What would a city without children be? And what is a children’s city like?

During the periods of confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the emptying of public spaces filled us with desolation. Places that once came alive with the families that frequented them, now seemed empty, sad, and even somewhat ghostly. The ghosts of loneliness, death, and the unknown populated our unconscious and, as in other pandemic situations, aroused various fears, such as the fear of the other (the stranger), but also the fear of the loss of the other (Schimmenti, Billieux, & Starcevic, 2020), fears that acquired, however, different expressions depending on the type of public space and its representation (Castro Seixas & Giacchetta, 2020).

I remember being happy, when those periods of confinement were over, to hear again the joyful cries of the children playing in the playground of a school near my house, on one of the main avenues in Sesimbra, where I lived at the time. How much I missed those cries, I realized then! When I passed by and everything was silent, it was as if something was not right. And in fact a lot was not right at that time, and children were particularly affected by the pandemic, by the anxiety of their parents and caregivers, by the closing of schools and the impossibility of being (physically) with classmates, friends, teachers and other family members, and by the restriction of the play space to the four walls of the house, calling into question their right to play outdoors and enjoy nature (Castro Seixas, Gonzalez, Fernandes-Jesus, & Castro Seixas, 2022).

I remember once passing by the same place – a pre-primary school – and hearing the screams of the children calling out to me, banging on the fence rails loudly to make themselves heard. They wanted me to give them the ball that had bounced off the fence. At the time I thought, amused, that the children had no problem making themselves heard and getting what they wanted. In fact, children can make themselves heard, if we want to listen to them. As has been widely recognized in social studies of childhood, one of the main difficulties of doing research with children is that we adults have to make an effort to get close to the symbolic universe, forms of language, and ways of interacting with the world of children, in order to effectively listen to them (e.g., Valentine, 1999; Itúrra, 2002). But we also need to acknowledge and value what children have to say, that is, to recognize and value children as social and political actors, and integrate them in the processes of building public policies that directly affect them. All this is very easy to say and it has been repeated by several authors within the field of childhood studies, but much more difficult is its implementation. Although there is theorizing about what a children’s city would be (e.g.: Tonucci, 2009, 2018), in practice, what has been done leaves a lot to be desired, mainly due to the temporary and sometimes merely symbolic character of many of these initiatives, the consistent exclusion of younger children from them, the manipulation and tokenism of children, and the political co-option of UNICEF’s ‘Child Friendly Cities’ program.

Building a children’s city implies doing this work with the children themselves, and also with adults, because “a good city for children is also a city in which families have access to health structures that really work, to decent housing and to a job that guarantees them a decent life and allows them the conditions (resources of time, energy and structures) to enjoy the city with their children” (Castro Seixas, 2022). It is important not to forget this double movement of approaching the children’s universe to listen to them and, simultaneously, to take them seriously in their proposals, as political subjects that they are by right (Castro Seixas, Tomás, & Giacchetta, 2022).  It is also important to think of the city not as a set of available (infra)structures, but as places of coexistence through difference. The concept of infrastructure has recently been amplified, going far beyond materiality (Vidal & Castro Seixas, 2022), but, encompassing almost everything, it risks perhaps losing its meaning. On the other hand, if we think that the city infrastructures are also people (Simone, 2004) and analyze the informal practices of use and appropriation of the public space by children and their families, we will be better able to capture the daily production of the urban space and the relation of children with the city.

I would like, however, in the scope of this micro-essay, to think the idea of a children’s city from another point of view, based on an opposite radical imagination exercise, that of imagining a city, or if you like, any locality, without children. Perhaps this image brings to mind some science fiction movies, or even some real cases of Portuguese localities so aged, that few or no children live there. In any case, I think that the image of such a place emptied of children always suggests sadness, desolation, and hopelessness, even when the end of humanity is not in question, as, for example, portrayed in the film “Children of Men” by Alfonso Cuarón, with Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, in which the scenario of the cities is dangerously close to our reality, except on the issue of infertility and lack of births.

However, even if we do not currently face the problem of infertility on a global level, with overpopulation being the main issue, the aging of western societies is a reality. The exercise I proposed becomes perhaps easier if we consider, as several authors of social studies of childhood have observed, how urban public spaces in Western cities have been emptied of children (eg: Leverett, 2011; Sarmento, 2018). This emptying is, however, neither total nor uniform, being marked by differences in ethnicity and social class, but also by opposing trends of emerging practices of ‘consumption of the city’ by middle-class families (Karsten, 2003; Karsten & Felder, 2015). More importantly, this emptying is not an inevitability, and it can be reversible through public policies, provided that these are constructed with children and in dialogue with social scientists who study children’s relationship with the city. But what is intended is not only that children return to public spaces, but to build public spaces that are inviting for all children and also for the adults who accompany them.

I don’t think it is possible that such a project for children’s cities – I put it in the plural because it is an idea that, although it has core principles and values, very much anchored in children’s rights, has to be thought out and designed specifically for each social context – can be leveraged based on abstract general indicators of social and environmental sustainability, very much in vogue today. Perhaps some of you don’t hear and see how I hear and see, in the neighborhood where I currently live in Setubal, children playing in the street. It is a poor neighborhood, with several social and environmental problems and quite a few conflicts, and I can’t say that the streets are particularly pleasant and inviting for playing and socializing. However, children play and adults socialize, along with the dogs and cats that live there. They do so, of course, regardless of any sustainability ranking of that street/neighborhood or city and alien to such rankings, in which they do not participate and in which they do not see themselves. I gave this example only to highlight the importance of an analysis of informal daily life, social practices, as well as the emergence of hyperlocal phenomena and their meaning in the current context, for an understanding of the relationship between children and the city.

But imagine now that in the city or town where you live there are no children visible at all, neither in the streets, gardens, parks, squares, or public transportation. What a sad place that would be! What a nightmare! We then realize how special it is when children can interact and play in the public spaces of the city. Chawla points out as a central need of children: “the need for an undefined space where young people can formulate their own worlds” (1992, p. 69). This would be a space of freedom and creativity, which would allow the child to test its independence and its ability to manipulate the environment. Such a place could hypothetically be enhanced by the malleability/manipulation characteristics of the physical and socio-political spaces, being therefore more likely in underregulated spaces, characterized by improvisation and incompleteness (Castro Seixas, Tomás & Giacchetta, 2020, p. 141).

How important it is therefore that children, moving between their secret spaces and a space shared with adults, can realize their need for undefined spaces of freedom. Children caneven contribute, in this process, to the deconstruction of reductive images of childhood and the subversion of cultural binomials such as those of nature/culture, non-human animals/human animals (Duhn, Malone & Tesa, 2017; Castro Seixas, Tomás, Fernandes-Jesus, & Giacchetta, 2022). But only if we adults let them, as we are largely responsible for children’s alienation from urban space, which is for the most part, a consequence of our “fear of the achievement of children and young people’s autonomy and, at the same time, the control of their safety” (Neto, 2020, p. 183). On the other hand, we cannot forget that “the images of childhood that are constructed and reconstructed on a daily basis (…) depend on the dialectic between the conceived space, the perceived space and the lived space – the components of the triad of space proposed by Lefebvre (1974)”, and they can therefore acquire unexpected and disruptive meanings (Castro Seixas, Tomás, & Giacchetta, 2022, p. 82).

Eunice Seixas*

Setúbal, September 28, 2022

Publicado a 12-10-2022

*Eunice Castro Seixas has a PhD in Sociology from the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra, with a specialization in “Post-Colonialisms and Global Citizenship” (2013), with a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Health Psychology and Social Psychology. She coordinated the CRiCity project – “Children and their right to the city: Fighting urban inequality through the participatory design of child-friendly cities”, funded by FCT. In addition to a vast experience in research, with national and international publications, she has worked in teaching and psychology. Currently she works as a clinical psychologist and yoga trainer. E-mail: euniceseixas@gmail.com


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