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Involving Children in Urban Planning, Chile

Alejandra Elgueta, Felipe Morales


A problem that transcends all of the current conflicts in the city of Santiago is the lack of citizen participation, both in decision-making processes and in the use of the city. Considering that ownership of one’s surroundings and communication between neighbours are fundamental to constructing public places, the San Judas Tadeo area of the Peñalolén municipality decided to offer urban environmental education workshops for children as a way of exploring the neighbourhood and its history, using the public space, and to promote awareness among children who live in the area. The workshop was also designed as a research strategy to investigate how children see and interpret the city, how well they know the city, what they look for in public spaces, as well as to design some type of proposal that could be useful in urban planning and in recognizing the demands of the right to the city from a child’s perspective.

The following is a summary of the ideas used to plan the workshop and an assessment of the experience as an effective method for citizen participation.

The Social Character of the City

The concept of the social construction of space proposes that the city is also a social construction. According to Henri Lefebvre, this construction is based on the production of space. The city adapts itself to the capital production process, destroying old buildings to build new urban structures, a concept that David Harvey defines as creative destruction (Harvey, 1980).

In other words, the configuration of a city arises from the tension between social groups over control and organisation of space, each representing their own interests. These forms may not be initially defined geographically, but they eventually acquire a certain territorial expression (Santos, 1986).

Urban Planning in Chile

The right to the city is defined by the World Charter for the Right to the City as the equitable usufruct of cities within the principals of sustainability, democracy, equity and social justice. It is the collective right of urban inhabitants, particularly those in vulnerable and marginalized groups, that gives them legitimacy in action and organisation based on their uses and customs, with the objective of fully exercising of the right to self-determination and a decent standard of living. (1) This vision guides the political debates on urban development issues in Chilean cities, for example within the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning whose vision is guided by integration, sustainability and competitiveness. Even though these three topics are given the same weight in political debates, competitiveness is given top priority in practice, even when attaining it means neglecting sustainability and integration.

In practice, city planning responds to the interests of a minority group whose privileged positions of power in political and economic networks gives them a much stronger voice. Indeed, city planning does not take the opinions of the majority of citizens into account. Evidence of this lack of participation is the constant discontent and conflict among the city’s inhabitants, and the little weight that this carries in decisions made by mayors and city planners. The following statement confirms this to be true: “Today, the same people who have been in government for decades continue to confuse urban development with real estate growth. Their formula is that inhabitants should be tailored to fit the city, and not that the city should be tailored to fit its inhabitants”. (2)

Peñalolén: ‘The Best Municipality in Chile’

In the municipality of Peñalolén, within the city of Santiago, residents were informed about the proposed Municipal Land Use Plan in June 2009, as developed by the consulting firm URBE at the request of the municipality. It appears that the municipality is seeking real estate investments oriented more towards affluent groups of the population than towards the residents who have traditionally lived there. This could result in the silent expulsion of the area’s poorest residents to other municipalities.

The citizen participation process carried out in Peñolalén has been characterized by the planners’ fear of allowing the residents to have a voice. The process has also been hampered by the incompetence of most municipal authorities who hold all the decision-making power. The planning proposal has already been prepared, planned and designed by the consulting office and is ready to be applied. It could then be said that these government channels for citizen participation are merely symbolic and not realistic.

How Can We Build a More Equitable City?

The Image of Children as Inspiration for Urban Planning

When we think about how to make a city a welcoming place for all of its residents, where all have free access to space and are able to move about comfortably and enjoy recreation without obstacles or limits, we are first faced with a problem: from what perspective should we consider the city?

Based on the ideas and experiences of Italian educator Francesco Tonucci, thinking about the city from a child’s perspective is a strategy for integrating citizens in their city, as a way of recuperating public spaces. Concerned about the loneliness of children living in wealthy cities, Tonucci began to research and experiment with ways of planning a city from a child’s perspective. But why choose this group of the population and not another?

Regardless of their socioeconomic position (for example ethnicity, and so on), children are excluded from the city solely because of their age. They do not form part of the voting population, they live under the supervision of adults who decide what is good or bad for them, and no one asks them what they would like their city to be. This highlights the image of the child as a primary point of reference, since children’s exclusion from the city is a problem which spans all levels of s ociety. There are children of all social classes, religions, ethnicities and immigrant children of all nationalities.

A child is also a very strong symbol, capable of raising awareness throughout society as they represent the past, present and future. “Children are our past, a past that is often forgotten, but one that will help us live better with our children and make fewer mistakes if we’re able to keep it alive and present. Children are our present because it is to them that we dedicate most of our strength and sacrifices. Children are our future, the society of tomorrow, who will carry on or abandon our decisions and expectations” (Tonucci, 1996).

Environmental Education as a Tool for Citizen Participation:

The Workshop Experience

The workshop experience has enabled an evaluation of environmental education as a tool for citizen participation. The idea of holding a workshop rather than carrying out surveys or interviews was based on workshops being an opportunity to meet and organise. Workshops enable the exploration and interpretation of a group opinion rather than a collection of individual opinions. Participants, in this case children, give their opinions and know the opinions of the other participants, which stimulates discussion and understanding.

Environmental education enables the development of spatial thinking. In this case, human beings are viewed as part of their surroundings and therefore as protagonists of the space in which they live. The workshop emphasized that facts and events in the environment are not isolated, but follow a certain logic and affect one another.

Because the workshops were for children, it was assumed that their principal motivation is to play. For children, playing is not simple recreation, but exploration and learning as well. Children learn about the world through playing. However because of its objectives, the workshop had to facilitate critical thinking about the city as well as knowledge and ownership of the neighbourhood. One of the main methodological challenges was on how to develop a workshop through play-like activities for children that stimulate learning, understanding and evaluation of their surroundings.

It was necessary to plan activities that take into account the diversity of the children attending the workshop. In Peñalolén, the range of ages was also important. In the first sessions, we worked with written guides and many children who did not know how to write well were excluded, became bored and began to do other things, distracting those who were working. Later in the workshop, we decided to work with “secretaries.” The children had many different interests and personalities. There were children who could not stay quiet and others who were too shy to speak. For an activity to be successful, we had to allow all of the children to participate according to their comfort level.

This was achieved by engaging the children in making a film that reconstructed the history of the neighbourhood. The children had to plan and carry out all of the activities (including the actual filming). The children had to feel a certain level of trust in order to share their opinions. The workshop monitor can’t be an authority figure and even more importantly cannot be the expert, since the workshop is a group exercise that includes the monitor. The desires expressed have to be carried out in a way that the children are able to see the results of the workshop and be motivated to keep participating.

There are activities that require time to prepare and it is important to have the capacity and resources to be able to carry them out in full. (3)


The workshop should aim to:

  • 1. Resemble school as little as possible

  • 2. Take ownership of the neighbourhood through direct observation and field activities

  • 3. Include activities that take into account the diversity of the group (age, personality)

  • 4. Satisfy the desires and needs agreed upon in the workshop.


Environmental education workshops are clearly a useful tool that can be incorporated into citizen participation processes. These processes facilitate much more citizenship participation than through governmental channels, by enabling people to give their opinions on urban development. Participation also has to do with encouraging the use of public space and exercising citizenship. In this sense, an urban environmental education workshop facilitates the use and understanding of the city (or in this case the neighbourhood), and uses the city as an educational resource through the understanding that the city’s problems can be resolved within neighbourhoods.

The workshop allows children to think about and understand their surroundings as something that belongs to them, through a critical and conscious group evaluation. This way of exploring the neighbourhood can be used in city planning to understand inhabitants’ desires and needs. However, the reality is that government authorities have no desire to create real opportunities for citizen participation in planning.

In the meantime, the workshop should be incorporated into a kind of citizen organisation, for example through the creation of a children’s assembly, whose opinion — expressed through games, explorations and discussions — would be taken into account and supported by its host organisation. These types of incentives as well as previous ones enable us to reflect on the role that inhabitants play in the construction of their own city. Why are children not allowed to participate in the construction of their neighbourhoods? Will residents continue to wait for authorities to solve problems related to their public spaces? If we wait for a response, the most likely outcome is that the quality of life in cities will become a vague memory. Perhaps it is time for organised people to take ownership of these places, exercising their right to the city in order to build an urban reality that truly represents the identity of each area, to counteract plans and interventions which do not fit with a neighbourhood’s logic.

1 World Charter for the Right to the City. Revision prior to Barcelona – September 2005.
2 Newspaper editorial, “El Nuevo Poblador” (The New Dweller). Peñalolén. Year 1, Nº 4, August 2009.
3 In the workshop we considered creating a mural but the activity was not completed in the way we had hoped due to the fact that we did not teach techniques such as stencilling or dedicate more time and thought to the design of the mural. The result was a mural that the children were barely able participate in and which no longer exists.


participation communautaire, participation des habitants, habitat urbain, habitat populaire, gestion urbaine, éducation à l’environnement, propriété du logement, enfant

, Chili, Santiago du Chili


Droit à la Ville


This article is also available in portuguese and in spanish



Elgueta, Alejandra. Morales, Felipe. Ugarte, Akza. “Los Niños en la creación de la Ciudad” (Children in the Creation of the City). Revista CECU, Centro de Estudios Críticos Urbanos (Center for Critical Urban Studies). Year 1, No. 1. Santiago.

Harvey, David. 1998. “La condición de la Posmodernidad” (The Condition of Postmodernity). Editorial Amorrortu.

Lefebvre, Henry. 1972. “La Revolución Urbana” (The Urban Revolution). Alianza Editorial. Madrid.

Santos, Milton. 1986. “Espacio y Método” (Space and Method). Revista Geocrítica, Year XII. Number 65. Universidad de Barcelona.

Santos, Milton. 1995. “Metamorfosis del Espacio Habitado” (Metamorphosis of Inhabited Space). OIKOS – TAU. Barcelona.

Tonucci, Francesco. 1996. “La Ciudad de los Niños” (The City of Children). Barcelona.

Valdeverde, Jesús. 1995. “La Ciudad como Recurso Educativo. Los Recursos Educativos en la Ciudad” (The City as an Educational Resource. The Educational Resources in the City). Revista La Ciudad Didáctica del Medio Urbano. Barcelona.

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