Can we plan for and with children?
In September 2015, the Scottish Government announced an independent review of the Scottish planning system. Here, Jenny Wood – a PhD Student at Heriot Watt University – gives her take on how the Scottish planning system can be improved. She bases her thoughts on her research around children’s rights and town planning.
Planners and the planning system, though striving to create places for people, are often unaware of the responsibilities they have towards children. At present, there is an assumption in the planning system that it provides for children by allocating schools, playgrounds or other institutionalised settings. Yet children’s needs are far more complex, and without understanding their use of space, the planning system cannot provide for them. I suggest here how children can be planned for, and with, in hope that a revised planning system can be better equipped to help planners understand children’s rights.
The most pressing issue at hand is the decline of children’s independent mobility (or license to roam) over the past two generations. Between 1970 and 2010 there was a 61% decline in the number of primary school children travelling home from school alone, and the freedom of UK children lags behind that in many other countries. Many factors are at play here, but matters such as high traffic volumes and unwelcome public spaces can be managed through good planning. Indeed, resources on creating child-friendly environments already exist.
Particularly important in understanding the planning system’s responsibilities towards children is The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (UNCRC) (ratified in the UK in 1991). This enshrines the principles of protection, provision and participation for all people aged below 18. Article 31 on the UNCRC is highly relevant to how planning considers children’s use of space, stating all children have the right to play, rest, leisure, and to access cultural life. General comment 17 from the UN implores policy-makers to take this seriously, and recommends introducing a statutory duty on local authorities to facilitate more opportunities for children to participate in outdoor space. The Welsh Government have done just that, and my research suggests this has led to very promising and impressive engagement from the town planning system. Indeed, development plans and guidance are now emerging across Wales that require developers to give more thought to the spatial implications of their designs on children (for instance Swansea’s new residential design guide).
Equalities Impact Assessments could provide another avenue to promote children’s requirements. However, in their current form, the assessments often fail to critically evaluate a policy’s impact on particular groups. Indeed in planning, Equalities Impact Assessments often claim that policies will have a neutral impact on younger people, based on general assumptions about what children need and do, and through reviewing other policies that say nothing about children. If impact assessments involved a robust evidence-gathering exercise, then they would be better placed to promote children’s needs.
The language of ‘young people’ is another pertinent issue. The questions provided to steer the planning review ask how ‘How can we involve more young people in planning?’, and it is important to question this term. Whilst ‘young people’ has no standard definition, in general usage it tends to refer to people aged between 13 and 25. Using this language thus suggests that participation in planning should be encouraged only for those of secondary school age, and may perpetuate a view that younger children are not capable, or entitled to participate in planning. In my experience, planners tend to understand the importance of trying to engage teenagers, but all children have the right to participate in matters that affect them, as set out in article 12 of the UNCRC. As children between the ages of 6 and 12 have particularly restricted independent mobility, they are very sensitive to their local area and are capable of talking about it in a helpful and constructive way, provided that planners are sensitive to their ways of communicating.
In my work, I have found that using simple language and asking questions such as ‘what do you like in your area?’ and ‘what do you dislike in your area?’ has allowed primary school children to be meaningfully involved in planning issues. However, in speaking to planners, I found many struggle with the idea of engaging younger audiences, as current statutory requirements representing a view are overly-formal and complex. Whilst some planning authorities have found other ways to present the views of teenagers in their consultation, there is substantial scope to reduce complexity and enable younger children to participate.
Methods for engaging a younger audience (and other groups) could include through Minecraft, with BlockBuilders in England showing how it could be used in planning. There is also the potential that planning participation can be linked to wider events, such as in Tattenhall Neighbourhood Plan where they organised a free rave for local young people, provided that attendants first filled-out a survey about the area. If planning participation was linked to events people would otherwise be interested in, it could help make participation more appealing and relevant to groups often not involved in the process.
In terms of creating a more strategic approach to children’s participation, planning authorities could learn from Children’s Tracks in Norway, and SoftGIS methodology in Finland. Initially, these methods involved children drawing on, annotating and commenting on maps of their area, but have subsequently become online, GIS-based systems. I drew on these approaches in my research, but without access to these online platforms, I gave children A3 OS maps of their local area, which they annotated with their likes, dislikes, routes to school, and any other important information they wanted to share. They were free to arrange this in any way they liked, using a range of stickers, post-it notes and pens. The only requirement I set was to draw me a key to explain their annotations. This gave me a wealth of information, with the task taking less than half an hour to complete. I used a similar approach with children to feedback on a masterplan proposal, and this worked equally well.
I am happy to note that several planning authorities across Scotland are now prioritising children and/or young people’s involvement. However, I am concerned with a growing trend that when planners do engage with children and/or young people, they emphasise the educational value over the value of simply participating. An overemphasis on education can suggest children and young people are not yet good enough to participate in planning, and should first become informed of the system and its goals. I dispute this point from both experience, and reviewing others’ research, and implore planners to adopt a rights-based approach to participation. In this way planners seek to gather the thoughts and ideas of children using methods (such as those above) that are sensitive to their existing abilities. The Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ supports children’s rights and allowing children to exercise their right to participate in schools is as valuable a learning opportunity as any other. Indeed, through a rights based approach, adults respect the thoughts and capabilities of children, and also understand the importance of producing outcomes that can support other rights, such as those to play, rest and access cultural opportunities.
The review of the planning system offers a good opportunity to reflect on what the planning system is currently able to achieve. Planning strives to meet the public good, but an over-emphasis on economic purposes can lead it to prioritise certain types of people over others. Children are frequently excluded from participating in society, both explicitly and implicitly, but this is a breach of international commitments made by the UK government to support children’s rights. The issue of children’s declining freedom to roam and play has potentially far-reaching consequences for individual and collective health and wellbeing, and the planning system can, and should play an instrumental role in welcoming children’s participation in place and process.