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Mainstreaming children’s participation key to urban planning success, new research shows

10 March 2022

Years after construction, many infrastructure projects providing informal settlement communities with access to essential services, like potable water, toilets and road access, lie in decay. An obvious solution to these maintenance problem lies in a lack of funding. But a more convincing set of arguments goes back to the original infrastructure planning process, and who is involved.

New research by RISE PhD candidate Robyn Mansfield shows that children’s participation in urban planning processes for vulnerable settings is critical. Mansfield has developed a logic model for transforming urban planning organisations to mainstream children's participation in policy and action.

‘UN reports and Sustainable Development Goal progress reports note that there are structural, political and economic factors that exclude children from urban planning. But they don’t offer a way forward or details behind those barriers,’ explains Mansfield. ‘My research seeks to show that children’s participation in urban planning for vulnerable settings is critical – and that mainstreaming their participation is possible.’

RISE is using participatory approaches when co-designing water-sensitive infrastructure with each of the program’s 24 communities in Fiji and Indonesia. Children and youth have had the opportunity to learn about healthy environments and participate in that infrastructure development through age-appropriate activities. Mansfield says this approach is extremely rare, as many projects only include children’s views on open space and play spaces.

‘We conducted 32 qualitative semi-structured interviews across RISE, including staff and program partners in Fiji, Australia, and the United States. Our interviews were designed to understand the types of child participation in RISE Fiji, and the factors that influenced that participation, or lack of participation, as well as the impacts on staff, the communities and children,’ says Mansfield.

‘By gaining a deeper understanding of the complex influencing factors, we have developed a logic model that provides potential pathways of transformation for mainstreaming children’s participation in urban planning processes for vulnerable settings.’

RISE Fiji Country Coordinator Isoa Vakarewa engaged with the children and youth groups during RISE’s co-design workshops in Suva. He believes that their energy and enthusiasm has the potential to make them agents of change within their communities.

‘We saw that they actually better understood some of the concepts around healthy environments and RISE’s water and sanitation technologies, because they can make linkages with similar principles of health sciences that they are studying in school,’ Vakarewa explains.

‘In predominantly Indo Fijian communities, children also played important roles as translators, ensuring information about our program, the infrastructure plans and key concepts were being shared with their household members.’

Vakarewa sees that their involvement in co-design activities, and their roles of relaying information to their families helped build their capacity to champion the infrastructure systems, to the point where they could play a meaningful role in its maintenance within their communities in the future.

‘RISE’s technologies have a life spanning decades, so a child is likely to grow up with these systems. It’s in our best interest to build their knowledge and understanding of the components and how they function.’

RISE Program Manager Dr Brett Davis agrees, and says Mansfield’s research highlights this through her rigorous frameworks for child participation.

‘Our best hope for the longevity and sustainability of our interventions is through the youth,’ says Davis. ‘Through the co-design process, through Robyn’s research and through our team’s experiences, we have seen that children’s interest in and understanding of water-sensitive systems is much stronger than we expected. So, enrolling them in the planning process holds incredible value for this infrastructure’s longevity.

‘They are going to be the future custodians of this infrastructure and forming community maintenance committees; they are inquisitive and are going to have the energy and drive to maintain it; and they will ultimately be integral to the success of the RISE program and our infrastructure.’

Beyond RISE, Mansfield is also excited about the potential impacts on children’s outlooks on their careers. ‘There are indications that some children are interested in pursuing study and careers in engineering and other urban planning professions,’ she says. ‘The impacts of involving children can be empowering and transformational. There’s real potential here for them to contribute to lasting community resilience, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and creating a better world.’

To find out more about her research, contact Robyn Mansfield at