As an increasing number of the world’s children live in cities, their rights to play, participate in cultural life and express themselves become urgent matters for urban development. According to UN Sustainable Development Goals no 11 Sustainable cities and communities, universal access should be provided “to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities”. Despite the strong international advocacy for children’s rights, public spaces for play and recreation are at risk of being reduced under the pressure of economic interests and time efficiency in mobility planning.

Sweden has taken a significant step by enshrining the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNC RC ) into law from Jan 2020 and proposing a “continued systematic transformation work” for children’s rights, as expressed by the Swedish Minister of Social Inclusion. This project contributes to this by exploring the role of artistic design work for the realization of children’s rights to play and express themselves in urban contexts.

Participatory initiatives claiming to involve children in the design of urban public spaces are not new. Researchers have shown, however, that, beyond becoming a rhetorical tool, children’s participation in urban development is still limited to what Hart (2007) called “the ladder of participation”. Children are often excluded from formal planning phases and reduced to consultation and validation of already-taken decisions. As a consequence, children’s involvement is used “as a means of labelling a process democratic and/or child-friendly” and “fail to acknowledge children as competent and independent actors” (Cele and Van Der Burgt, 2015: 15). Such a state of the art might depend on a lack of a shared understanding of participation and of participatory processes involving children as equal stakeholders, both of which this project addresses.

In this project, we focus on the implementation of the UNC RC (art. 12 and 31) in sustainable urban development in the second largest urban area in Sweden – Gothenburg and Region Västra Götaland. We investigate how new participatory design practices can transform urban public spaces into sustainable living environments for public play and re-creation in different areas of the city. We question the playground as a dedicated and isolated space, separating and domesticating children in the city and the curbing of children’s democratic agency by the often late and short-term involvement in adult-dominated public design outcomes. Realizing the right to play, recreation and free participation in a community’s cultural life are important to develop lasting communal urban identities. It requires the possibility to appropriate and to affect the materiality of a space according to situational and multiple individual needs.

We also want to remedy the lack of knowledge and tools which can enable design-centered interaction between adults and children at eye height (Van Eycken, 2020) and offer public spaces and processes for children to exercise their democratic citizenship by negotiating needs for play with multiple others.

Our investigation and development of new artistic participatory design methods of transforming public spaces for play and recreation in different areas of the city focus on two lines of experimention:

Experimenting with and understanding the possibilities and limitations of co-design interventions hacking existing urban infrastructure for play and recreation;
Experimenting with and understanding the possibilities and limitations of design interventions co-crafting new public play tools.
We work towards developing a new participatory design-based framework for the implementation of UNC RC in sustainable cities, which is shared by all project partners, helps them to develop competences on participatory processes and highlights the processual complexities of organizing artistic-based transdisciplinary collaborations.

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