listening to children and young people provides a better living environment –

Research Involve young people in designing the housing environment, it benefits everyone. That’s what the Canadian agency Happy Cities claims. They substantiate this claim on the basis of two cases, including one in Rotterdam.

In 2019, the municipality of Rotterdam will make plans to add more greenery to the Bloemhof district. The residents of this district walk much less than their fellow citizens, and the municipality hopes to get residents moving by creating new greenery and connecting new and old green structures.

More on foot

The city is concerned about the possible health consequences and realizes: area developers have the opportunity to stimulate walking and thus the residents’ health and well-being. But, say Canadian researchers from the agency Happy citiesis people’s ability to walk not influenced by the design of public space, but also by things like age, income, gender and origin.

Ask directly

What prevents the residents of Bloemhof from walking? The municipality of Rotterdam is not sure of the answer and is calling Happy Cities and Rotterdam’s Humankind to help find the answer. The municipality has major problems reaching the residents of Bloemhof, where many low-income households and immigrants with a non-Western background live. To bridge this gap, the researchers spend several weeks in the neighborhood building relationships.

The young people were not really interested in the parks that the municipality wanted to build

The focus of the research is especially on the young people in the neighbourhood. They spend a lot of time in public space, but the municipality cannot reach them and ask their opinion. Therefore, the aim of the researchers is to get to know the young people so that they can directly ask what they think about walking, the greenery and the design of the public space in their neighbourhood.

Create engagement

But, the Happy Cities employees conclude in retrospect, it was not enough to simply invite the young people to workshops or to question them on the street. They had to create involvement. Together with local youth organisations, the researchers organized a photography workshop so that the young people learned a skill that they valued. And at the same time, the photos were the way to share stories about their friends and their neighborhood and to capture favorite places in public space.

‘A park in Rotterdam’

by Frans Blok

(source: Shutterstock)

The professionals discovered that the young people were not really interested in the new parks that the municipality was planning to build. They didn’t want new greenery, but an indoor space where they could hang out with their friends. The researchers saw that the young people felt unsafe in public spaces because local residents often called the police when they saw groups of teenagers hanging out outside.

Basis for dialogue

The aim of Happy Cities’ research was to see how the design of our cities can make or break people’s health and happiness. According to the Canadians, it’s not just about the physical design. It is equally important to involve people (in this case the young people) in design and planning processes. They make daily use of the public space and other facilities in the area. And they know what it feels like to experience a certain space as a person of a certain age, gender or cultural background.

Collaboration with local residents eventually led to a better solution

“Many of these ‘experts’ are unlikely to show up at a typical participatory event (what child would want to attend a boring public gathering?), but we should not rule them out,” the researchers concluded. “We need to find creative ways to meaningfully engage all hard-to-reach members of the community.”

In the end, Rotterdam listened to the young experts. Instead of laying out the green as planned—an outcome that would have caused even more distrust and disillusionment with local government among residents—the city worked with the various neighborhood groups to secure an interior space that met Bloemhof- society’s needs. “The collaboration with local residents ultimately led to a better solution, while at the same time becoming the basis for future dialogue about the public space in Bloemhof.”

New thresholds

The second case takes place in New Westminster, Canada, a city near Vancouver. Chloe Carlson, a 12-year-old student at Glenbrook Middle School, feels the street outside her school is not safe for children who walk and bike to school. With the help of her father, she writes a letter expressing her concerns to the city council. “Cars don’t move for us when we bike,” writes Chloe. “We have to get off because we feel unsafe.”

Pattullo Bridge over the Fraser River by Daniel Avram (Source: Shutterstock)

‘Pattullo Bridge over the Fraser River’

by Daniel Avram

(source: Shutterstock)

The letter ensures that discussions occur between students, parents, teachers and officials about how the street can be made safer. To ensure that everyone would support the final design solution if the street was redesigned, Happy Cities wanted the students’ opinion to be decisive. After all, they are the main users of the street. With the help of the school’s art teacher and some local mobility companies, the researchers organized a competition for students at the school to design new curbs to slow down traffic on the street. American researchers had previously discovered that painting the street makes cars go slower and the streets become safer.

Common process

Finally, the students painted together the winning patterns on the street. According to Happy Cities, this is how they learned that it can be fun to shape their community and that their voice matters. It was equally important that the officials and the school staff learned to trust the young people: they are perfectly capable of taking the lead in an important issue of road safety and the well-being of young people. The entire process built trust between youth and local government, while equipping youth with tools to shape a more sustainable and just future.

Listening is perhaps the most powerful tool in the toolbox of planners and designers

Instead of dismissing youth feedback on the design of the public space, the city and school took the input seriously and supported the ideas. Through this collaborative, youth-driven process, the new curbs not only helped to slow down traffic. They also instilled a sense of pride and belonging and encouraged greater care for common areas. For the Happy Cities researchers, proof that listening is perhaps the most powerful tool in the planners’ and designers’ toolbox.

Student Chloe Carlson felt unsafe on her way to school and took action herself.

Cover: ‘Cyclist’

by Amy Johansson

(source: Shutterstock)

Emma Avery by Emma Avery (Source: LinkedIn)

By Emma Avery

Emma Avery is a researcher at Happy Cities.

Charles Montgomery by Charles Montgomery (Source: LinkedIn)

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