Foto: Bycicle Heroes

It seems like an adult conversation when we talk about bicycles and the many bicycle lanes in the city (those already made and those yet to be made). When we want to discuss Lisbon’s sustainable future, with fewer emissions. But the little ones are not in the conversation only because they are not called to it.

Many of them also use bicycles daily, to go to school or to hang out with friends. They know, like their elders, that learning to ride a bike is not the biggest challenge. Riding in the city streets, competing with the public space designed for cars, that is the real chalenge.

And, after all, the children are tomorrow citizens. So why not start bringing them into the discussion?

This time, they are the ones who got a seat at the table.

There is an international project that wants to give a voice to children in European cities and challenge them to think of improvements for more cycle-friendly towns. Make them active and participatory citizens in the place where they live.

Bicycle Heroes” is organized by BYCS, an Amsterdam-based NGO whose motto is “bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world”. This is supported by the European Union and the EIT (European Institute of Innovation & Technology), a body that promotes mobility issues in Europe.

Every year, a certain project in a European cities is elected to collect ideas from youngsters, to work closely with them, and to create a Children’s Council for soft mobility.

Liliana Madureira, from APSI, is one of the coordinators for the implementation of the international project in Portugal. Photo: Rita Ansone

This year, Lisbon, Rome, and Dublin were the chosen ones. Liliana Madureira, from Associação Para a Promoção da Segurança (Association for the Promotion of Child Safety – APSI) – one of the promoters of the idea in Portugal, along with the Bicicultura cooperative – believes that the choice is due to Portugal’s greater visibility on the international stage when it comes to mobility issues.

The pandemic also changed habits: community movements like CicloExpresso emerged, “but it also made people live more in the so-called ’15-minute city’, walk and bike around their neighborhoods more, and become more aware of their mobility.

Then, Lisbon’s election was “reinforced by the presence of our bicycle mayor Ana Pereira among these international partners,” says Liliana.

Everything contributed to having the eyes of the world on Lisbon.

The children were called to the negotiating table for the future of the city. Photo: Rita Ansone

Bicycles: after all, what do children want?

They already use bicycles, more or less frequently. And they share the cities of Lisbon or Amadora as addresses. Amadora is a neighboring municipality that the entities promoting the project in Portugal decided to include, given the several active community initiatives for child mobility.

In Amadora, they looked for a primary school with an active mobility project – Escola Básica Maria Irene Lopes de Azevedo. In Lisbon, they went to the public space: they took advantage of Kidical Mass, already a children’s meeting, too, in the end, with snacks, make the little ones fill out forms and even draw in color the cycling city they wanted.

In all, in Lisbon and Amadora, 60 to 80 children are participating.

Most of them talk about more and better bike lanes, “because they are used to the adults’ talk”, but they are “more creative than that”:

“Having designs on a bike lane [with an urban artwork implemented]”

“Making YouTube videos explaining to friends and adults what it’s like to ride a bike in the city”

“Special rain bikes, with umbrellas”

“Bike parking outside the school”

“It is essential to listen to the children as a matter of empowerment. If they get used to looking at the public space critically, we are making them want to improve the city of tomorrow. They won’t be passive,” reminds Liliana.

And they may even become our mayors.

Besides, she says, “they are not as conditioned as adults, who are used to hearing about these issues, already full of prejudices in their minds. They come with ideas so simple that “we don’t even think about them”.

The creation of a national kids’ council – with the help of adults
The Bicycle Heroes methodology is based on three phases, developed throughout the year, and adapted to each country’s reality. In Portugal, it was implemented this way:

  • In the first phase, last May, while celebrating Children’s Day and World Play Day, but also as schools were beginning to close the school year, a “brainstorming session” was organized, nothing less than a brainstorming of proposals. Several children could say what changes they would like to see in the public space. An online contest of ideas was opened, and face-to-face sessions were held in schools and public places in the city to talk face-to-face with the little creatives.
  • In the second phase, between September and October, with the start of the school year and European Mobility Week, the mission was to give visibility to the ideas that arrived. The European Mobility Week celebration and its activities were used as an opportunity to circulate an exhibitor on a bicycle with some of the ideas developed by the youngsters – and a QR Code, in case people wanted to know more about these proposals.
  • In a third and final phase, to be launched in November, a children’s council will be created, which will also include invited representitives of Portuguese institutions. In the first weeks of November, together, the children will tread a path without their elders getting in the way, to discuss the ideas they have for the city. All so that on November 20, when the International Convention on the Rights of the Child is celebrated, they can talk about these proposals to their elders and, together, kids and adults, debate them at a round table.

“This last moment will serve, mainly, for them to understand the limitations of each side, what is possible or not, what is necessary or not,” explains Liliana Madureira.

And after the debate?

Then it’s whatever each city wants to do with it. “This is just a catalyst: each country can let the idea die here or do whatever from here. I hope that in Lisbon this becomes cyclical, to empower the community more on these issues. This idea is important, to have the children with us – now we have to try to make it financially sustainable.

The Portuguese municipalities that strive to be “City of Children”

How do we make a city child-friendly? Creating areas for them to play and get around safely, on foot, or by bicycle can be the first step. Removing cars near schools is another. And we already know how the gates become parking lots in the morning when parents take their children to school.

Lisbon is making its way: it recently became one of the European cities to join the “street of schools” project(or “rue aux écoles”). It is a concept allied to the “15-minute city” of Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno, advisor to Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris.

Lisbon’s participation in this urban internationalized “street of schools” project has been approved by the Lisbon City Council, on the recommendation of the independent members of the Cidadãos por Lisboa, Miguel Graça and Daniela Serralha. They are asking for nothing less than for the Lisbon City Council to analyze the possibility of pedestrianizing some streets around certain schools.

And there are already some in the city who are making this a definitive measure.

Jardim-Escola João de Deus dos Olivais, for example, began closing the surrounding space every Wednesday last year. This was part of the municipal initiative Mexe-te Pela Tua Cidade. This year, the street has closed permanently.

The D. Filipa de Lencastre School Grouping, in the Arco do Cego neighborhood, also became a pioneer in the city by deciding to close the streets around the school every Tuesday.

Images of a protest near the Maria Barroso Elementary School, in downtown Lisbon, against the lack of road safety.Photo: RD

But when the topic is school and child mobility, Paris and Barcelona have recently become two of the most innovative international cases. In the French capital, 168 streets have already been closed to traffic and transformed into “rue aux écoles”, completely pedestrianized. A change that includes 204 schools, located in 18 districts of the city of Paris. In the Catalan city, 88 schools are now pedestrianized, although the municipality plans to reach 175 schools by the end of the year.

It all culminates in the idea of cities designed for children. And abroad, the concept is not new.

For decades Francesco Tonucci, an Italian educator and author of the book “The Children’s City” – “La Città dei Bambini” – has argued that building one may even be a utopia, but there is a way to achieve it and it must be pursued. The idea has spread around the world, starting in Rome, and has generated a network of hundreds of cities interested in joining the ideals of a city designed for their children.

But last year, Valongo, a municipality in Porto district, became the first Portuguese municipality to officially join this network that aims to involve the little ones in the decisions about the territory.

The experiment was called “Valongo 4.0” and was scheduled to begin in September of last year, with the creation of a Children’s Council, for which children aged nine or ten, residents of the municipality, are drawn to debate a revision of the Municipal Master Plan. What the Mayor of Valongo called a “community laboratory”.

José Manuel Ribeiro said, at the time, that the budget for the initiative had not yet been defined, waiting for what would come out of this discussion among children. But he assumed that the path should go through what Lisbon is already experimenting with on a micro and isolated level with Brincapé: closing streets to give them back to the children.

The Brincapé project has closed city streets so that, for a few hours, they can be the children’s playground. Photo: Rita Ansone

Further, down Portugal’s map, Coimbra is also home to a methodology for including children more in the city and bringing them outdoors. It’s called “Limites Invísiveis“, takes place in Mata do Choupal, and is a project that aims to stimulate contact with nature, come hell or high water – just like in the Nordic countries.

In operation since 2015, they work with children from three to ten years old to provide them with immediate and long-term well-being, with benefits in their social, emotional, cognitive, and motor skills.

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