How Digital Placemaking Supports Young People to Shape their Neighbourhoods


8 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Today, over a billion children are growing up in cities. By 2030, UN-HABITAT estimates that 60% of the world’s urban population will be under the age of 18. Cities today, however, rarely provide ideal living conditions for young people. This is a huge problem when we stop to consider how this demographic will dominate the urban population within the next decade.

Several organisations have pushed for initiatives aimed at young people and their environments, including UNICEF’s Child-Friendly Cities Initiative and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In Norway, the participation of children and young people in local planning processes is already embedded in the country’s Planning and Building Act; ensuring that they have a voice in creating neighbourhoods that enable active urban childhoods.

Genuinely engaging and involving young people in urban planning does not start and end in teaching them to value engagement in shaping their environments so they become engaged when they grow up. The goal is to engage children now, so they can influence urban planning while they are still in their younger years. Digital placemaking is one way to make this happen.

Engaging Children to Design Cities

Cities that foster environments that are safe, fun, and that encourage play are the ideal setup for healthy urban childhoods. Ultimately these healthy childhoods translate into healthier adulthoods. However, growing urbanisation introduces a new set of challenges that kids are especially susceptible to, including air pollution, road safety and mobility issues. City planners are—and should be—at the forefront of tackling these problems.

According to sustainable development specialist Dr. Nelya Rakhimova, assessing the child-friendliness of a city is vital as this will give leaders that much-needed insight to know which areas need improvement and which ones should be prioritised.

Situations can, however, differ based on the socio-economic realities of each city. The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that there is a significant imbalance between the number of child-friendly initiatives in developed and developing regions. Interestingly, of those existing initiatives, words rarely translate into action, as few are willing to commit resources to realise these plans and lack any compatible legal framework to do so.

To help solve this issue, Arup published a study on applying a child-friendly approach to urban planning, arguing that a sustainable, successful, and healthy city is a child-friendly city. After examining several urban areas around the world, their research revealed that those who have taken steps towards a child-friendly future, experience the following benefits:

  • Improved health and wellbeing
  • Better local economy (e.g. tourism, space-saving)
  • Increased safety (e.g. roads, streets)
  • Stronger communities
  • Stronger connection to nature and sustainability
  • More resilient citizens, especially in the face of climate threats
Two children play football in a city plaza.
Photo by Mosa Moseneke on Unsplash

Building Child-Friendly Cities

What makes a city child-friendly? Is it the existence of public places where they can play? Is it their access to social services or living in a safe environment?

According to UNICEF, every child should:

  • Be respected by their community
  • Have their needs heard and taken into account
  • Have access to social services
  • Live in a safe, secure, and clean environment
  • Have the opportunity to enjoy family life, play, and leisure

The UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, meanwhile, includes 54 children’s rights that cover prioritising their needs, respecting their right to express their views, and allowing them to practice their right to religion, among others.

Dr. Rakhimova, however, pointed out that there is a difference between what policies dictate and how children actually see child-friendly cities. While these initiatives and policies continue to push forward the rights of children, a true child-friendly city consults with them, listens to what they like and don’t like, and takes measures to turn those needs into a reality.

A great example of this is Bristol-based Shape My City. It’s a year-round programme giving 15 to 19-year-olds the opportunity to work with industry professionals, build a network among their peers, and develop design skills that will help them forge their future careers. Through this initiative, Bristol creates a more diverse and equal city, giving young people (a group that’s traditionally under-represented) the opportunity to gain solid work experience.

For a good summary of various policies and initiatives related to the development of child-friendly cities read this article by Apolitical.

Using Digital Technologies to Support Young People’s Engagement

Digital placemaking offers myriad new opportunities for children to participate in and shape their environments. These innovations add value to public places, which can improve children’s lives and allow them to thrive. Below are some noteworthy digital placemaking initiatives, two of which I worked on myself – can you guess which?!

1. Urban95 Virtual Reality

Together with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Arup have developed a VR tool that allows users to see the city from the eyes of someone who is only 95 centimetres tall—the average height of a three-year-old.

As adults tend to impose what they think is right on children, this project aims to raise awareness on the true challenges that kids in cities face, giving decision-makers the opportunity to walk in their shoes and implement changes.

2. The Intelligent Fountain

The Intelligent Fountain is an interactive fountain programmed to respond to children’s behaviour and touch. No matter how fast or slow the kids are running, the water jets can react accordingly. This installation can also be programmed to match music, making it the perfect accompaniment to children’s concerts.

Stakeholder Design collaborated with Nesta Futurelab and a whole community of primary school children when designing the fountain at Luckwell Primary School in Bristol. Their level of engagement and contribution were integral to what the fountain looked like, making it a successful project that lifted kids’ moods, encouraged them to spend more time outdoors and have fun in a safe environment.

3. MobiMissions

Created by Nesta Futurelab and the University of Nottingham, MobiMissions was a location-aware mobile phone game prototype released in 2007— before the age of smartphones…

Using cellular phone networks as a locative device, a user can create a mission (photo or text) and drop it on certain public spots. Another user who finds that spot can then fulfill the mission in that area. The social aspect of this prototype made it particularly attractive to young people, as they could create missions for their friends, spread the word around in the neighbourhood, and explore their area more. One mission could be to identify positive aspects of the neighbourhood.

4. Growing Up in Boulder, Colorado

Growing Up Boulder (GUB) is a digital map created for kids in Boulder, Colorado.

As part of the University of Colorado’s child and youth-friendly initiative, GUB aims to gather children’s input in local government decisions and identify key areas for improvement.

The child-friendly map includes colourful icons pointing to Boulder’s facilities, locales, shops, and more. Kids can leave reviews about what they like about each area, their favourite spots, and the child-friendly routes they like taking (e.g. on bikes, for pedestrians, school routes).

Screenshot of interface of website Growing Up in Boulder

5. Streets for People

Streets for People is an ongoing urban design project launched in Newcastle aimed to make streets more attractive for sustainable forms of travel (e.g. cycling, walking). At its core is engaging the community and encouraging them to submit their feedback and ideas.

However, researchers from Newcastle University noticed a lack of children’s representations in these proposals. They resolved to work with 54 children in primary schools to create a socio-technical process through the use of a digitally-supported neighbourhood walk. The children then provided their feedback on how to improve the street, demonstrating the potential of digital placemaking in opening opportunities for children’s participation.

Children with tablet and colourful paper
Image by Sean Peacock, Streets for People

Listening To Children’s Voices

There are many initiatives around today that are designed to help children engage more with their cities and live a better life. However, implementation has proven to be inconsistent.

Local planners and leaders need to understand that if the city is good for children, these benefits will cascade down to adults as well. We can’t look at building child-friendly cities solely through adult lenses; planning has to involve understanding and appreciating the daily lives of children and young people.

Children carry the same rights as adults to have their voices heard and play their roles in creating a truly inclusive city. Ultimately, if the youth isn’t involved in local planning, is that city genuinely serving “the public”?

Next week, UNICEF and the City of Cologne are hosting the Child Friendly Cities Summit and if that’s too soon for you, then Bristol is hosting a conference ‘Towards a Child Friendly City’ in November 2019.

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