When designing and building spaces suitable for children, their participation is vital. Participatory design activities can empower children, teach them new skills and help with their development as active and responsible citizens. Engaging children in the design process also ensures that rather than building ‘places for children’, children are active in the making of their own places. Rasmussen (text) makes a clear distinction between the two: while the former are ‘designed, built and organised by adults for children’, the latter are places ‘that they themselves choose, use, dene and create’. The key here being that children play a central role in the design process. Yet, we cannot assume that children will feel a sense of belonging towards the space once the built intervention is complete – even if they have been involved in its design. Children may act or feel differently towards public space. Therefore, in order to foster a sense of positivity and ownership towards public space, we need to understand their relationship with it once the design and building phase of a project has nished.
The impetus for this blog stemmed from a recent project we conducted to create an inclusive and child-friendly public space in the neighbourhood of Karantina in Beirut, called Makani – ‘my place’ in English. The design of Makani was informed by participatory activities with children and citizen scientists (link) from the neighbourhood whose input ensured it accurately met the needs of its residents. Their research and ideas led to the creation of a sociable public space that can be used by all-age groups and is stimulating, safe and accessible for children. Cutting across the space for instance, is a long and colourful bench which can be used for sitting, jumping off, climbing on or riding bikes along. In fact, the way it is used continues to surprise us.
A couple of weeks after the opening of the new public space, we worked with citizen scientists to monitor how the space was used. What we learnt was crucial. In the participatory phase, when we asked children how they’d improve the space, they pointed towards the abundance of rubbish and the need for more greenery in the space. Yet, as the space opened up to children, they would often leave the rubbish and damage the trees that made it more green. This is by no means a criticism of their actions, but rather a nod towards how they might feel about the space and the kind of support children need once a built intervention is complete. When we asked children in Karantina who they felt Makani belonged to, they didn’t think it was theirs. In the context of Beirut, where access to public space is limited and available space is tightly controlled, this is hardly surprising. Perhaps the presence of guards in similar public spaces, the frequent and supplementary role of NGOS in the creation of these spaces, and the authoritative gures that stand between them and public space prevents them from feeling it is fully theirs. This may be especially true of Syrian residents in the neighbourhood, who in addition to these barriers are constantly reminded by others that this is not their place and that they do not belong here. If children do not feel that public space is theirs, then they are likely to do whatever they want to the space – be it vandalizing, leaving rubbish or breaking things.
Beyond including children in the participatory design phase then, we think that continuing to educate and engage children in activities is not only vital for their sense of inclusion and feeling of belonging towards a space, but that it can also go some way to addressing their sense of apathy towards caring for public spaces. In collaboration with the art collective Zayraqoun, we have tried to do this with children in Makani. Inspired by Augusto Boal, pioneer of ‘theatre of the oppressed’, a method by which the audience engages in the narratives of performances, Zayraqoun created a clown show to address some of the issues we’d seen in Makani. Boal’s ideas were aimed at empowering audiences to help them ‘nd strategies for personal and social change (link). By engaging children in their performance and the way it unfolded, Zayraqoun enabled children to think and learn for themselves. In one scenario for instance, a member of Zayraqoun played the role of a tree while another tried to cut the same tree – the children watched as the tree started to cry, wounded by the gure who was trying to cut it down. Zayraqoun let the children react to what came next, how would they choose to make the tree stop crying, why was the tree crying in the rst place? The children thought it was crying because the tree was being cut and climbed on, damaged by the other character. To heal the tree, they decided it needed water! We watched as children gathered bottles of water to pour on the tree and to stop it crying. They knew all along how it needed to be looked after, but their sense of attachment to it had perhaps inuenced any duty they felt towards it.
We used a similar approach towards the issue of rubbish. Two actors from Zayraqoun set up a picnic in the park and began enjoying their food, but throughout their picnic they began throwing their rubbish everywhere. In response another actor emerged, playing the role of a garbage monster who rushed towards the bin. Again the actors paused and asked the children what they thought was wrong, why did this garbage monster appear? Children’s response was astute as they began parading to the rubbish bins chanting ‘hawiya’ – meaning bin in Arabic – as they went. A week after this performance, children were still singing the ‘hawiya’ song they’d made, marching through the neighbourhood collecting rubbish.
In the context of complex relationships with public space, informed by an area’s history, personal experiences and a lack of access to public space in the rst place, we think engagement exercises, workshops and performances can be extremely useful tools for creating a sense of rootedness to a space. Designing and creating public spaces is not enough. To ensure their longevity, upkeep and benet to those they are meant for, it’s important that positive relationships with personal space are formed – this can happen as part of a continual process of activation that must extend beyond just the built intervention.
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