The Children and the city
The bond between the children and the city, in its most physical aspect, causes a series of important considerations associated with the topic of citizenship and participation.
The most basic consideration is related to the fact, sometimes forgotten, that children use the city (the places assigned to them, but also others), and for this reason they are influenced by it: in their behavior, in their activities, in the relationships that they establish and in their personal development. In this sense, the city is a learning and socialization environment, that is, an environment where human capital and social capital are built. Because of this, more attention is being paid to the characteristics that a city should have in order to be considered “child-friendly”, that is to say, a place which meets the conditions to embrace and foster children and their development, such as security, adventure, autonomy, accessibility, diversity (of people and places), green areas, socialization, cohabitation, essential services, family relationships, community identity, institutional support structures and the possibility of participation (Driskell, 2002; UNICEF, 2004a).
Moreover, an observation of what happens in cities, mainly in the Western world, leads to a second important consideration for the need to involve children as part of the city: the fact that children and young people are increasingly invisible. This phenomenon occurs due to a growing confinement of children in “their own spaces” (homes, schools, parks) considering that the movement from one place to another is done in a controlled and protected way (by private cars or buses). This decreases significantly the chances of experiencing the city in its different spaces, spontaneously, as well as interacting directly with people who are not among their usual relationships, especially from other generations (Tonucci & Risotto, 2001; Torres, 2010), but also from their own. The consequence of this “invisibility” is the weakening of the bond between young people and their local community and, therefore, the weakening of the sense of citizenship, since it is based on the existence of bonds between the person and the community where they live. In this context, bringing children and young people closer to public space and letting them participate in community affairs (including its planning) can play a fundamental role in the recovery of this weakened bond.
The territory plays an irreplaceable role as “way in” to the increase of children’s participation in the community. That role results from its concrete, multi-sensory and close nature, which is experienced daily, and therefore it is easier for young people to grasp the matters related to it (Hart, 1997; Driskell, 2002).
The results of different projects and practical experiences have proved the main benefits of children’s participation in the processes of organization and improvement of urban areas. These benefits are divided into two categories: benefits for the process and psychosocial benefits (Checkoway et al, 1995).
- The benefits for the planning processes include: the integration of new and more creative perspectives, the specific know-how in some areas, approaches that are independent to dominant forces (especially economic ones), the possibility of giving a better answer to the needs of a large social group, the guarantee of more practical approaches and proposals, the possibility of passing the enthusiasm of participation to other adult figures, a further opening to the use of technology, and the positive effects in the quality of participation in for the short and long term (through acquired experience).
- As for the psychosocial benefits, they are seen in the children, the community and the organization/institution which encourages participation.Such benefits include reinforcing their self-esteem and identity, developing civic responsibility and social competence, enhancing their confidence in their own abilities, raising their spirits, gaining local knowledge, and developing practical competences related to planification (design or communication, for instance) or organization (Hart, 1997; Driskell, 2002). The benefits to the community are not limited to the aspects that can have an impact on social capital building and on the reinforcement of the sense of community and common territory. In fact, they also include adult’s better understanding of children and the acquisition of social competences by all the parties involved (Driskell, 2002). Local authorities, through their technical and political agents, are benefitted in many ways: they acquire a better understanding of the needs and issues of their communities, they reach better and highly justified decisions on planification, they have the possibility of “teaching” citizens about the complexities of decision-making processes in terms of territory development, they have the chance to implement the guidelines and the spirit of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, 2004), they can include children in the efforts to implement models of sustainable development, and they can encourage the creation of more humane and friendlier environments for children (Driskell, 2002). In addition, there are also positive potential impacts on the political sphere in the medium and long term.
From intention to action
The concrete actions to be taken largely depend on political will and technical collaboration. They can also include undertaking initiatives that encourage thinking about the city in terms of children (as it is the case with the project “Child Friendly Cities”), such as the allocation of financial and human resources, opening places of consultation (with areas for children), holding workshops for children at schools, reinforcing the use of participative platforms and social media, building partnership with youth associations, among others.
Within the sociocultural sphere, it is more difficult and it takes more time to introduce changes. There are two ways of contributing to a gradual change in mentality: organising participative events successively (which consolidate a culture of participation) and training the adult and child actors (which builds human and social capital). Apart from encompassing the aspects of relationships and education for participation, this training also needs to have a “technical” component, which is different in each type of actor: the adults lack knowledge on how to deal with children and teenagers, and the processes, structures and tools which are useful to include them, and the children are benefited if they know the issues and “problematics” related to the territory (which can be promoted at schools, for instance).
Now is the time
It is imperative, in terms of education and society, to bring the children back to the streets of our cities. Without (re)establishing a bond between the children and the city, we cannot think of a strong and sensible citizenship in the present and in the future. This bond is built in every adventure, in every experience, in every fascinating occasion. This is what we, as adults, must provide.
Checkoway, B. et al (1995). Youth participation in community planning: What are the benefits?. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 14(2), 134-139.
Driskell, D. (2002). Creating better cities with children and youth: A manual for participation. Londons: UNESCO/Earthscan
Hart, R. A. (1997). Children’s participation: the theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care. Londons: Earthscan.
Tonucci, F. & Rissotto, A. (2001). Why do we need children’s participation? The importance of children’s participation in changing the city. Journal of community & applied social psychology, 11(6), 407-419.
Torres, J. (2010). Children & Cities: Planning to Grow Together. Vanier Institute of the Family. Ontario. Available in: http://www.childcharter.alberta.ca/files/documents/children_and_cities.pdf
UNICEF (2004). A Convenção sobre os Direitos da Criança. UNICEF Portugal.
UNICEF (2004a) Building child-friendly cities – a framework for action. Florence, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre
João Armando Gonçalves is a professor at the Superior Engineering Institute of Coimbra, being director of the degree in Sustainable Management of Cities. He holds a PhD in Spatial Planning and Environment (2015) with a thesis on the involvement of young people in the planning and management of the territory. He was an advisor for urbanism at the Municipality of Figueira da Foz and a non-executive councilor of the same municipality between 2009 and 2017.
He has a long history of involvement in non-formal education as a volunteer, having chaired the World Scout Movement Organization, the largest youth education movement in the world that serves 50 million members.