Youth Plan
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Youth Plan

In Conversation with: Mark Wales

We are happy to announce that we are now, in May 2022, launching a new initiative called In Conversation With. An interview series in which we will host practitioners, activists, and others who are engaged in hands-on initiatives, projects, and similar actions in their local environments. We would like to give space here to emerging topics and hear more from those directly engaged in initiatives seeking to make our urban areas safer, more inclusive, and sustainable. The interviews are moderated by our project communication officer Johanna Männikkö.

In the first interview in this series, we hosted Mark Wales, PhD student in Environment Psychology and lecturer at the Department of People and Society at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Alnarp. Mark is also a coordinator for the national network Barn, Unga och Byggd miljö (BUB).

JM: Hello Mark! You are engaged in so many different things. Can you please tell us more about your current work?

MW: The background to my current research is that I had realized over the years that we really don’t know much about Swedish youth and how they use or experience their outdoor environments. Current research suggests that mental health disorders, or mental health related issues such as headaches or poor sleep from stress, is the biggest public health problem that young people in Sweden, and many other countries, are facing today. Yet, we do not know much about how we ended up there. This created a desire in me to learn more about the role the outdoor environment has for adolescent wellbeing. I also wanted to move beyond just talking about preventing or alleviating mental health issues and try to understand how we can help young people promote their own wellbeing in their everyday lives. What types of places make them feel happy? Where can they go to meet their needs, to socialize with friends or to be alone after a bad day? Where do they feel safe and feel like they belong? How do their everyday environments nurture the growing independence they’ve got and support their autonomy, movement and activity? And how can we as adults create these kinds of places?

In my research I focus on young people aged 13–15 years old, because I see the need to look at “subgroups” within these larger groups we often talk about, like youth. For example, 10–13 year-olds have very different needs to 13–16 year-olds, or older teenagers. I have also spent time reading research from developmental psychology to learn to understand exactly what it is that’s happening in their bodies and brains that drives needs at certain ages. It has also taught me to see just how critical this stage of life is for individual development and society at large. So, I hope my study is going to shed light not only on the types of outdoor environments and public spaces that are important for young people, but also on why these places are vital for them.

Besides my research, I am course leader for a course called Outdoor Environments for Children and Youth as part of our master’s programme Outdoor Environments for Health and Well-being. My students have varied backgrounds, such as urban planners, nurses, teachers etc., and it is important to me to share knowledge and make them curious about what constitutes child- and youth friendly environments. This is vital, as to really make child- and youth-friendly environments we need to all take responsibility across society. It is not solely the responsibility of landscape professionals such as urban planners or landscape architects.

In addition, I help coordinate the national network Barn, Unga och Byggd miljö (Children, Youth and the Built Environment), which is a mailing list that looks to unite individuals with a passion for creating good quality environments for children and youth and create synergies. Every year we hold network meetings on different topics and during the year we serve as a platform to share information and knowledge with each other.

JM: What is your best advice for professionals who might want to include children and youth in planning processes?

MW: My first piece of advice would be to question the way you as an individual or group of colleagues view and perceive children and youth in general. Ask yourself “What do we already know about this particular age group, and how do we view them?” “Do we view them as vulnerable, or do we view them as competent?” “How do we think of them in relation to public spaces?” These are important considerations to make because they will very much influence your starting point, and the direction your project will take.

Ask yourself “What do we already know about this particular age group, and how do we view them?” … “How do we think of them in relation to public spaces?” These are important considerations to make because they will very much influence your starting point, and the direction your project will take.

Another important advice is to make use of the research that already exists. There are handbooks now that provide methods and methodologies on how to include children and youth in planning and design processes, with examples from all over the world and numerous research papers. And then to not be afraid to contact local universities or experts in the field, such as those in the BUB network. This way you can also make more informed decisions about which projects children and youth really need to be involved in, and at what stages their involvement will be most meaningful.

After these considerations it’s of course important to consider which methods and methodologies to use to include children and youth. What I’ve found is that different methods suit different age groups and individuals. Not everybody is comfortable with being interviewed, but then not everybody is comfortable with drawing a picture. Don’t be afraid to ask children and youth how they would like to be included and how they think you can best understand their experiences of a place. One of my favorite methods is to walk or move with children and youth in an environment and talk about it together. It is quite time-consuming, of course, and it requires practice, but it is one of the best ways of really getting down in detail and understanding the importance of different places.

Don’t be afraid to ask children and youth how they would like to be included and how they think you can best understand their experiences of a place.

JM: Where do you see the greatest need for change?

MW: Well, I think one of the most difficult things in Sweden today is understanding what the Convention on the Rights of the Child means with regards to the inclusion of children and youth in planning processes. How does it translate into a planning or building context, and what does it mean from a legal point of view? Can individuals take municipalities to court if they don’t believe their child’s best interests have been considered, for example? I think that’s something I would like to see more time given to. Quite simply, we need to take children’s and youth’s everyday lives more seriously and we need national and local policy and guidelines that reflect this and support the process of creating health-promoting environments.

Another thing we need to figure out is how to include the voices of and provide supportive environments for children and youth in the most disadvantaged areas. I know from my own research, where I had 300 students fill in questionnaires, that many who didn’t fill it out were from disadvantaged areas, or maybe had parents who were born abroad, so there is a language, or cultural barrier. There are many barriers for inclusion. At times it is hard to do research on these matters due to ethical requirements, the difficulty in coming in contact with youth and the need to have parental consent.

Youth are regularly not given the benefit of the doubt. What if we flip the coin and start looking at the positive things they’re doing, and contributing to? If we dig a little deeper you will often find that much of what they do has a purpose for their development and well-being.

Like I’ve mentioned earlier, I don’t think that adolescence or youth are being talked about or researched enough with regards to their inclusion in planning processes. I don’t think we do enough to understand just how important public spaces are for them and I’d particularly like to see a lot more focus on youth in a positive light. There’s lots of work being done where the starting point is that “young people in this neighborhood are causing problems. How do we stop them?” Youth are regularly not given the benefit of the doubt. What if we flip the coin and start looking at the positive things they’re doing, and contributing to? If we dig a little deeper you will often find that much of what they do has a purpose for their development and well-being.

Lastly I would also like to see more collaborations in general. Between researchers in different disciplines and planners, public health professionals etc., but also with key figures in children’s everyday lives, like parents, teachers and youth club leaders. A socioecological approach is crucial if we are to reduce inequalities and provide health-promoting environments for all children and youth.

JM: How do you understand intergenerational justice and how do you see it relating to accountability and ethics?

MW: This is a really difficult question. We know that early-life conditions can have life-long effects, that might even be irreversible, on the health of children as they develop and become adults. Not only this, but such effects can be carried onto their own children, and then the children of their children.

A course I have taken recently on early life conditions and child development helped me realize just how hard it is to break the cycle of disadvantage and transform people’s life trajectories from negative to positive. And I think it has been really productive to step outside of my usual area of research. When studying landscape architecture, I always felt the perspective was a little narrow. The focus was on designing and planning places for people in general, with little care or attention to exactly what the outcomes would be with regards health and well-being. And that’s why it’s interesting and important to work with children and youth. Because their needs, their way of seeing the world, and their use of public spaces, is quite different to that of adults.

I guess then that intergenerational justice means making sure that future generations get what they deserve. That is, each new generation, every individual, deserves a fresh start, a clean slate, an environment which nurtures and develops the qualities of that person and allows them to become the best version of themselves, whatever that may be and at all stages of life. And I think intergenerational justice is about taking responsibility now. But who should be held accountable for these injustices? That’s kind of the tricky question and something that I think maybe the Convention of the Rights of the Child tries to correct. It tries to provide a framework to understand this. It is very complex.

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Planning with Youth

Planning with Youth

Planning with Youth (Youth Plan) is a research project studying the role of youth in sustainable urban planning. Founded by FORMAS.