By 2050, it is estimated that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. In the UK, this figure is expected to be closer to 90%. This demographic shift, along with population growth in general, means that more children than ever are growing up in urban environments.
This has a number of implications for the town planning system. Creating a ‘child-friendly’ environment requires much more than just ensuring there are enough parks and play spaces.
As well as having a fundamental human right to participate in decisions that affect them, there are clear links between children’s health, wellbeing and development and the quality of their surrounding environment. Particular areas of influence include:
- housing quality
- road safety
- the walkability of an area
- opportunities for cycling
- play facilities
- access to greenspace
- local amenities such as libraries and community/leisure centres
- environmental pollution
- community safety/fear of crime
- access to healthy food choices
One key way to address this is to involve children in the planning process. As well as helping to create safer, more suitable environments for children to grow up in, involving children in decisions about their local areas has a number of additional benefits. It helps to build social capital, helps children to form a bond with their home city, and fosters a feeling that they can help to make a change in the world they live in. For planners, involving children can help to provide them with a new perspective on how children use their environments, and highlights issues that adults may not recognise or fully understand – potentially leading to improved design.
Research published in 2011 found that children’s voices had been “notably absent from UK planning and regeneration policies throughout the past two decades”. Children’s participation in planning tended to be focused on services that were designed ‘for them’ rather than ‘with them’, and little attention was given to children’s roles in the wider regeneration agenda.
However, there are some examples of successful involvement. Methods that have been used successfully range from formal mechanisms such as youth councils, child-led surveys and data collection, to informal ones such as photography, computer-aided mapping, model building and role-play. Dr Jenny Wood reports that she had success with a delightfully low-tech method, where children were asked to annotate A3 OS maps with a range of stickers, post-it notes and pens, to highlight their likes, dislikes, routes to school and any other information they felt was important about their local area.
At the other end of the scale, some particularly innovative examples capitalise on recent technological advances. These include the use of mobile phone apps to make traffic reports (see Case Study 1 below), the use of Minecraft (see Case Study 2 below), mapping their local area (Children’s Tracks in Norway) and the use of the SoftGIS methodology in Finland.
Case Study: Traffic Agent, Norway
A new app-based initiative in Oslo, ‘Traffic Agent’, directly involves children in transport planning. It enables children to provide direct feedback on road safety, based on their own experiences. The app makes use of ‘gamification’ whereby users act as “secret agents” for the city, sending immediate reports on their route to school when they come across, for example, a difficult crossing on the street or an area of heavy traffic.
The project lead, Vibeke Rørholt, illustrates its impact: “I received a telephone call from the mother of a little boy who had reported some bushes that meant he couldn’t see when he was crossing the street. And two days later the bushes were cut. She phoned in saying he’s so happy that he could make this happen.”
Case study: Blockbuilders, England
Blockbuilders is an innovative method of involving communities, and children and young people in particular, in the town planning system.
Using the hugely popular game, Minecraft, the Blockbuilders team create a 3D representation of a local area. The model is then used as the basis for consultation with the wider community, and can be interacted with and played with to enable communities to help design and shape their local areas. Projects have included the development of Lewes Neighbourhood Plan, the development of a family-friendly park by Brighton and Hove City Council, and an interactive map of Brighton and Hove.
Common success factors for children’s effective participation
There is no one definition of ‘good’ or ‘effective’ participation practice – the most suitable method depends on the age of participants and the nature of the decision that they are being involved in. However, in their review of children and young people’s participation, the Ecorys project identified a number of common ‘success factors’ for children’s effective participation in planning and regeneration. These include:
- Official recognition of children’s fundamental rights
- Partnership working, e.g. planners, local government, academics, NGOs, community organisations and residents
- Involving adults with knowledge and experience of young people’s participation
- Utilising a range of diverse participation mechanisms
- Understanding participation as a ‘whole’ process of learning and change
- Openness and reciprocal learning between children and adults
- An incremental and realistic approach to goal setting and developing trust/confidence
- Visibility in the results
- Embedding at different levels and spatial scales
Despite the compelling arguments in favour of children’s participation in the planning system, a number of barriers exist.
There is a general lack of awareness of the purpose, benefits or skills required for facilitating young participation among planners. Children are often viewed as being incapable of engaging in a meaningful way, despite research concluding otherwise.
Children’s participation in planning is frequently still viewed as ‘special’, rather than as part of general community engagement processes. It tends to be focused specifically on children’s services, rather than the wider range of universal services, and takes the form of consultation, rather than proper involvement in every phase of the decision making process.
A number of political and structural barriers also limit children’s potential influence – such as competing interests within the planning system and the short timescales often required for decisions. This can mean that even when the intentions are there, planners themselves may have limited time or influence over the decision making process.
However, these challenges are not insurmountable. As we have seen, through its influence on the design of the urban environment, the town planning system has a huge impact upon the wellbeing and development of children. By involving children in the design of their local environment, it can help create environments that support children to reach their fullest potential.
Children who are involved and interested in their local environment will hopefully grow up to become adults who are involved and interested in their local environment. The town planning system is in a unique position to help facilitate this. And as Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia has said:
“If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people”.
Keen to make your city more child-friendly? Next month we look at the characteristics of child-friendly urban design.