Getting Started with Participatory Placemaking

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

Teachers and students interacting
An effective strategy for participatory design is to go where children are, working with them alongside teachers and out-of-school program leaders as core partners. / image: Darcy Varney Kitching

We are honored to share the third 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, and part two, The Benefits of Including Children in Participatory Placemaking, published here on The Field earlier this month). 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

If you were to create a dream team to facilitate a placemaking process with children, who would be on this team, and why?

Victoria (Tori) Derr, Louise Chawla, and Mara Mintzer (TD, LC, MM): Start with a few enthusiastic people who represent different types of organizations. You need to have people who work with children and youth, such as teachers who want to do project-based learning, or education staff in nonprofit organizations. You will also want someone who can influence decisions. One or two people need to be willing to take charge of the project. For a small initial venture, they can be volunteers, but to sustain a culture of participatory practice, coordinators require funding.

In the Growing Up Boulder program that we have worked on together, a team typically includes schools or child- and youth-serving organizations, city planning and design staff, and university students. Specific partners vary depending on how a project lines up with organization aims and who will be impacted. We are fortunate to have committed city leadership, but in some cities, a nonprofit organization with a sustainability mission may be the critical catalyst and serve as facilitator. The single most important element of a “dream team” is that it reflects the community and pays close attention to people whose perspectives might otherwise not be heard.

The canopy of a 100-year-old coast live oak creates a magical gathering space in the outdoor classroom. / image: Mason Fernandez

I have one final question for you. What advice would you give landscape architects who are interested in facilitating a placemaking process, but have little or no previous experience doing this?

TD, LC, MM: Start small, go slow, work with people who find child and youth participation gratifying and exciting, and identify key times each partner will engage. Get a little seed money to try it out. If you do the work and others see that it is useful, then they may ask for more and be willing to pay for it. The best way to convince the skeptical is to create good examples. An initial project can be as small and short term as pop-up play spaces, as in Mexico City. Over time, you can build strong partnerships that make sustained engagement possible.

A currently evolving partnership that illustrates gradual development involves the Elkhorn Slough Foundation (ESF), the Environmental Studies program at California State University Monterey Bay, and a local school, the Hall District Elementary School. The ESF seeks to conserve and restore the Elkhorn Slough and its watershed, supporting the second largest tidal salt marsh in California. Its land holding across from the school comprises Carneros Creek, riparian habitat, oak woodlands, and grassland habitat.

The school’s student body is 99% Latino and 89% economically disadvantaged. Located in a rural environment primarily composed of agricultural lands, many students lack access to natural areas to play. As the partnership coalesced around providing children access to nature, ESF also began examining the space’s potential for an outdoor classroom and trail that would connect to a historic ranch that is part of the land trust. The partners began exploring benefits that children, teachers, and surrounding communities could bring in conceptualizing the design and use of these spaces. For the past three years, fourth grade students have participated in monthly field trips, and at the end of the year these students act as Junior Rangers, leading second graders through the area. They participate in habitat restoration, climb a 100-year-old oak, lift cover boards and identify the species they find, and envision ways to communicate about the space through signage.

Girls peeking under a cover board, which provides shelter for both invertebrates and reptiles. / image: Mason Fernandez
A CSUMB student supports a fourth-grade boy with restoration plantings. / image: Victoria Derr

The project moves at a pace that meets the needs of its partners. This allows time to dream and envision together. In previous work, we have found the importance of allowing time and space for dreaming. Don’t rush to an end goal. Give people time to dwell with the question, “What inspires you about this project?” As you move forward, it remains important to give everyone—including children—opportunities to check in and have a say as new design, development, and programming possibilities unfold.

Thank you so much, Tori, Louise, and Mara!

For more information about Growing up Boulder, please visit 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.

For additional information about lessons in dreaming and envisioning together, please see this article: Kreutz, A., Derr, V., & Chawla, L. (2018). Fluid or fixed? Processes that facilitate or constrain a sense of inclusion in participatory schoolyard and park design. Landscape Journal, 37(1), 39-54.

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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