Why do we need kids to help design our cities?

In this blog, Dr Natalie Wright discusses the importance of providing educational opportunities for childrens’ participation in urban design to increase citizenship, social interaction and personal development.

 

Thirty years from now, today’s primary school students will be taking their own children to school. But what kind of cities will they be living in? Without action now, our cities will be under strain to address growing inequality, and to provide adequate and affordable housing, transportation and education systems.

Currently, cities account for between 60-80% of energy consumption and up to 70% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. These environmental impacts contribute to climate change and more frequent natural disasters. The rapid urbanisation that is projected in places like South East Queensland will also exert pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment, and public health.

Architects and designers are proposing innovations — from vertical farms and biome greenhouses, to self-driving cars and underground recycling systems — to make future cities smarter and more sustainable.

Rarely are children consulted about what kinds of cities they want to live in, except with a few international exceptions. This is despite the fact that these children will be the custodians living and working in these future environments. If childrens’ concerns are not incorporated and they remain excluded from decision making now, how are we preparing the next generation for their future cities and livelihoods, and fostering meaningful participatory democracy and responsible citizenship?

Why is child participation in urban design important?

Child participation is one of the core principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Article 12 of the UNCRC asserts that children and young people have the right to freely express their views, with these views being given due weight.

Listening to children is not only respecting them, but also teaching them the importance of respecting others. As children grow, interactions and experiences in both their physical and social environments impact physical, cognitive and psychosocial development, and also shape feelings and behaviours. Despite this, we know little about childrens’ lived experience and the relationship between their environments and social connections.

We do, however, know that building a culture of children’s participation in policy, service planning, delivery and evaluation does result in practical benefits to services development, experience and access; that it improves citizenship, empowerment and social inclusion; and that it promotes childrens’ personal and social development including practical and social skills, increased self-confidence and positive career choices.

Instead of remaining passive users, participation provides young citizens more active involvement in the design, decision-making and management processes that affect their lives, enhancing democratic accountability and contributing to social justice. We know that upper primary school-aged children are innately compelled to learn about the world, recognising connections between sensory messages and building a mental ‘whole’ from concrete experiential ‘parts’. Kids value things that often get pushed aside by big end of town interests. Schools can support these students by introducing rich learning platforms encouraging genuine participation of children to gradually develop over time, through collaborative decision-making forums, such as the Design for Impact Summit.

The Design for Impact Summit is happening again

The Design for Impact Summit will take place on 21-22 April 2021. This event has been established as a curriculum highlight for 104 Grade 5 students and their teachers at Matthew Flinders Anglican College at Buderim on the Sunshine Coast, who participated in a pilot program in 2020.

In partnership with QUT Design Lab, this two-day design thinking immersion experience will task Senior Primary students to design and prototype the Maroochydore City Centre for 2050. The program is initiated by adults, but decision-making is shared with the children through their ‘ministerial meetings’. Students will work alongside local community members and design professionals with specific industry expertise to disrupt their thinking and encourage empathy with different stakeholders during the design process. The program will culminate with an official meeting and opening of the city by local Sunshine Coast Federal Member for Fairfax, Mr Ted O’Brien.

Children participating in the 2020 Summit said, “I learned that working together is way way way better than working alone” and “the workshop helped me realise that the choices we make have an impact on other people and the environment”. They recognised that kids have “flexible mindsets and don’t think like adults do”. Another wisely noted:

“I definitely think kids should be allowed to design cities. Kids have good imagination and the city is for them isn’t it? Kids have a good idea of the future and things they would want in it. It is hard to empathise with what other ages would want in the city and kids have a very high chance of living in the city as they will still be alive”.

Final Thoughts

Involving children in decision making for the design of our cities will increase their sense of community, improve public attitudes and relationships to children, as well as improve the quality of children’s lives.

It is hoped that the Design for Impact Summit will be a catalyst for further design-led, community-focused programs and the development of a Sunshine Coast Council Youth Strategy which addresses United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure young people are actively engaged, empowered and celebrated on the Sunshine Coast now and into their future.

 

Dr Natalie Wright is a Senior Lecturer in Interior Architecture in the QUT School of Architecture and Built Environment, Faculty of Engineering.  She is the Co-Lead of the Design-led Learning & Practice Research Group of the QUT Design Lab Resilient Communities Program and a Core Member of The Centre for Inclusive Education. Her current research is exploring opportunities to scale up primary/secondary teachers’ capacity to teach creativity, innovation and enterprise through design thinking in curriculum, and the facilitation of design expertise for transformational change in diverse industries. She tweets from @Brisbane_Design.

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