Protection ‘for’ or protection ‘from’? Children in town planning


“Children are the future”

“Let’s do it for the kids”

These are the kind of phrases you often hear when talking of the legacy we wish to leave our planet, but what if children are just as much citizens of the present as they are the future?

jenny wood
Jenny Wood, PhD researcher

Although age is a protected characteristic under equalities legislation in the UK, look through government reports, equalities impact assessments and literature on age in society and you find the focus is almost exclusively on the elderly. My research (beginning now as part of my ESRC-funded  MRes and my PhD from September) looks into the contributions that children can bring to town planning by voicing their own, expert perspective on their external environments.

Of course, children cannot vote, and therefore the political incentive to acknowledge their individual views in society is masked. Though parent’s needs for raising a child may be addressed, and family is acknowledged as beneficial to society; children are often dismissed as a population that will BECOME citizens, not citizens in the here and now. Words such as ‘childish’, ‘adolescent’ and ‘immature’ can be used to insult the views of others, but aren’t these exactly the views we need sometimes? Pretending that all people in society want to live in adult-oriented space seems naïve in itself.

A recent BBC article on how different experts would design the city of the future is an interesting example of this. Although 2 children are given the task of deciding on a future city, it is treated more as a comedic afterthought than serious suggestion. However, reading their views it is clear they have thought through what would be good for themselves and the city as a whole. Some of their suggestions are even reminiscent of current Scottish Planning Policy.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as ratified in the UK in 1991, states in article 12 that children have the right to a say in all matters that affect them, and for their opinions to be given full attention. Strangely however, this seems mainly to be considered in terms of non-mandatory, post-16 education, and rarely in relation to public policy.

  • Are our town and cities good places to grow up?
  • Do children have access to the environments they wish to play in?
  • Do they feel they are valued by the built environment? 

We cannot be sure, unless we ask children to have a meaningful say, and present problems and solutions that will actually be taken forward into plans, policies and applications. Research throughout the world suggests children often have strong feelings towards their local environment, after all, they are the ones most constrained by it. They cannot drive cars, necessarily see above that high fence or wall, or cross main roads by themselves, and when children are allowed to explore their world independently; they may not have the resources to pursue their favoured leisure activity.

In fact, we seem often to strive towards protecting the youngest children from the horrors of the external world, whilst teenagers and youths are vilified as inherent threats to our perceived safety. Could there not be links between the environment, youth crime, rioting, underage drinking, loitering etc.?

The sociologist Spencer E Cahill sums this up nicely by pointing out:

The very presence of groups of preadolescents or adolescents in a public place is apparently considered a potential threat to public order […] While adults treat younger children in public places as innocent, endearing yet sometimes exasperating incompetents, they treat older children as unengaging and frightfully undisciplined rogues. Among other things, the very violation of public etiquette that adults often find amusing when committed by younger children are treated as dangerous moral findings when the transgressor is a few years older.

This brings us onto the topic of town planning which has the responsibility to ensure the young are not unnecessarily disadvantaged by policy or developments, and should also allow appropriate mechanisms for children to give their views on their environments. It’s all very well to require developers to incorporate parks and playgrounds into development, but to what extent are these just trivial concessions made to gain permission?

A neighbourhood playground. Is this built for children, or for the parents of children?

It strikes me as strange that a wealth of information exists within the environmental psychology field on the importance of environment for the development and experience of those under 18. In fact, for middle childhood (age 6-12), environment is considered particularly important. This research often means indoor environments such as schools, nurseries and youth clubs are considered carefully, yet we have not taken wide scale efforts to approach the potential inadequacies of external environments, and particularly little has been done to directly ask children what these could be.

Children’s geographies has emerged as a discipline that links environmental psychology with the environment, and to an extent planning.  Yet frustratingly none of these strands seem yet to have exchanged information and communicated on a meaningful level. If this research could be linked together to build up expertise and interpret it to the practical field of planning; perhaps we could create the right statutory mechanisms to approach the problems of inadequate child environments.

Indeed (as has been highlighted in previous IHURER blogs) children are the group most likely to be living in poverty in the UK. Additionally, we hear often of ‘failing’ schools in deprived neighbourhoods, poor diets for children living in poverty, and the lack of aspirations for many growing up in tough circumstances. It seems intuitive to me that there are clear links between the lower quality environments of many deprived areas, and the prevalence of social inequalities. If childhood then is the most important time for development, then improving the environmental quality of the areas children lives could play a big part in improving the quality of life for many now and in the future.

My research therefore looks at how we can integrate the rights of children to be heard into the Scottish Planning system. Over this summer’s dissertation I will be investigating to what extent does the Scottish planning system meet the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? I hope that through this, the current successes and failings of Scottish planning can be identified and areas for change can be put forward. Ultimately, in conjunction with my PhD; I intend to present solutions and reforms that could be taken forward in reality to create a more inclusive planning system. Not only does this topic bring potential benefits for planning, democracy, child development, and empowerment of children, but it feeds very much into the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence and the current focus on Global and Active Citizenship in education.

I feel strongly that the needs of young people must be more directly addressed in Planning. I look forward to investigating this topic further and hopefully contributing more of my findings to future blog posts.

You may also enjoy Jenny’s recent stand-up comedy sketch on this subject: BANANA NIMBYISM

If you’d like to keep track of Jenny’s ongoing research, follow her on Twitter:

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