Thursday, September 08, 2011

How could children participate in regional planning?

Urban planning has been traditionally considered as a concern of architects, engineers and other experts working in the field of urban development. However in recent years there has been a growing recognition of the benefits of citizens’ participation in planning processes and contribution to the development of their own living environment. In some countries in the Baltic Sea region the participation and inhabitants’ possibility to influence plans concerning them is a statutory part the planning process whereas in some countries these processes are just about to begin.

The knowledge gathered from the citizens can be considered as experiential and subjective. The reason why citizens are not always allowed or encouraged to participate in planning may be that the experiential knowledge is not valued at the same degree as the expert knowledge. The soft values participation is presenting are too often overshadowed by economic thinking guiding the decision making and planning processes. Soft values in planning shouldn’t be ignored even during the times of economic insecurity as people who thrive on and feel well in their living environment are the ones who make the municipalities and regions vital and more competitive.

Children in Örebro using GIS maps

Why should the participation of citizens be encouraged? One argument in favour of participatory proc-esses is that it is a way to increase trust between the citizens and the policymakers and makes the democratic process more transparent. Secondly the outcomes of the plans and improvements may be better because the amount of the knowledge gathered is larger than if only planners or other experts are doing the planning. The new kind of knowledge can help the planners to think outside the box and find new ideas and ways of thinking.

The demand for participatory processes raises many questions. Why participation of citizens is necessary and who’s voice should be listened? How can the citizens actually influence the plans that are made in their municipality? And how can groups like children or elderly who are easily excluded from the participation process express their opinion?

The municipality of Örebro in Sweden, one of the partners in NEW BRIDGES project, considers citi-zens participation as a necessary and important part of the planning process. Within the VINNA project they have implemented new tools and methods to support especially the participation of children and young people. Geographical Information System (GIS) has been used as a so called “soft tool” to allow children to ex-press their opinions. They have produced maps that are easy to understand and have been used to gather information on children’s favourite places and opinions about their living environment.

Dangerous or unpleasant places marked by Children

On these digital maps children could show how they use their living environment, where they want to spend their spare time and what are the places that are considered as dangerous unpleasant in their opinion. Children can mark routes and places to the maps and add descriptions and opinions about the places and how they use those. The results that Örebro has gained are that the way children use spatial space differs from adults and they don’t think or play as adults think. They find sometimes even unexpected places as dangerous or the other way round unforeseeable places as pleasant to play and spend their time in. In Örebro the results will be considered and treated with the same respect as the opinions of adults and other groups.

More information, experiences and new methods how to successfully involve inhabitants and how to use the information gathered from them is still needed. The involvement of different stakeholders into regional planning processes has been one of key focus in NEW BRIDGES project. Different city-regions around the Baltic Sea Region have been implementing Pilot Actions seeking to improve the quality of life of their residents. City-regions have used different methods, like surveys, interviews and stakeholder meetings, to find out what inhabitants think of their living environment and how do they use the spatial space there. NEW BRIDGES final conference Managing Urban-Rural interaction for Quality of Life invites all interested practitioners, politicians, researchers and all interested stake-holders to share leading experiences about the current situation and future challenges seen within the work on quality of life, urban-rural interaction and stakeholder involvement.

NEW BRIDGES final conference Managing Urban-Rural interaction for Quality of Life is organized in Hamburg 30th of November – 1st of December 2011. Conference is free and open for all. For more information please visit

Maija Rusanen
Photos: Örebro municipality

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