Real-life Participation and its Impact on Urban and Regional Planning

“Walk down the curb cut, where we can wait in the bump out before using the crosswalk. See those plastic bollards, they keep us safe. Can you say ‘crosswalk’?”

Does this sound like a conversation you’ve had with your children, nieces or nephews while on a walk? In fact, this is the beginning of a story from one of our faculty, Megan Bucknum, and her son. As they walk along, she naturally teaches her young son about Urban Planning while identifying features of the landscape. Our faculty. They’re experts and always learning. They’re also accessible. Wondering what Megan shares about Urban Planning with her son and her graduate students? Perhaps you’re curious as to what a child can teach a faculty member about Urban Planning. Read on to discover more about her approach and how an M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning can benefit your career.

On a hot August afternoon, I find myself replicating portions of a lecture typically reserved for my Foundations of Planning and Environmental Design college course to my two-and-a-half-year-old son while walking through our New Jersey town. While I often narrate the built environment, on this day we are exploring the temporary traffic design elements proposed for a busy street around the commuter train station that connects our town with Philadelphia. This participatory planning process is designed to allow residents an opportunity to physically test out multi-modal transportation designs prior to sharing their feedback within an online survey form. As a new resident in town and a planning educator, this pilot project had me intrigued at the moment they placed the first temporary curb cut at a dangerous intersection a few blocks away from my house.

This project was exciting to me because I spent the summer developing a graduate course that examines best practices for communicating and collaborating with the public. While reviewing the literature about how to create participatory planning processes worthy of Sherry Arnstein’s approval, I kept thinking about how there are not many examples of integrating children into collaborative planning projects. So often the strategies for collaboration involve evening meetings that have an expectation of polite decorum or activities that are heavily dependent on written language, all of which are not always compatible with small children. These participation methodologies can also exclude the caregivers of small children. As a mom of a small child, I (like so many other caregivers) have spent the last year and half multitasking through my responsibilities, brainstorming ways of completing tasks with a child in tow. The temporary transportation pilot project in my town is an example of a public feedback project appropriate for people of all ages to experience when and how they are able.

While my son, Vince, and I walked along and through the different designs I explained what each one was and how it makes the street safer for everyone; no matter how they choose to move along it. After we experienced the street in person, we went back home and recreated the street with the plethora of transportation-related toys we have at home (i.e. toy cars, trucks and roadways), along with two miniature bicycles I purchased for this project. Using tape, I replicated the actual roadway as much as possible creating an imaginative learning environment where the planning concepts could be explored and questioned. The scaled-down version of the project allowed me to demonstrate how many uses need to be considered on a roadway and what can happen if there are not appropriate traffic management strategies in place. I’m sad to report there was a large number of fictitious traffic incidents that took place on our model that afternoon, but the resulting benefit was a two-year-old that (almost) understood principles of traffic calming and a university lecturer intrigued with how to invite children’s participation in the planning process.

Turning to research already conducted, there are many cited benefits for including children in the planning process. Kimberley L. Knowles-Yanez nicely synthesizes these within the 2005 Journal of Planning Literature article “Children’s Participation in Planning Processes.” Knowles-Yanez states that child involvement can be beneficial to “the personal and intellectual growth of the individual” and that “introducing children to land use decision making can educate them early on about these responsibilities and contribute significantly to development of their capabilities as citizens” (2005). The article serves as a synopsis of the existing literature on the topic of child involvement in land use planning and organizes examples of research and practice into four areas of motivation: “scholarly, practice, educational, and rights-based approaches” (Knowles-Yanez, 2005). While the scholarly and practice research is conducted from the lens of geography and planning and focused more on the subject matter of land use, the educational research focuses more on methods and pedagogy. The rights-based approach draws from the notion that it is a child’s right to be involved in the land use decision-making process, just as an adult may claim the same right over the development decisions where they live. The author points out that these categories are more porous than they are distinct, but for the reader this organization can serve as a helpful framing regarding what ideas have been considered and resources of best practices.
ladder of participation

The majority of the resources focused on older children and not on preschool aged children. Because this age group is not cognitively able to share informed, independent opinions, considerations should be taken in order to avoid falling into a trap of what Robert Hart describes as manipulation, decoration, or tokenism (1992). Hart adapts Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation graphic as a suggestion of how to evaluate authentic and self-actualized participation from children. Hart describes “non-participation” efforts as examples of when adults involve children in ways that are not fully explained or understood by the children (holding political signs or wearing a t-shirt with a political message) or “instances in which children are apparently given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about the subject or the style of communicating it, and little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions” (Hart, 1992).

In my own application, I entered into my experiment thinking I could ask Vince if he liked the crosswalk by our house and then I would include that in my response to the public survey. However, as we played with the model of the street throughout the afternoon, it became clear that the main goal of our activity was to replicate real life through play to facilitate learning. As I asked questions about the model, it was near impossible to ask one that was not leading in response to his free play on the model. “Would you like for this pedestrian to cross safely?”  “Do you think there’s enough room for the bicyclist and the dump truck?”  “Should the race car drive that fast on our road?” Any questions about what he may want to see on the road were not able to be posed and responded in a manner that would meet Hart’s top tier of participation: “child-initiated, shared decisions with adults” (1992). This rings especially true when your mom teaches planning and experiences sadness every time a car or truck was chosen over the miniature bicycle within the toy model.

While my public feedback response only included my own thoughts and not my son’s, inviting him into the process revealed the importance to me of educating young children about the built environment. Many young children already demonstrate their curiosity of infrastructure by playing with toy cars, building settlements with blocks, arranging train sets or staring with wonder from their strollers or car seats. These expressions of interest can be an invitation to talk to them about how the built environment works because they are “the longest term stakeholders in society” (Badham, 2002, as cited in Winters, 2010). Instilling this knowledge at a young age could help children realize that the design of the places in which they live is not stagnant but ever evolving based on the needs and interests of the people. Finding ways to connect the “real,” outside world with the “imaginative,” play-based world can empower children to know that their imagined space can be integrated into the lived space.

Does Megan sound like the kind of thoughtful professor you’re looking for? Is increasing your knowledge as an urban planner - or becoming one - part of your plan to move ahead? Are you interested in pursuing an M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning? Request information, attend an info session, or start your application.

megan bucknum
Meet the Author

Megan Bucknum
Lecturer/Research Associate - NJ Map Project Coordinator
M.U.E.P. from UVA

Megan Bucknum applies her background in urban and environmental planning to the fields of food systems and participatory planning. Leveraging knowledge gained from holding positions across the food supply chain, she conducts research about regionally-based food distribution models that address sustainability and food security. Additionally, she integrates her experience facilitating public meetings, conducting interviews and designing participatory research projects into the curriculum of her courses and in support of faculty research projects. Motivated by the power of narrative, her research and class projects use interviews and oral histories to explore barriers and opportunities along our food supply chains and to understand how people connect to the built and natural environment. The method allows people to be both involved and informed by her projects. She currently teaches Introduction to Planning and Environmental Design, Urban Geography and Food Systems Planning.

Hart, R. (1992).  Children’s participation:  From tokenism to citizenship.  United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Knowles-Yanaz, K. (2005).  “Children’s participation in planning processes.” Journal of Planning Literature, 20(1), pp. 3-14.

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