How is the Council Making Sure Kids Have a Voice in City Planning?

“It is better because you won’t get noht nown. (knocked down?)” was one response.

“We need to go that way if it’s raining so they should allow cars,” said another.

“I do not like it but I understand the reason for it,” wrote a peacemaker.

Dublin City Council staff didn’t just ask grown-ups what they thought of a recent traffic trial on Grangegorman Road Lower, which used bollards to open up the street to cyclists and pedestrians and close it to cars. (It’s now permanent.)

Staff also asked kids.

Local primary pupils at Stanhope Street Primary School and D7 Educate Together were asked if they had used the street, and how changes had affected their journeys.

The survey also invited the children to draw their favourite ways to get to school. Cue pictures of empty roads, bikes and sunny days – and one of a flying pig.

When there are plans for new buildings, parks, or transport changes, Dublin City Council puts out a call to ask people what they think of proposals.

Work already being done to hear more from children is great and needs to be built on, say some councillors and academics, who argue that kids need to have a say not just in projects clearly for kids, but in all big changes.

What’s Being Done

“As part of any planning process, it is normal practice to consult with those affected including children or groups representing children,” said a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.

The council has a section dedicated to play development, as part of Parks and Landscapes Services.

It aims to give young people and children a voice in designing “play infrastructure” and developing a play-led approach to local areas, said the council spokesperson.

There’s collaboration between council departments, and within them, to “keep the concept and importance of play to the forefront”, said the spokesperson.

The council works with Green-Schools, a project run by An Taisce, which engages with schoolchildren around mobility and sustainability. They do walkability audits with children in the streets around their schools.

These audits have led to small interventions, such as cutting back hedges, or larger ones, such as putting in pedestrian crossings, based on children’s feedback, said Jane Hackett, a senior programme manager for Green-Schools.

Colourful posters, school visits and teacher-led workbooks were used with local children to hear what they thought of the Stoneybatter Greening Project.

Deborah Clarke, the council’s play development officer, held workshops where children voice-recorded and drew feedback on ideas for bike parking, trees and plants, outdoor seating and play areas in Stoneybatter.

Hackett said Dublin City Council is “going over and above” the work of other councils in getting children involved in local planning.

“They approached us wanting to engage with schools and around school mobility,” she said, and other councils are looking to it to copy.

How to Do it

The council does ask children what they think more now than in the past, says Jackie Bourke, a UCD School of Geography academic who researches children’s experience of the city.

“There is interest there. And it’s just about pushing it along a bit further,” says Bourke.

They can build on consultations with children for new play areas, she says. “They should just broaden that and develop a toolkit that looks more widely at the city.”

Bourke says that planners and urban designers should be trained to collaborate in planning with children.

Starting with working with children and young people to see how they use public space, and hear their contributions, she says.

“Children are often experts on their local neighbourhoods and have valuable knowledge to share,” says Bourke.

It should be in language that they understand too and processes that help them to present ideas, she says. “A PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t be as engaging for children.”

Image from Dublin City Council report on the traffic trial in Grangegorman.

How you ask children questions about their neighbourhoods is different to adults, says Aaron Copeland, creative director of A Playful City, a non-profit that works to put children at the forefront of changes to the city.

“If you ask a child what they want, they’ll say swings and slides because they’ve never had anything else,” he says.

But what children want could be wildly different to what they have been given by councils – playgrounds with 4pm closing times, and games on the street interrupted by a flow of cars, he says.

Copeland recommends more imaginative questions. “If you had eyes on the back of your head, what would you see?” or “What’s the scariest thing you’d like to do?”

“It’s about creating a certain tone for children, so they can talk about their experiences,” he says.

“It is a matter of age,” said Copeland. Children under the age of two may have trouble engaging with a consultation. Beyond that age, he says, it is about designing questions appropriately to encourage the best comprehension.

Bourke said that in her experience, children of all ages have views of their own to share.

Copeland suggests a back-and-forth consultation, where designers draw up designs for infrastructure based on children’s ideas, and bring them back to children for review.

“It’s a conversation, as opposed to ticking the box that children have been consulted,” he says.

Councillors cite the current ongoing consultation ahead of drawing up the next Dublin City Development Plan as a turning point for including children’s voices.

The development plan is the blueprint for the city, laying out what should get built where, how people should get around, and what aspirations are behind that.

Children are being encouraged to create posters showing their visions for the city, as submissions to the plan.

Declan Meenagh, a Labour councillor, said when the strategy for consultation was being discussed, he suggested the poster assignment be changed from “What do you like about your city?” to “What do you want to change?”

Covid-19 restrictions make it hard to imagine getting children engaged in consultations though, he says.

“Hopefully their teachers can take up how to engage them in the development plan,” says Meenagh.

Copeland, creative director of A Playful City, says you have to get closer to the ground to where children are, not just through schools.

“Teachers are always lumped into the idea, to fix everything by promoting a new initiative in schools. Teachers don’t have time,” says Copeland, who is also a secondary school teacher.

He encourages engaging with children near where they live and play.

In 2017, A Playful City drove around in a van, called the “Speil Mobile”, and parked up in neighbourhoods to play games with children, to find out more about how many play spaces there were in areas.

A Wider View

It’s still patchy as to whether kids are consulted though, say some councillors.

“It could be done better”, said Patricia Roe, a councillor for the Social Democrats. “We should reach out to our young people and children through schools, to make them feel listened to.”

“In a city, their voices can be lost. Not everyone goes to school in their own areas, so they might not be talking about what’s going on in their local area,” she says.

For plans that aren’t directly related to children, such as BusConnects, with its reworking on the bus network, children aren’t being accommodated, said Green Party Councillor Janet Horner.

“Kids’ perspectives are very missing from conversations that have future implications on the use of the street,” she said.

The BusConnects consultations in person were in the evenings and required a decent level of literacy and knowledge, she said. That does exclude people.

Public transport is part of the independence for young people, who can’t drive, she says. “So it’s important to capture child perspectives.”

BusConnects didn’t respond to queries sent Friday about measures it took to consult with children, and considerations around that.

Including kids’ voices in feedback on the Grangegorman trial made a difference to councillors’ votes, says Horner. “It makes a difference to be reminded of a child’s eye view.”

Dublin City Council’s attempts so far to engage with children are welcome, Horner says, but she is concerned that it could in the future border on tokenism rather than meaningful engagement.

“It’s about how much they are listened to, not so much the mode, but how they are responded to,” she says.

Will they read the submissions and take them into account? Will they look at the pictures and reflect them in the development plan?

Roe, the Social Democrats councillor, called for a project that would seek input from young people on what they would like to see in their city, and educate them on the work of the council. “It would teach them to be involved and to care for their city.”

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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