Growing Up in an Urbanizing World

Posted: 15 July 2002

Author: Louise Chawla
2002, Earthscan Publications and UNESCO Publishing, London and Sterling VA, £18.95

A long-awaited account of an international research project which has explored the relationship of children and their urban neighbourhoods, and has looked at ways of drawing on children's creativity and engagement in improving these neighbourhoods.

The research is a revival of the classic Growing Up in Cities project, conceived in the 1970s by urban planner Kevin Lynch. Lynch's research sites in Argentina, Australia, Poland and Mexico were, for the most part, relatively stable working-class neighbourhoods. Louise Chawla and her team expanded the number of sites to eight, and included very poor communities in South Africa and India as well as additional sites, all relatively low-income, in the more affluent countries of Norway, the United States and Britain.

More critically, perhaps, they took the project into the second stage that Lynch had envisaged but had never reached - that is, working towards participatory local design and policy-making with children. The comparative aspect, initially expected to be a dominant element of the new research, has actually been a relatively minor feature in terms of specific sites since, for a variety of reasons, only two of the original sites were revisited.

Each of the eight research teams has contributed a chapter. One of the appealing features of this collection - and of the research generally - is the distinctiveness of each contribution. There is the Johannesburg project, for instance, which demonstrated the capacity of children's involvement to galvanize action on the part of older community members, and which became an opportunity to track the traumatic experience of eviction and resettlement which is so routine for millions of people in the world, and so seldom seen from the perspective of children.

There is the Bangalore research which, among other things, became an exploration of the significant barriers to community-based planning, as it looked at issues of both bureaucratic neglect and NGO accountability.

The relative satisfaction that children in these various sites feel with their lives has little to do with their relative economic advantage. In the very poor communities of Satyanagar in Bangalore and Boca Barracas in Buenos Aires, children experience their surroundings as welcoming and friendly, and they feel integrated into the fabric of community life. In Northampton, in the United Kingdom, and Bray Brook in Melbourne, Australia, the focus is on the alienation of young people, who feel they exist on the fringes of an adult world that fails to value them or their priorities.

But sentimental nostrums about the richness and inclusiveness of community life in the South don't work here either. The children of Canaansland in Johannesburg also feel alienated - distrusted by adults and fearful of the violence in their surroundings. And children in communities in Norway and Poland feel a relative sense of safety, freedom and social integration.

The second phase of these projects - the process of supporting children to make changes in their own environments - has had mixed success in the various sites. Teams contended repeatedly with city officials who assumed that participation meant allowing children to sing at some civic event, who were eager to exploit the process for their own political ends, or who felt they already knew what children needed.

But when children were listened to, it had a powerful effect, transforming apathy and a sense of inferiority into self-assurance and enthusiastic involvement. Genuine participation, it becomes clear yet again, opens doors for both children and communities.

Reviewer: Sheridan Bartlett

Reviewer Info: Dr Bartlett is a child development specialist who works with the Children's Environments Research Group, New York, and is a senior research associate with the Human Settlements Programme of the International Institute for Environment and Development.