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When we plan cities with children, everyone benefits


3 March 2020

Humanitarian community participation specialist Robyn Mansfield believes that as the future custodians of the cities we are planning today, children should be part of the planning process.

Currently a PhD researcher on RISE, Robyn is finding ways to make them heard.

Having worked in a range of disciplines and global contexts over the last 23 years – from refugee camps in Gaza, to township upgrades in Australia, sustainable urban planning in Peru and environmental development in Sri Lanka – I keep coming across a recurring theme: when it comes to planning communities and cities, we are not listening to children.

Urban planning as serious, adult business

As energetic, playful young people, sometimes we ask children to be involved in planning playgrounds. But often this is where our desire to hear from them stops, as this is where the value of their contributions is perceived to end.

Building infrastructure, especially in the wake of disasters, is often seen as the domain of adults. From 2005, I watched as international NGOs, pro-bono businesses and support groups flooded in to Sri Lanka to help in the rebuilding efforts after the devastating tsunami. But as well-meaning outside building and reconstruction took over, I saw local efforts and culture sidelined, and the loss of empowerment of people and children to reconstruct their own spaces.

Many women became isolated from their communities, children were excluded from the rebuilding process entirely, and an opportunity for people to see themselves reflected in their new built environment was lost. Having lived and worked in Sri Lanka for several years prior to the tsunami, I felt the very identity that distinguished Sri Lanka was rapidly eroding.

Students teaching how to make lanterns for Wesak festivities, Bandarawela, Sri Lanka, 2001.
Photo: Robyn Mansfield (supplied)

Children as vulnerable, but resilient

While sometimes brought about by natural disasters, chaotic and uncertain living environments are the normal, lived experience for millions of children every day.

A staggering number of the world’s children currently live in informal settlements. They are vulnerable to overcrowding, unhealthy living conditions, poor access to basic services and poor health and wellbeing outcomes.

While these children are treated – rightly – as needing protection, stereotypes can reduce them to being poor, deprived, helpless, and forgotten. They are often forgotten in neighbourhood planning initiatives because they are viewed as having nothing.

But while materially they might not have much, these children are culturally rich, and are incredibly creative, resourceful and resilient.

Physical conditions can be similar in refugee camps, but so is children’s resilience. While in Gaza with the Red Cross, I ran a series of workshops and consultations engaging refugee children on their talents and passions. One boy showcased his love of words by breaking out into a rap love song; it was so touching and inspiring to see his talent for poetry, despite not being able to go to school.

Children in Gaza were eager to showcase their talents. Photo: Robyn Mansfield (supplied).

How do some adults get it?

Legally, mechanisms are in place to safeguard children during urban planning. But the mindset of genuinely engaging children – actively involving them in planning work – is not mainstreamed.

What is it that makes some people think, ‘yes, children need to be involved in planning’? This is what I’m exploring through my research on RISE.

RISE is running workshops for men, women, youth and children of all ages, ethnicities, languages and abilities, to co-design water and sanitation infrastructure for their informal settlement neighbourhoods. Such tailored, inclusive and flexible workshops are not common for this type of infrastructure planning.

I am exploring the factors that have led to this approach: are there cultural influences that make our teams engage children? Does it come down to what individual researchers feel is important? How can we take lessons from RISE’s co-design process and apply it to other urban planning projects?

Children visualise their ideal neighbourhoods through creative play, with their creations displayed prominently
during RISE's design and planning workshops.

How can we do better?

When we plan cities with children, everyone benefits. Children are social and inclusive, and they have perspectives to offer that adults don't think of, so we need to bring them into the conversation.

Perhaps most importantly, children are the future custodians of the spaces we are creating today. The success of these spaces - from re-constructed cities to informal settlements - depends on how we engage this future generation on their creation.

Let's continue to engage with children in these important planning conversations. Our future communities and cities will be all the better for it.