Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The city as a playground: children, young people and the right to the city

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address to help launch a seminar series on Children, Young People and the Built Environment called "Beyond Playgrounds and Skateparks", hosted by the NSW Commissioner for Children and Young People.

My talk was called "The city as a playground: children, young people, and the right to the city". The key message of the talk was that we need to move from thinking about the provision of playgrounds for kids in the city, to thinking about the whole city as their (and indeed everyone's!) playground. This is a matter of justice, of recognising children and young people's rights to the city as inhabitants with an equal stake in the urban environment.

You can watch the talk here. It's one of those fancy webcasts where you can watch the talk and see the powerpoints all at once. However, there are a few embarrassing minutes where you have to watch me stand quietly while I show a clip from an early episode of Sesame Street which you can't see. So, here's the clip I showed:

It's an awesome little segment from the very first episode in 1969, of a bunch of kids playing 'follow the leader' through backyards, drain pipes, and dormant building sites.* It's a great example of Herman Mattern's point, made a year earlier in 1968, that:
One should be able to play everywhere, easily, loosely, and not forced into a 'playground' or 'park'. The failure of an urban environment can be measured in direct proportion to the number of 'playgrounds'.
That quote appears in Colin Ward's awesome 1978 book The Child in the City, which has informed a lot of my thinking on this particular topic. In the late 1970s, he was already observing the curtailing of children's independent access to the city, a trend which seems to have deepened according to more recent research by folks like Gill Valentine.

This curtailment is a matter of justice, an infringement on children's rights to the city. It reflects (and reinforces) the fact that children and young people are excluded from many of the rights and responsibilities of the citizen more generally.

It's obviously kinda contentious to suggest that children and young people are equals who ought to have full citizenship and rights to the city. We spend a week in my Cities and Citizenship course thinking about these issues, and it never fails to be one of the most hotly-debated issues in the Unit. The most common justification for treating children and young people as an exception to the universality of citizenship is that they don't yet have the capacity for autonomy and self-governance. As such, they don't have the capacity to take part in the polity as political beings. In any case, the argument goes, they will grow up to be adults one day, so their exclusion isn't permanent.

But if we take Lefebvre's concept of the right to the city based on inhabitance seriously, it provokes us to ask whether the exclusion of children is the result of problems with our dominant conception of citizenship, rather than a problem with children's capacities. Of course, children have different capacities than adults. But it's also true that children have different capacities to each other, just like adults. Age may be taken-for-granted as a proxy for capacity, but that doesn't make this rather arbitrary proxy adequate or just. The challenge is to think about ways in which everyone's different capacities and interests can be recognised in the ways we plan the urban environment.

So, in the talk I discussed some of the capacities of children and young people that I think could serve as the basis for a reconceptualisation of children and young people's place in the city, as a physical, social and political space. I talked about children and young people's capacities for play, appropriation and evaluation, and gave a few examples of each in action.

In the end, I think the question of how to recognise children and young people's rights to the city raises some much bigger questions about planning, urban politics and rights to the city more generally. In concluding The Child and the City, Colin Ward noted that:
It is ironical, since the whole burden of my argument is that we should give more responsibilities to our city children, that city governments see their adult citizens as feckless juveniles, whose own aspirations and initiatives are not susceptible of incorporation into the official reality.
This is a similar point to the one being made by those who argue that cities are increasingly 'post-political' -- an issue that I am (still!!) working up a post on after a little discussion with Clive Barnett over at Pop Theory a while back.

Anyways ... big thanks to Linda Corkery and Kate Bishop for the invite to talk, it was great fun!


* I love Sesame Street! For those who share the love, you might also like an article I wrote Wax Poetics about the music on the show in honour of its 40th Anniversary a couple of years ago.)

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