A glance at the far-reaching tradition of child-friendly planning in Sweden
This post is written by our project member Emma Norss, and co-authored by Romina Rodela.
Sweden is seen as a forerunner when it comes to planning child-friendly urban environments and engaging young citizens in participatory planning processes. With the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in place as a law in the Swedish legal system (since 2020), it is interesting to look back at past events and actions on the trajectory towards participatory planning that is more inclusive of children and youth.
The far-reaching tradition of planning urban environments that speak to the needs of young citizens dates back to the 1800s when playgrounds and outdoor spaces were allocated in close connection to new housing developments and residential areas. Urban parks were also planned inclusive of playgrounds to attract families to spend time outside. From the mid-1960s, a child-friendly perspective on planning was safeguarded by so-called normative planning, which included norms and legislation on how to plan certain areas for children and youth, such as schoolyards. This was in place up until the new 1987 Planning and Building Act was implemented, and the planning system was decentralized. Meaning that the responsibility to ensure children and youth’s access to play and outdoor activities was put on each individual municipality. This has been a hot topic of discussion during recent years, since schoolyards are shrinking in size, and the densification of cities causes green areas and parks in the vicinity of schools to give place for new buildings.
At the same time, a lot has happened during the past 30 years that contributed to shape the trajectory towards involving children and youth in participatory planning processes. An important milestone on this topic is the declaration of children’s rights in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sweden was one of the first countries to sign and ratify it the same year it entered into force, in 1990. Prior to this, there were other steps made in acknowledging children’s rights in Sweden. For instance, Sweden was the first country to introduce a ban on child abuse and offensive treatment in 1979 which speaks about what the general perception of children and youth as rights holders in Sweden is.
In the years following the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child several other milestones have been made. For instance, we regard of importance to the present achievements also those early years projects and events centered on engaging children and youth in participatory planning, which slowly but consistently contributed to shape the debate. One of such earlier examples is a project hosted by the Swedish Transport Administration between 1992–1999, in which they collaborated with 400 schools and engaged children and youth in questions regarding traffic and safety. The design of this project was innovative and placed children in a more central role to those quite challenging questions around road safety. The Transport Administration became an important partner for other Swedish authorities to collaborate with, in projects aimed at involving children and youth in urban planning processes. For instance, they collaborated with the National Board of Housing, Building, and Planning and the National Institute of Public Health, in a project aimed at supporting municipalities in child-friendly urban planning.
A subsequent important achievement is the Child Impact Assessment policy tool introduced in 2001 across some municipalities and used to the present day. Further occurrences that contributed at strengthening the position of children and youth, and their inclusion, in participatory planning processes that are important to mention include:
- the attention this is given by authorities and planning professionals (e.g. an event hosted by the National Institute of Public Health about incorporating a child perspective in urban planning, and a course on the subject offered to planners at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), and
- the methods and tools that have been developed to ensure that children and youth have the right to have their voices heard in urban planning projects (e.g. the Child Impact Assessment tool).
In looking back at how the trajectory of occurrences evolved in Sweden, we can point out that it is not a singular event that has been a game changer. Rather, the Swedish experience on this can be best described as a process marked by a subsequent progression of events leading to small wins, and failures, at different levels, which however allowed for Sweden to advance on a path towards more inclusive urban governance for what regards the inclusion of younger demographic groups.
We elaborate further on the Swedish experience here in our recently published article, and are eagerly looking forward to seeing how the practice of spatial planning is opening up to children and youth inclusion, and how this will deliver on the ambition of developing more sustainable and inclusive urban living environments.
As a concluding note, it is important to consider that setting in place the needed institutional context for opening up planning to children and youth is only one part of the story. The other part of that story gets to be told by its core characters — the planners, developers, municipal administrators, but above all young people themselves. The Swedish experience on inclusive spatial planning is still unfolding. In our project team we are looking forward to seeing the extent to which, and how, young people will make use of these opportunities, and contribute at shaping their living environments.
About the author:
Emma is currently holding a placement as a research assistant with Youth Plan, and is collaborating on multiple research activities inclusive of knowledge synthesis. Emma has a MSc in Environmental Science and a passion for environmental issues linked to conditions in urban living environments.
About the co-author:
Romina Rodela is the Principal Investigator for the Project Planning with Youth. She is an Associate Professor in Environmental Management and Governance at the Department for Environment, Development and Sustainability Studies of Södertörn University. Romina is working in the interdisciplinary field of environmental governance with research interests in participatory processes for less represented groups, social learning, knowledge integration, equity and justice . @Romina Rodela