I am going to talk about children’s relationship with the urban public realm. The presentation is based on the findings of my PhD research, which explored urban spatial mobility from the perspective of the child. There is a concern, which I am sure most of you will be aware of, – in the media, in academia and among parents and teachers – that children are disappearing from public space. This is explained by a range of factors such as a tendency for children to spend more time indoors; in the crèche, at school, at home, or doing after school activities. Children are also increasingly driven from one place to the next so less likely to be walking through public space. There is a greater awareness of potential dangers to children, and a concern around stranger danger does curtail their freedom. But in some contexts many children do still walk through public space for a variety of reasons. One place where the majority of children walk regularly to and from school is the north west inner city of Dublin, which is where my research was based. So I set out to explore the experience of those daily walks through urban public space from the children’s perspective. I discovered that these daily walks made by children are effectively a transgression of what is understood as adult territory. Due largely to the narrative around what appears to be a disappearance of children, we no longer expect to see them walking around in the city. Public space is considered adults space, and as such, unsafe for children. It is generally designed with the needs of adults in mind. So when we do see children, we view them with suspicion. In this paper children’s use of the adult oriented public realm is identified as a transgression and I argue that an analysis of this apparent transgression challenges our assumptions about public space, children and their everyday lives. I will begin with a brief account of my methodology. Then I will focus on the experience the children described using photography, which reveals a largely positive experience. They feel a strong sense of belonging and construct a rich sense of place.
This is a map of my research location. Dublin. A relatively small city. By the time you get to Dunboyne you are no longer actually in Dublin so it is reasonably easy to navigate. The small yellow and red shape there marks the section of Dublin where my research was conducted
And here more precisely is the north-west inner city (NWIC) of Dublin. This is where I live myself. It is a culturally and socio-economically diverse area. It is also quite a historic location. It is the old markets area, once home to the cattle markets and still the location for the fruit and vegetable markets. One of the schools involved in the research is right in the middle of the fruit markets.
This is a picture taken by one of the children. In terms of housing, there is a mixture of 19th century artisan cottages, mid 20th century local authority flats like this where one of the participants lives,
…and early 21st century private apartments such as what you see here. Again taken by one of the children. In the NWIC, as with most cities, there are instances of appalling dereliction, awful traffic management schemes, a high degree of rubbish on the streets, but also instances of considerable beauty. And this is the environment the children walk through each day. I worked with a group of children, aged between nine and eleven, who lived in this part of Dublin. I asked them to map their daily experience of walking through the city. The walks they chose were the walk to and from school, to the shop, to go out to play, to visit friends, or to go to an after school activity. I gave them disposable cameras to take with them on their walks and they developed what are described as visual narratives of their experience. They subsequently participated in photo-elicited interviews to interpret their images. Since the UN Convention on the Rights of Child was ratified in the early nineties children are increasingly asked their views on a whole range of issues and so looking at children’s lives from their perspective is a trend in research nowadays. But there is quite a challenge in trying to see what the child sees. It is easy to impose an interpretation on the image and understand it from an adult perspective so one of my key challenges was to hear the voice of the child and represent that in my findings. Essentially what I found was that they experience the urban public realm as a landscape comprising tightly interwoven social, sensory, pragmatic and imaginative dimensions. Almost all the slides which follow are of images taken by the children to represent that experience. Each caption comes from a quote used by the relevant child to describe the meaning of the picture so the captions help understand the space as the children do. I am going to begin with their sense of the urban landscape as a highly social encounter because this dimension occurred most frequently. The children captured all kinds of social encounters along the routes they walked. Many children photographed pals or siblings and they often photographed an accompanying adult. The walk was understood as an opportunity to chat, to share their news, or gossip. They specifically said they did not like walking alone. There walks were considered very much a time to socialise.
This is a photograph of a chain of shops in Ireland. They have tended to replace the little family owned shop and older generations, like myself see them as an indication of a sort of loss. But for the children, these are actually the equivalent of the old family run shop. They know the shop keepers and they call in on their walks for sweets or some other kind of treat. I got lots of photographs of Centra’s and Londis’s and they seem to play the same role as the older shops did, by providing an opportunity for all kinds of social engagement. In fact in such a high tech age, I was surprised that the same old fashioned treat of going to the shop for some sweets is still so important to children.
They also photographed people they met regularly. The lollipop lady here is a typical example of someone children meet on their way and the fact that this particular lollipop lady is always there with a smile for them is extremely important. They know her, she knows them and her presence helps create both a friendly and comfortable environment for them.
This is Brendans coffee shop, and that is a photograph of Brendan himself with one of his employees. The cafe is in the fruit markets area, just around the corner from where a number of the participants were at school. All the children at that particular school took photographs of Brendan’s. On their way past they wave at their teachers sitting at a window counter, having a quick coffee before the day starts. Brendan also knows them all and waves out at them. And some children get to go in and buy a breakfast roll or a sausage roll to eat before heading into class. This cafe is a hive of activity and the sense of being recognised, and of feeling welcomed is very important. In their turn, the children act as the thread which weaves the lives of the various adults together. Their presence plays an extremely important role in the development of social capital in an inner city location which without them, might be a far more anonymous place for everyone concerned.As well as a social experience, many children described a very sensory experience as they walked through public space.
Some of them walk through the old fruit markets on their way to school and the smell of fruit really enhances the experience and they all talk about it in a very vivid way. Some of their sensory experiences are not so pleasant. There are inevitably some horrible smells, but sound has quite a significant effect on them. They will describe the loud roar of lorries and the hum of traffic as unnerving and as interfering in the conversations.
This is a picture of the tracks of the modern tram in Dublin, known as the Luas. It cuts through the north west inner city and some children catch the Luas to school. But it can be Very loud. There is a lot of bell ringing as it moves and the child who took this picture and crosses the tracks on her way to school every day finds the sound very distressing.
On the other hand there are also some very enjoyable tactile experiences for children. This is a laneway through a fairly new development at Smithfield Square. I would think it feels a bit bleak and hemmed in walking along, but it obviously captures the sunshine and you can almost feel a sense of this child strolling slowly along enjoying that sensation. So also, much like ourselves, the children have a very pragmatic experience of the public realm.
This is as you can see, a slow down, look around sign. Children notice signage and interpret it to develop an understanding of space and how they are themselves understood in that space. In this case, there is a picture of children, and the sign is telling car drivers to watch out. Small things like that help to foster a sense of belonging.
On the other hand, the high volume of traffic is a challenge. This is a very busy junction. On one side there is a local authority housing complex, and over across six lanes of traffic, is the local boys primary school. Getting across roads safely is a big concern for the children and they all describe the traffic and its effects. So the next slide is a bit disgusting. I wont linger for too long, but it is an example of the kind of squalor the children have to navigate on their everyday walks
So, dog shit and rubbish, we have a massive problem with this in Dublin and obviously it has a profound impact on the children’s experience.
But moving along to the more imaginative and reflective experience the children describe. This is a photograph of the door to an early 18th century house on my own street. It is in quite a state of disrepair and clearly it looks haunted. The children associate some of what they see with stories they’ve been reading and certain places can seem quite frightening. I don’t think the house is haunted, there is a family there. But every day the child who took this picture walks by and becomes very anxious because of what looks to her like something out of the Lemony Snickett series.
Again, something unnerving for a child. They often project a somewhat imaginative meaning onto rubbish like beer cans or old bottles and create a story around what they see. In this case the child explained to me that this can meant bad people have been here and that walking along this route you never know when you might encounter one of these scary people.
On the other hand, they also have very amusing imaginative experiences. This is a photograph of the old distillery tower on Smithfield Square. You used to be able to get a lift up the top and look out across the city. It was a big tourist attraction. But somehow, according to the child who took the picture, the lift broke, it got stuck and everyone in the lift remains stuck up there to this day, because, I was told, you can’t get a big enough ladder up there – which amuses him on his walk!
So to sum up, through the study I conducted in collaboration with children it is clear that in their everyday urban walks they shape a sense of place as a landscape of imaginary, sensory, pragmatic and social dimensions
The place knowledge the children convey through their visual narratives indicates a strong sense of belonging which belies the apparent act of transgression their presence in adult oriented space suggests. They experience a rich and complex landscape, noticing little details like the snail crawling along the footpath.
Or the leaves and branches of a tree bursting out from behind a high up wall and feel a sense of the ‘growth and life’ the tree suggests. Their daily transgression of an adult oriented public realm traverses a rich seam through the urban fabric. As adults we tend not to notice children. But when we explore that transgression from the perspective of the transgressor, we can learn a lot about the city. The experience they describe presents a new understanding of how public space is encountered and utilised. They are renowned experts on their local environments and can tell us a lot about them. They see beyond stigmatising or ugly features to a beauty often hidden from adults that we might in fact enhance were we to notice. So we need to reconsider assumptions we make about children and the public domain, and to engage with them as what de Certeau (1984) describes as ‘ordinary practitioners’, rather than transgressors who are out of place. In doing so, we can begin to explore new possibilities for the urban environment.
Childhood Landscape of the City
Spatial stories: a walk through the
childhood landscape of public space
10th Annual AHRA Conference Bristol
Dr. Jackie Bourke
Spatial stories: a walk through the childhood
landscape of public space
10th Annual AHRA Conference Bristol UK:
Dr. Jackie Bourke