The Benefits of Including Children in Participatory Placemaking

by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

A third grade student exploring an outdoor space with peers
When third graders explored opportunities to redesign the Civic Area, they wanted to honor the wildlife that lived there. This boy signals to his peers, “Shh, don’t scare the ducks!” / image: Stephen Cardinale

We are honored to share the second of a three-part interview with Victoria (Tori) Derr, Louise Chawla, and Mara Mintzer (please see part one: Not Just Climate Strikes: Giving Young People Roles in Community Greening, published last week). The three worked together on Growing Up Boulder (whose home base is at the University of Colorado Boulder), a program to engage children and teens in city planning and design. They also co-authored the book Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices to Plan Sustainable Communities, winner of the 2019 Achievement Award from the Environmental Design Research Association. A new book, The Routledge Handbook of Designing Public Spaces for Young People, contains chapters by Louise and Mara on developing partnerships for child and youth participation and ensuring that young people’s ideas influence final plans. Happy reading!
– Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, EDAC, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

What are the advantages for everyone of including children on a design team?

Victoria (Tori) Derr, Louise Chawla, and Mara Mintzer (TD, LC, MM): Children bring a playfulness that lightens the work and energizes creativity. They literally see the world from different perspectives, given their different heights and their love of climbing and running over, around, and through the landscape. Children bring freedom from preconceived expectations. We find that children tend to think about all groups in their community—including other species! When the City of Boulder gathered input from all ages in preparation for redeveloping the downtown Civic Area, preschoolers and elementary school students were the voices for biodiversity. They wanted to make sure that changes would accommodate ducks, other birds, squirrels, and butterflies.

Young people’s playful perspective was a central design theme for safe walking routes in a co-design of neighborhoods in the Netherlands. / image: Speelwijk

Working with children is also a good way to access their families and communities. In our work, we are committed to reaching out to underrepresented children and children with disabilities. Busy parents and members of marginalized communities don’t usually show up for public meetings, but children can bring in their views in different ways. In one of the methods we have used, high school students interviewed a family member about, “What made a great public space where you grew up?” The results revealed elements of great spaces from around the world.

In the evaluation of Mexico City’s public spaces for Jugar la Ciudad, children sometimes described appropriating residual play spaces amid a changing city. / image: Börries Nehe

In our book, Placemaking with Children and Youth, we describe the work of the Laboratory for the City, which sought to create a space for designers, the public, and children to promote play and spatial justice in Mexico City. Over five years, this lab introduced a variety of projects. The Laboratory also collaborated with children’s rights researcher Tuline Gülgönen and the French Center for Mexican and Central American Studies to produce the book Jugar la Ciudad (Play the City), which analyzed the city from the perspective of children, as a place to play and interact. The analysis identified challenges, such as playgrounds surrounded by dangerous streets and the absence of children in public spaces, which generated a range of design solutions for children to be better integrated into the public sphere.

Research for the book and additional Laboratory projects included workshops to imagine new play spaces in diverse neighborhoods of this mega-city. Some workshops were pop-up style play experiments in public spaces. Some were focused on interaction between designers and children for gathering ideas for specific neighborhood spaces. These projects emphasize the importance of children’s participation because even newly developed playgrounds and parks were often seen by children as undesirable in some ways—undesirable spaces, lack of shade or nature, lack of safety, lack of access to public transportation—so even new developments contributed to children’s social exclusion from the city when children were not active participants in their planning.

The Bajo Puentes program in Mexico City sought to convert dilapidated spaces under highway overpasses into parks and commercial centers, like this one in the Iztapalapa. While such public spaces provide play equipment, children highlighted the challenges in accessing these places due to limited safety and independent mobility. Children also do not find underpasses to be very pleasant places to play! / image: Börries Nehe
Part of spatial equity in a city is integrating children into larger public spaces, like this one in Cuitlahuac, in Iztapalapa, one of the poorest municipalities in Mexico City. However, the playground was designed without children, and is located on a former landfill (which still sometimes smells), provides no trees or shade for protection, and no public transportation access. Children’s views reflect that sometimes the city spends a lot of money, but without proper participation, play spaces can still exclude children. / image: Börries Nehe
Children envisioned ways to improve public spaces in their city, through workshops that were often held directly in the public spaces that they sought to change. / image: Mayra Huerta

For more information about Growing up Boulder, please visit growingupboulder.org. For more information on the books mentioned, please see Placemaking with Children and Youth and The Routledge Handbook of Designing Public Spaces for Young People. The digital publication of Jugar la Ciudad is available from on issuu.com.

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, is is Co-Communications Director for ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN), Principal of design+cOnsulTation, and Lecturer in the occupational therapy program at Boston University. Her work focuses on collaborative design, programming, and research of outdoor environments for underserved groups. A Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Amy presents and publishes widely on topics relating access to nature. She is co-author of the award-winning book Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

Louise Chawla, Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an environmental psychologist whose work focuses on participatory methods for engaging children and youth in community design and planning, the benefits of access to nature for children, and the development of active care for the natural world. For 10 years she coordinated a UNESCO program, Growing Up in Cities, which worked with low-income communities around the world.

Victoria Derr is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at California State University Monterey Bay. She supports community partnerships that promote culture and nature connections in schools, natural areas, and public spaces, and that facilitate community engaged climate action, particularly with under-represented communities of the central coast of California.

Mara Mintzer is a co-founder and the director of Growing Up Boulder, a child-and youth-friendly city initiative based out of the Community Engagement Design and Research Center (CEDaR) at the University of Colorado Boulder. She presents and writes internationally on the topic of engaging young people in community planning and child-friendly cities, and her TEDx talk entitled “How Kids Can Help Design Cities” has received more than 2 million views.

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