Including children in designing cities and places is key to a sustainable, creative and fun future
Updated: Jul 28
Children are fantastic! They bring energy, enthusiasm, ideas, insight, creativity and honesty to our urban design and placemaking when we engage with them.
I've learned never to be surprised with the astute insights and knowledge that our next generation have. They truly are brilliant and they can lead us as practitioners to better ideas, seeing things from a fresh perspective. For me, including children in our engagement around design of new places is a no-brainer.
Engaging with children in our place-making and urban design does many things to benefit our projects and our communities and, in my view, should be a priority in the work we undertake.
It adds to our richness of understanding of place
Places serve many groups of people, not just people like ourselves and so understanding all groups of people is vital as we plan for places. Children are one of the many groups that we need to enable their voices to be heard.
It helps us see things from a different perspective
Children see, smell, touch and notice things differently to adults, and they notice things that we might not. Not only are they generally shorter and so literally have a different perspective, but their brains are more open to new inputs and so they are taking more in as they go about their day.
It means we are planning with them, rather than for them
Many new placemaking design projects incorporate wonderful nature play and water play elements for children - which is great. We know the benefits these provide for children and we should keep including them where appropriate in our planning; but it adds to the process to hear what they would like to see in spaces, rather than us simply assuming.
It adds colour to a process where sometimes we feel like we are going through the motions
The energy and enthusiasm I've observed as children engage in imagining the future literally brings a smile to my face. It is infectious, and believe me, we can all do with more of that in our lives.
It ensures we are focussed on the future, because children are our future
Children care about our future because they will need to live in it. They are looking for sustainable places that are mindful of climate change impacts. They are looking for playful spaces that are engaging to be in. They are looking for open spaces that are close by and accessible, as the houses and apartments they live in are increasingly limited in outside yards to play in. And by engaging children we are showing them they have agency and they can make a difference.
So how can we engage children better?
A few very easy things we can start doing immediately are:
Include children and youth in our engagement plans from the beginning - are there local schools or preschools in the area? Note them as stakeholders in the engagement plan, engage with them and see if they would like to take part. It is very likely that it would be an ideal learning opportunity for them to learn about civic involvement, the environment and society.
Undertake hands-on engagement - the typical ways we engage with adults around tables or with post it notes are not going to hold the average children's attention. So we need to get creative. We can give children materials to build with and let them design with their hands, building models of what things should look like and be like. We can invite them to develop a play to demonstrate the future state. Or we could have them create a video. There are many creative ways we can engage that suits their energy and creativity levels.
Genuinely listen - it is not enough to simply go through the motions and tick the box for engaging with children. If we are to engage, then we must also listen. This means that we are genuine in our approach, and we don't come to the table with pre-conceived ideas. We need to think about how we can incorporate their ideas so they can see how they as individuals CAN make a difference as we plan for the future. Imagine how disillusioned they will become if we don't follow through, so please, if you engage - have the heart to follow through on that engagement.
Use your expertise to incorporate children's inputs - so to the above point, take the ideas you hear from children and combine it with your planning expertise the best outcome. We have qualifications and experience for a reason, and we don't need to throw that out the window as we process the inputs we receive from the next generation. It is likely though that the engagement with children will force us to broaden our minds, be more flexible in our thinking, and be more creative with what the solution for a given place is. And really, that adds to the fun, doesn't it?!
Need help in how to do this?
I've so enjoyed engaging with children and seeing their ideas incorporated in recent projects including the Snowy Mountains Special Activation Precinct Social Infrastructure Study, the Whyalla Foreshore Master Plan (forthcoming) and our local ACT Community Micro-forests.
In the above projects I have used:
video and dramatisation
brainstorming (with the use of lots of colours and pictures)
hands on modelling and
inclusion in broader consultation processes
- and there are many more things we can do!
If you would like help engaging with children, youth, schools and early childhood centres as you do urban planning and design work, let me know and I would love to work with you to design an approach for engagement. It's fun and leads to fabulous outcomes so don't hold back!
Use the contact form on my website or email me and I would love to talk further with you about your project and how we can get the best outcomes through engaging with the children in our community. They really are our future and they're a pretty awesome bunch of people to chat with.