Research involving young people in the design of the living environment, everyone benefits from it. This is the claim of the Canadian Happy Cities Agency. They proved this claim on the basis of two cases, one of which was in Rotterdam.
In 2019, the municipality of Rotterdam will make plans to add more green spaces to the Bloemhof district. The residents of this area walk much less than their fellow townspeople and the municipality hopes to move the population by creating new green spaces and connecting new and old green buildings.
More on foot
The city is concerned about the potential health consequences and recognizes: District developers have the opportunity to stimulate walking and thus the health and happiness of residents. But say Canadian researchers from the agency People’s ability to walk is affected not only by the design of public spaces, but also by things such as age, income, gender, and ancestry.
What prevents residents of Bloemhof from walking? The Municipality of Rotterdam is not sure of the answer and is calling on Happy Cities and Rotterdam’s Human Rights to help find the answer. The municipality has a lot of difficulties in reaching the population of Bloemhof, where many low-income families and immigrants of non-Western origin live. To fill this gap, the researchers spent several weeks in the neighborhood building relationships.
The focus of the research is particularly on the youth in the neighborhood. They spend a lot of time in public, but the municipality is unable to reach them and ask their opinion. Therefore, the researchers’ goal is to get to know young people so that they can directly ask what they think about walking, green spaces, and the design of public spaces in their area.
But, Happy Cities employees later concluded, it was not enough to invite young people to workshops or to question them on the street. They had to create engagement. In collaboration with local youth organizations, the researchers organized a photography workshop so that young people would learn a skill they valued. Meanwhile, photos were a way to share stories about their friends and neighbors and capture favorite places in public.
A park in Rotterdam
by France Block
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 green spaces, but an indoor space where they could hang out with their friends. The researchers saw that young people felt unsafe in public because locals often called the police when they saw groups of teenagers loitering outside.
basis of dialogue
The goal of the Happy Cities research was to find out how the design of our cities can make or break human health and happiness. According to the Canadians, it’s not just about the physical design. Involving people (in this case young people) in the design and planning processes is equally important. They make daily use of the public space and other facilities in the area. They know what it feels like to experience a particular space as someone of a certain age, gender, or cultural background.
“Many of these ‘experts’ are unlikely to attend a typical participatory event (what kid wants to attend a boring public gathering?), but we shouldn’t rule them out,” the researchers concluded. “We need to find creative ways to meaningfully engage all hard-to-reach members of society.”
In the end, Rotterdam listened to the young experts. Instead of laying out green spaces as planned—an outcome that would cause further mistrust and disillusionment with the local government among residents—the city worked with various neighborhood groups to secure indoor space that would meet the needs of the Bloemhof community. “Collaboration with local residents eventually led to a better solution, and at the same time laid the foundation for future dialogue about public spaces in Bloemhof.”
The second case is located in New Westminster, Canada, a city near Vancouver. Chloe Carlson, a 12-year-old student at Glenbrook Middle School, feels that the street outside her school is not safe for children walking and cycling to school. With her father’s help, she writes a letter expressing her concerns to the city council. “Cars don’t move for us when we’re riding our bikes,” Chloe wrote. “We have to go down because we feel insecure.”
Patolo Bridge over the Fraser River
By Daniel Avram
The letter ensures that discussions arise between students, parents, teachers and administrators about how to make the street safer. To ensure that everyone supports the final design solution if the street is to be redesigned, Happy Cities wanted students’ opinion to be decisive. After all, they are the primary 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 barriers to slow down traffic on the street. US researchers had previously discovered that street paint slows down driving and makes the streets safer.
Finally, the students drew the winning patterns on the streets together. This is how they learned, according to the Happy Cities, that it can be fun to shape their community and that their voice matters. And just as importantly, administrators and school staff have learned to trust young people: they are fully capable of taking the lead on an important issue of road safety and the well-being of young people. The whole process succeeded in building trust between youth and local government, while providing youth with the tools to shape a more sustainable and equitable future.
Rather than dismissing feedback from young people about the design of public space, the city and school took the input seriously and supported the ideas. Through this collaborative, youth-led process, the new restrictions have not only helped slow traffic. They also instilled a sense of pride and belonging, and encouraged more attention to the common areas. For happy city researchers, the evidence is that listening is perhaps the most powerful tool in the toolbox of planners and designers.
Student Chloe Carlson felt unsafe on her way to school and took action herself.
by Amy Johansson