able to distinguish between real and imagined danger when they’re occasionally allowed to fall.

Pattern 12: The Engineering Child

Education, Resilience, Playfulness, Connectedness

Give children opportunities to participate in their cities’ changing systems so that they can observe simple cause-and-effect dynamics. Let them serve as junior hydrologists by experimenting with how a waterway alters its course when dammed. Show them the modulations in a photovoltaic array’s energy draw on sunny versus rainy days. Enrich them with the option to take part in what’s happening around them.

Pattern 13: The Hunter-Gatherer

Education, Beauty, Resilience, Health, Joy, Biophilia

Surround children with edible landscapes so that their cities become agricultural classrooms. Start with urban farms, then extend the concept into all public spaces so that residents are able to pick and snack at any point during a stroll down the street. Plant only edible, non-toxic species, mixing fruits and berries with herbs and hardy plants that are native to the region.

Pattern 14: The Farmer

Education, Beauty, Resilience, Health, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia

Expanding on Pattern 12, involve children in local food production efforts. Public gardens, p-patches and other resources connect people to the food they eat while also connecting them to one another and enhancing community resilience. Providing children with farming-related roles and responsibilities gives them the gift of sustainability.

Pattern 15: Decentralized Amenities

Beauty, Playfulness, Health, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

Distribute child-friendly amenities throughout a city to ensure that all citizens have ready access to them. Sprinkle bike racks, sport courts, public art, water features, revealed systems and natural playgrounds throughout the community (and not just in concentrated mega-parks). This will keep citizens of all ages healthier, happier and more likely to spend their leisure time in the outdoors rather than in front of a computer screen. If amenities are centralized its more likely that children have to be driven to use them.

Pattern 16: Amenities at the Heart

Education, Beauty, Resilience, Connectedness, Accessibility

Consider placing key community resources at the center of the community. Schools, playgrounds, gardens and other amenities offering the most advantages to the greatest portion of the population should be located in the core, with less critical services and residential structures radiating outward. This pattern stands in contrast to Pattern 15, so planners must determine the ideal approach for each community and balance between a decentralized network with key amenities that are central.

Pattern 17: Non-Toxic World

Resilience, Safety, Health

Eliminate poisonous substances from the built environment that surrounds our children. Adhere to the requirements of the Living Building Challenge’s Materials Petal by using only Red List-approved supplies and substances for all community structures and infrastructure materials.

Pattern 18: Programs for Children

Education, Resilience, Joy, Connectedness

Curate activities and curriculum in schools and community centers that educate and inspire kids. These programs might be overseen by municipal parks and recreation departments and/or private non-profit organizations. Nest them with other initiatives designed to engage and support citizens of all ages as a way to bring the city’s youngest and oldest citizens closer together.

Pattern 19: Universal Children’s Design

Beauty, Safety, Playfulness, Joy, Connectedness, Accessibility

Expand on the concept of universal design, which caters primarily to the elderly and the physically challenged, by thinking first of how to adapt buildings and communities to children’s needs. Just as universal design benefits users of all abilities, universal children’s design makes things easier and more enjoyable for users of all ages.

Pattern 20: Sheltered Waiting Areas

Education, Beauty, Safety, Connectedness

Protect every generation by designing sheltered public waiting areas. Turn these structures into mini classrooms with interpretive historical information on the neighborhood, mini galleries with student art from nearby schools or mini communication centers where people can interact in writing.

Pattern 21: Public Drinking Fountains

Beauty, Safety, Playfulness, Health

Children love moving water, and everybody needs to stay hydrated. Offer this fun and healthy service throughout the city. Drinking fresh water is essential to health and reinforces appropriate hydration over drinks like soda.

Pattern 22: The Hill

Beauty, Playfulness, Health, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

Every child knows that there is something uniquely enjoyable and empowering about being on higher ground. Hills of any elevation offer endless opportunities to run, sled, roll, and take in more of the view. Reshape parks to create a modest hill in an otherwise flat region if necessary, but give people an opportunity to climb, toboggan or slide down.

Pattern 23: Swings for All Ages

Playfulness, Health, Joy, Connectedness

Swinging is intoxicating. Cities need places where everyone can experience such dizzying exhilaration, whether for stress relief, family togetherness or just for the sheer fun of it.

Pattern 24: Sound Parks

Education, Beauty, Playfulness, Joy, Biophilia

Help community members hear the music of nature by creating dedicated places where sound is celebrated and multiple senses are engaged. Imagine drums powered by fountains, wind chimes powered by the wind, or simply opportunities for musicians to regularly perform.

Pattern 25: Crazy Art

Education, Beauty, Playfulness, Joy, Connectedness

Install public art that starts by identifying place and continues by inspiring children to think beyond the ordinary. Instead of creating intersections merely with numbered roads, establish artistic navigational tools that support whimsy such as public clocks, colorful paintings and interactive sculptures.

Pattern 26: Patterned Sidewalks

Beauty, Playfulness, Health, Joy, Connectedness

Encourage childhood games in public places for all community members. Design beautiful patterns of hopscotch squares, sidewalk skipping lines and other modules into the walkways of the city. It will invite sport, encourage rhythmic activities and allow children to lead the way.

Pattern 27: Six-Story Max

Beauty, Resilience, Safety, Health, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

Places where children live should be limited in height to six stories. This will keep residents close enough to the earth to allow them to stay connected to the natural and human elements on the ground level. Even from the roof of a six-story building, children can still see and call to their friends who pass by on the sidewalk below and make out facial features, beyond that a distinct human connection is lost. A six-story building is also walkable, children can walk the stairs to the top floors or they can scurry down to join in a street-level activity. They are never far from anything that grows in the soil. And, crucially, all buildings can be net zero living buildings.

Pattern 28: House Size Mix

Beauty, Resilience, Connectedness, Accessibility

Any city celebrating children has to include a reasonable blend of house sizes and types. Plan a mix of residential structures that accommodates every resident and family grouping. Keep all larger ‘family’ style units as close to the ground as possible.

Pattern 29: Bedrooms to the Street

Education, Beauty, Resilience, Safety, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

Residential buildings must give children (and the adults who care for them) visual and physical access to the world outside their rooms. While this pattern is particularly important for urban apartments and multistory housing, it is important to consider in any living space. Children need a visual connection to the life of the street so that they can see people and nature in vibrant action. Design bedrooms with views of the street rather than internal courtyards.

Pattern 30: Courtyards for Reflection

Education, Beauty, Resilience, Safety, Joy, Connectedness, Biophilia, Accessibility

In the hustle and bustle of the city, it’s important to have places that are sanctuaries of quiet and personal reflection. Include frequent courtyards linked to public spaces that offer acoustical and visual privacy from the street.

Pattern 31: A Place for Dogs

Joy, Biophilia

Children need dogs! Create places in the city where dogs can safely run off leash. Dog parks bring communities alive. Install dog-walking infrastructure such as bag stations throughout the city and signs to keep pets on leash and safe.

Pattern 32: Small Egg Business

Education, Resilience, Joy, Biophilia

What better job than allowing children to raise chickens and collect and sell eggs? Ensure that local community bylaws allow for a small brood of chickens for each family and designate chicken spots within each development, even if on a rooftop.

Pattern 33: Ground Level Fountain

Education, Beauty, Joy, Biophilia, Accessibility

Having the ability to actually run through water is a sheer delight. Fountains should be active and invite you in rather than being off-limits for play. Design public fountains that are inviting and accessible, even for wheelchairs.

Pattern 34: Neighborhood Treehouse

Joy, Biophilia, Beauty, Playfulness

Every child loves a treehouse. It encourages sociability and activity, and allows for prospect over the neighborhood. Design safe and accessible treehouses into public parks and encourage private treehouses in developments.

Pattern 35: The West Sidewalk

Connectedness, Safety

We’ve all walked along those narrow sidewalks that don’t allow two people to walk side-by-side. Generous sidewalks create valuable urban space for childhood activities and games, compelling street furniture and spaces for trees. Sidewalks should be at least eight feet wide to be truly social.

Pattern 36: Bike Path Network 

Connectedness, Safety, Joy, Biophilia

Nothing worries parents more than their child being hit by a car, whether crossing the street or biking on the side of the road. A bike path network separate from the automobile system encourages biking and walking, and changes the pace and enjoyment of being outside. Establish a bike network that allows people to move through a community away from automobiles for long stretches.

Pattern 37: Short Blocks and Short Cuts


Long city blocks diminish the quality of experience of pedestrians especially people who have short strides like children. Designing short blocks or interrupting long blocks with bisecting pedestrian pathways allows for shortcuts and reduces distances to various destinations.

Pattern 38: Clock Tower

Connectedness, Education, Safety

Having a sense of time, even if not wearing a watch, is good for children to orient themselves relative to getting home at the right hour. Perhaps more importantly, creating a local icon that helps to identify a community and provide a place to meet is essential. Meeting ‘under the clock’ can be a great community identifier.

Pattern 39: Community Meeting Place

Connectedness, Education, Playfulness

A children’s center, community center or centralized structure where groups of children can meet for activities, birthdays and events helps to nurture a family-friendly environment. Include at least one classroom-sized building in each neighborhood that can be rented or signed out by the community. The community meeting place should have outdoor covered structures as well as an indoor climate controlled space for greater summertime use.

Pattern 40: Kid Food Vendors


Ice cream trucks, french fry vendors and other informal and mobile food concessions breathe life and periodic excitement into a neighborhood. Allow for and encourage street-side vendors to frequent neighborhood amenities and parks.

How to Use the Child-Centered Planning Tool

This tool is meant to stimulate thought and reflection when designing any piece of urban fabric. It’s not intended as a ‘checklist’, although it certainly can be used that way. It is more important to be thoughtful in how the various patterns can be used. Each community and place should feature a different mix and proportion of patterns. Intentionality is the key to child-centered planning.

Currently, the International Living Future Institute is involved in master planning the final phase of the UniverCity development at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby Mountain. Our team is using the Child-Centered Planning approach in the design in order to create a positive community for people of all ages. The plan illustrated above shows the master plan where over 1,000 units of housing are being planned as part of a mixed use urban village. Areas where we are integrating the patterns we’ve identified are clearly shown on the diagram. This community, that houses a childcare pursing the Living Building Challenge, will be a pioneering model of a new way to approach community design. 

We surround our children with love and do everything we can to protect them from harm. But we tend to dismiss them when we plan the communities where they live, which makes no sense. It’s time to nurture our cities the way we nurture our children. Following a pattern language catering to little ones will yield significant long-range benefits for everyone. Children-centered cities will be more enriching, stimulating, educational, secure, resilient and sustainable. And they will be more likely to remain thriving cities when our grandchildren–and theirs–need places to call home.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.