Adultism in Architecture. Are Children Being Discriminated Against by our Urban Surroundings?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014
20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of content



Can Architecture Discriminate?

Man Is The Measure Of All Things


Inside Private Homes And Public Buildings

Berlin Building Code

“Barrierefreies Bauen“

Emergency Planing





This paper will present the idea that adultism, the discrimination against children in society, can be exhibited in a physical nature as well as a mental nature. When we look closely at our buildings and our urban surroundings, we discover for whom they were designed, and more importantly, for whom they were not designed. Not only does this tell us a lot about the distribution of power in society but also how we have accepted this order of things. The standard against which we have historically measured all things, has been healthy, male adults. The result of this order is not only that its makes the lives of the affected individuals, in this case the children, less convenient and comfortable, but it also can lead to very dramatic outcomes, when for example the emergency planning of buildings only takes adults into consideration.


Adultism is the discrimination on the basis of age, size, and maturity of children in comparison to adults. As John Bell notes in his paper: Understanding Adultism: A Key to Developing Positive Youth-Adult Relationships:

The essence of adultism is disrespect of the young. Our society, for the most part, considers young people to be less important than and inferior to adults. It does not take young people seriously and does not include them as decision makers in the broader life of their communities.“ (Bell, J 1995)

The focus in scholarly literature is mostly on children’s mental abilities and their appearance, and how these have been used to discriminate against children in our society.

Adultism is not a widely understood or accepted concept. By focusing on architecture and our urban surroundings, one can get an idea of what physical discrimination against children looks like and can reflect on this often overlooked phenomenon.

In this paper, I will have a look at what architecture and our urban surroundings can show us about who children are and how they are seen in our culture, as well as most importantly by whom and for whom urban infrastructure was built. I will look at the role of children in the outside and the indoor context and also examine if children’s rights are reflected in German building laws, by looking in the Berliner Building Code.

Later on I would like to compare the building accomplishments for disabled person to those of children and try to understand why they are so different.

At last, by looking at the subject of children in emergency planning, we can see that the discrimination against children in architecture is not just a means of discomfort of disrespect, it can also very well have life-threatening consequences.

Can Architecture Discriminate?

Architecture is probably the art form which influences our lives the most; it surrounds us day and night. In contemporary society, one must go a long way to ”escape” its impact. Most people do not even realize how architecture manipulates our feelings and thoughts. A good example of this is gothic cathedrals, which were built with the intention of humans feeling small and insignificant in the house of God, since it was designed for the Lord himself. This can be found in many cultures all over the world, not just for religious purposes, but mainly to demonstrate one thing: power.

Even though times have changed and with them, symbols of power, architecturally, these symbols still exist and can show us who is in control and therefore who sets the rules. As the German architecture critic Alexander Mitscherlich puts it in his book: Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer St ä dte- Anstiftung zum Unfrieden:

”Der Anthropologe kommt aus der Verwunderung darüber nicht heraus, daß die merkantile Planung unserer Städte offenbar nur für einen Alterstypus […] geschieht, und zwar für den erwerbsfähigen [autofahrenden, Barz] Erwachsenen. Wie das Kind zu einem solchem wird, scheint ein zu vernachlässigender Faktor.“ (Mitscherlich 1972:91-92)

Even though more than forty years have passed since this text was published, if anything its relevance in contemporary society has only increased.

Space is the ultimate sign of power. In other words, power can be measured by the amount of space a person occupies, or controls. When we look at our environment closely we can see who has power and who does not. The outside world belongs to adult, male, healthy car drivers because they are the individuals with the most power in our society. Most other members of society have fought battles to gain access this power, but since children are arguably the least powerful group in society, they occupy and have influence on the smallest portion of the outside world.

But can architecture as a subject discriminate?

Sure, our cities and houses are only piles of different materials and have of course no mind of their own. They reflect the views of the planner and for whom these buildings and surroundings were built. These are almost without exception, as Mitscherlich puts it, the employed adults with cars (I would add: healthy, average height men without attachments like heavy suitcases or bicycles, to this description).

Even women have been underrepresented in architecture until today. Why, for example, is there always a line in front of the women’s restroom, whereas men generally do not have such a wait? Why were more women’s toilets not simply built?.

These circumstances becomes more and more severe, the smaller (or less powerful) the group of people becomes.

Disabled associations have been fighting for decades against architectural discrimination and easier access to society, and they have come a long way.

Laws are in place and our surroundings have become more and more open and approachable to many people with different disabilities. Although there is still a lot to do, one can see as an improvement over the last hundred years. I will have a closer look at these improvements later on.

But what about the children? What has changed for them? Indeed, a lot has changed over the last decades and centuries. But instead of trying to integrate them into society like other minority groups, childhood, in many aspects of Western countries, has become more and more institutionalized and separated from the rest of society.

”Die Handlungsräume dieser Altersgruppe [der Kinder, Jens] werden im wachsendem Maße und auf qualitativ neuartige Weise eingegrenzt. Die Lebenswelt der Kinder wird in geschützte Räume hinein verlagert; gegenüber der natürlichen Umwelt versiegelt; von den Handlungsorten anderer Altersgruppen abgegrenzt.“ (Zinnecker, J. 1990:142)

And these spaces for children are very limited. Aside from their homes, children generally only access kindergartens, schools, playgrounds and maybe sports clubs. If they move between these „islands“, they almost always, at least when they are younger, have to be dependent on adults:

”Aufgrund der stadträumlichen Situation sind unsere Kinder heute nicht mehr in der Lage sich ihre Umwelt selbst anzueignen, sondern sie sind auf ihre Eltern angewiesen, die sie dann im Auto hin-und herfahren. Dass ist für viele Kinder immer noch die sicherste Art und Weise z.B. auf den Kinderspielplatz zu gelangen.“ (Barz 2008:11)

There are even places in the city which are prohibited for children, for reasons of their own safety or innocence. This it not the case (anymore) for any other group in society and probably would cause in outcry if this were the case for any other minority group in society.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1 Age-limitation at a German pub. (Hamburg, 2014)

German sociologists Helmut and Helga Zeiher describe in their book, „Orte und Zeiten für Kinder“, what this ‚Verinselungen der Lebenwelten‘ looks like and what impact it has on how children grow up in large cites in Germany:

”Wo Kinder in der räumlichen Welt Platz finden, zeigt konkret, was für einen Platz die Gesellschaft ihnen zuweist. […] Die abgetrennten Orte der Kinder zeigen aber auch Trennungen innerhalb des Kindern vorbehaltenen Teils der Welt an. Wenn Lernen im Schulhaus, Betreuung im Kindergarten und Spielen im Kinderzimmer und auf dem Spielplatz stattfindet, so sind das auch konkrete Erscheinungen der gesellschaftlichen Arbeitsteilung im Umgang mit Kindern.“ (Zeiher/Zeiher 1994:17)

It is evident that a dependent relationship has been established, which was created by adults. Its starts, as mentioned, with the childrens’ incapability to go to places without supervision, (even public bathrooms, because they are not designed for anyone but adults) and can even have tragic consequences, as the emergency planning of buildings most often only considers adults.

The majority of people do not recognize architectural discrimination as a problem, and thus almost no measures have been taken to change this. Our everyday environment is designed by adults for adults.

Children themselves often do not even realize that they have to put significantly more effort in going places and reaching things, or that they need so much support from adults, because it has been like this their entire lives. Every one of us adults has experienced this form of discrimination first hand, yet most do not interpret it as a problem, but rather a simple reality of being a child.

In 1900, Ellen Key published the book The Century of the Child, in which she called childhood and children as almost otherworldly beings which can do no wrong: “Die Zeit wird kommen, in der das Kind als heilig angesehen werden wird”, (Key 1903: 42) and she prophesied that the 20th century would be the century of the child. Indeed, if we have a look at our environment and especially the buildings in our surroundings, one can get the impression that Key was right. Everywhere we look are playgrounds, schools and kindergartens being built; urban centers have never before showed so much spatial evidence that children were a part of the community. But when we have a closer look, we realize that even though children were given their own spaces, they had to compromise, by being ostracized from other societal spaces. In many ways, children have become a lesser part of the community; they are viewed differently and have slowly become separated from other social groups. Jeroen J.H. Dekker disagrees with Key, and instead of calling the 20th century ”the century of the child“ Dekker calls it, ”the child-oriented century“. Children were not all of a sudden given more freedom, and therefore it was not ’their’ century, but the focus on children nevertheless increased (Dekker 2000:134-135). Although focus on children increased in the 20th century, I would argue that have no noteworthy space of their own anymore. In some urban areas, one can see almost as many adults as children on playgrounds. Some ”child-designated“ spaces are even being controlled by adults:

”In Zonen zergliedert und von den Eltern, die die Spielgefährten ersetzt haben überwacht.“ (Thiemann 1988:31)


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Adultism in Architecture. Are Children Being Discriminated Against by our Urban Surroundings?
Free University of Berlin  (Erziehungswissenschaften und Psychologie)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Adultism, Architecture, Children's Right's, Discrimination
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Anna Jens (Author), 2014, Adultism in Architecture. Are Children Being Discriminated Against by our Urban Surroundings?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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