Through the eyes of a child

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Reportage

Through the eyes of a child

Stray dogs, muddy paths and dangerous crossings are just some of the challenges Ukrainian children face on their way to school. Now those living in the city of Zhytomyr have a safer journey – and the entire community is thinking about mobility.

Text
: Eugenia Kusnezowa
Photos
: Maria Warenikowa

The sun has just come up, but the day remains grey and gloomy. Fields of wheat rustle in the wind beside the unpaved road, which is overgrown with weeds. Valeria, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, is walking along hand-inhand with her younger brother Nikita. They take this route to school every day – roughly three kilometres there and three kilometres back. But next year, once Valeria has left school, Nikita will have to make his own way across fields, narrow bridges and busy roads. ‘In winter, it’s already getting dark by the time we set off for home,’ says Valeria. ‘It’s cold, and a bit scary sometimes.’ There are no school buses in this part of Ukraine.

Valeria and Nikita live in Veresy, a village in central Ukraine that has now been absorbed into the municipality of Zhytomyr as part of the municipal reform process. Their secondary school is on a busy road on the outskirts of the city. It is one of four local schools taking part in Get to School Sustainably, a project being implemented by GIZ as part of the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI). The German Development Ministry is one of the partners supporting TUMI to boost sustainable urban mobility and mitigate climate change.

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Ukraine School Mobility

Valeria and her brother Nikita on their way to school: they and many other children and young people in Zhytomyr have shown planners where changes were needed on the roads.

TUMI ran competitions for a pilot project, and Zhytomyr is one of 20 cities in total around the world that were selected to take part. Once it received the funding, the Ukrainian municipality immediately set to work on a mobility plan for the selected schools. School principal Olena Kulinitsch says, ‘I think it is important to involve everyone in dialogue. This was the first time we had been invited to a discussion of this kind as partners.’ Schoolchildren and their teachers discussed the problems and worked with engineers and local authorities to plan improvements. It was a radical change in the usual pattern of communications in Zhytomyr.

Those involved worked together to set up local mobility committees and walked to the four pilot schools, which are spread across the city. They were keen to assess for themselves the difficulties children faced and to use them as the basis for setting the project’s priorities. One mobility committee, for example, immediately got the local animal protection organisation involved to tackle the stray dogs that barked at children on their way to school. It was the first time this issue had ever been highlighted.

The project emphasises the importance of seeing safety issues through the eyes of a child. Experts followed the children to find out what worried them most as they made their way to school. And there were some quite surprising findings: the adults were sometimes unable to see a problem, but the children showed them how unpleasant or even dangerous it felt to walk or cycle. Guided by the children’s insights, the mobility committees identified dangerous junctions, located sites where speed bumps could be installed to reduce traffic speed, and categorised the most problematic spots on the school routes. ‘TUMI is encouraging us to develop an overall mobility strategy,’ says Deputy Mayor Svitlana Olshanska. ‘We want a comprehensive strategy, not just solutions to specific problems.’ Some minor changes were made immediately, such as making crossings safer and removing obstructive trees. Other measures will take longer, though – and will require investment.

The city’s mobility committees listened to school pupils to identify particularly dangerous spots.

The city’s mobility committees listened to school pupils to identify particularly dangerous spots.

Mobilizing for climate change

Sustainable urban development is crucial to meeting the Paris climate targets. Following the UN Habitat III conference in 2016, BMZ therefore launched an initiative in the area of sustainable urban mobility and climate change mitigation – the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI). Working with eight international partner institutions (development banks, think tanks, NGOs and urban networks such as C40 Cities), GIZ and KfW support towns and cities in developing countries and emerging economies in designing sustainable transport systems. TUMI also involves other experts from universities (including Harvard, University College London and the London School of Economics), development banks (including the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank), private companies and foundations. Almost 3,000 experts and managers have already received training in the areas of mobility and urban planning, and support has been provided to 20 innovative projects in 17 countries. And more than EUR 2 billion has been invested in building sustainable transport infrastructure and mobility services.

Contact: Daniel Ernesto Moser, daniel.moser@giz.de

‘Cycle paths would be cool.’

The children also helped the planners identify the best places for speed restrictions, speed bumps and digital speed displays. These ‘smiley face’ signs, which display drivers’ speed accompanied by an appropriate facial expression, are something entirely new for Zhytomyr. Two have so far been installed near schools. And by the time the project is completed in 2021, there will be new pavements, further improvement to crossings, and more speed control measures.

The majority of children used to walk to school. Despite having bicycles at home, most of the children are unable to use them because cycling is too dangerous. Some do take to two wheels, though: Vitja is a pupil from Veresy and says, ‘It takes me 40 minutes to walk to school but just 20 minutes by bike. Cycle paths would be cool.’ Vitja is lucky – his mother works at the school he attends, and they usually cycle there together. Otherwise, things would be very difficult for him. There are still a number of stray dogs along the route, and the road is unpaved and freezes over in winter. In any case, it’s better to cycle with someone else.

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Cycling infrastructure is one of the project’s main priorities, because cycling is a good option in such a relatively small city as Zhytomyr – and it’s sustainable. Previously, children who cycled to school had nowhere to park their bikes and so had to leave them outside nearby shops or simply on the street. The pilot schools have since had bike racks installed on their premises, and this has increased the number of children who cycle to school. In fact, twice as many students now do so – and they have already requested yet more covered cycle racks.

The children are also learning how to be more visible and cycle safely in traffic and at junctions. Dozens of voluntary helpers have been involved in running training at all of the project’s pilot schools. Irina Shuravska, a teacher at School No. 36, says, ‘I found it so inspiring, I rode to school myself. That’s nine kilometres!’ Further investment in cycling infrastructure is needed, but the city’s road improvement plan now also includes new cycle paths and safe pavements.

Uncontrolled growth of towns and cities means municipalities need a lot of expert input to make transport planning sustainable.

Daniel Ernesto Moser
Management Head of the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI).

Citizens are actively involved

‘What’s great is that the children pass on what they learn to their parents,’ says police officer Tetyana Kryvenko, who helped train boys and girls at one of the pilot schools. ‘Many of them have asked their parents for high-vis jackets, for example.’

But the project is not just about improving infrastructure. Another focus is on attitudes – and that includes everyone involved. It is important that the children learn and understand how to behave more safely, which is why it is also crucial that they are involved in mobility planning. At the same time, infrastructure needs to be adapted so that responsibility for their safety does not rest entirely on the children’s shoulders. Meanwhile, parents and school staff realise that they have a right to be involved in local infrastructure planning. And local authorities have seen citizens become more actively involved and be keen to help redesign public space: since information about the project was posted on social media, the mobility committees have submitted more than 50 enquiries and requests.

The crossing near the school that Valeria and Nikita attend has already been rebuilt, and improved speed restrictions are now in place. In a year’s time, when Nikita will be going to school on his own, there will be speed bumps and more traffic signs, too. ‘Our route to school is becoming safer. After all, the roads shouldn’t just be for cars,’ says Valeria.

Sustainable Development Goals