Participatory placemaking with teenagers

We know that public spaces are really important to teenagers — as places to socialise, exercise, access destinations, develop a personal identity, and find a place in society — but young people don’t often get a chance to influence the design of public spaces. As an architect and participatory designer, this was the starting point for my practice-based PhD, and the idea I’ll be bringing to UNLEASH.

My name is Kate. I grew up in rural Western Australia, I now live in Sydney, and I’ve been interested in the intersection of design and community development for many years. As a student I was lucky to participate in Global Studio, an initiative of the Taskforce on Improving the Lives of Slumdwellers that aimed to address the UN Millennium Development Goals. Through a practical project, we learnt about the importance of involving local communities in projects that affect them. They have a right to participate, but it also makes sense practically, since they have valuable knowledge that will help to make a project successful. Following the studio, full of optimism, I initiated a project with another architecture student and Global Studio alumni, Rosemary Korawali from Papua New Guinea. We found a partner organisation in PNG and went to visit the village of Labu-tale, where we called a village meeting and asked what they needed. They were planning to relocate their village away from the coast due to rising sea levels, and they would need a health centre at the new village, so we set about creating a project to design and build one. We used participatory methods — community meetings, focus groups, finding out about the priorities of youth, women and men, transect walks. We built a beautiful health centre using mostly local materials, through the combined efforts of local people and a group of architecture students. It won an international architecture award. We had an amazing inter-cultural and learning experience. And then the building sat empty. A dispute between neighbouring villages developed over the site of the new village. It took a long time going through the courts and the people who had moved to the new village site moved back to their old homes. I realised that using participatory methods as an architect was not enough. I hadn’t known enough about village politics. I hadn’t questioned how Rosemary’s and my position as donors might influence what people told us. I hadn’t been willing to see the subtle clues that things weren’t as simple as we had thought.

It was a transformational learning experience for me. Since then I’ve set about learning to do things better. I’ve expanded my own skill set, and learnt how to find and work with partner organisations who have different skills to me. This worked well in Cambodia, in a project I developed with Agile Development Group to co-design floating vegetable gardens with people living on Lake Tonle Sap. When we came back to visit nine months after the design and prototyping workshop, we found many new families had built their own gardens by adapting the construction methods to suit their needs and budgets, and they felt proud of their village’s involvement in developing the technique which they described as modern. We wrote this handbook about the process.

My attention also started to become more focused on home. Even though I love to travel, I realised that there were plenty of interesting and pressing issues in my own backyard. Inequality is growing in Australia. We are a very urban country, and the nature of urban life is changing. Our population is culturally diverse (where I work in Western Sydney, over 50% of people were born overseas and 41% speak a language other than English at home) but right-wing protests against multiculturalism seem to be growing. I’ve become interested in how we shape our urban environment (and public spaces in particular) to become places that are meaningful for us and that allow us to connect, particularly with people who are seen as ‘other’, such as teenagers. I believe that participation is critical to this, but as the story of the health centre shows, participation is not something you can just easily add into a project by following a set method or procedure. It’s a practice that requires us to reflect on who we are, what assumptions we bring to our work, and how we relate with others. Through designing together, we also change ourselves. I set out in my PhD to see how participation could work well with and for teenagers.

Teenagers have so much to offer their communities. They have great ideas, and they are willing to work to achieve them. The kids I spoke with wanted to get involved in their community in ways that are creative, practical, and sociable. To test out how to do that, I developed a project with the wonderful youth-focused organisation Mt Druitt Learning Ground. A group of 10–16 year olds worked with myself and some design volunteers on Friday evenings to design and build a chill space for their local park, captured in this video by local young film-maker Daisy Montalvo.

We learnt a lot through this pilot. I’m excited to bring those learnings to UNLEASH, and to work alongside other placemakers, designers and urban-focused folk, in thinking about how we can improve the quality of public participation in city-making. I also hope to develop ideas and networks for scaling up youth placemaking, through partnerships with schools or local governments, and thinking about potential business models.