City of Greater Dandenong ensures outstanding engagement with children. They are committed to Child Friendly Cities and Communities Charter, hold an annual forum with children, and a Children’s Advisory Group makes sure engagement with children is age and culture relevant.
I met Caroline Meier on site to learn more about Council’s recent Children’s Forum which investigated:
- children’s views of the library
- the public space of Harmony Square and City of Greater Dandenong parks and playgrounds
- activities, workshops and events offered to the children at various locations (including Heritage Hill, Drum theatre, Libraries, events and festivals)
Harmony Square is an outdoor space at the heart of the City of Greater Dandenong civic precinct. The large library’s floor to ceiling glass windows at ground floor forms the margin between the world of the square and the looking, learning and settling in space of the library.
I walked on to the square seeing a sunny open space well supplied with colourful seating. Oh great! a big screen like Fed Square. A quite formal planting of Norfolk Pine and some more free formed trees. A coffee shop with a servery facing out on to its grouped seats.
Children apparently like the coffee shop being there so their parents have something to do when they’re at the library. Council has also learned about what children don’t like so much about the Square through input from the Forum. Activities also took place in the library and other locations. Prior to the Forum Caroline had worked extensively within council in the lead up phase, and liaised with schools. She’s now busy getting the kids’ views back to council departments.
Children’s Forum: views on the library
Caroline and I sat in the library near the cafe. ‘The library staff designed their part of the children’s engagement,’ she said.
What she had to say next make me pause and reflect on deliberative forums. That is, participants have to become knowledgeable on what it is they are making recommendations about. To do this, there was a treasure hunt roving over two levels as the starting activity. Kids had to find certain kinds of chairs and various sections in the collection, such as the location of the children’s non-fiction.
Only once they had this level of familiarity did the activities begin. A children’s author got them to design the cover of a book and give it a title. This generated great insight into what kind of books they would like to see in the collection. The fact that the author had written bilingual children’s stories validated cohort’s diverse cultural backgrounds. It really gave them permission to express a desire for books reflecting their culture.
There was a survey on iPads. The kids said they’d like it to be a space where children’s art is displayed. What about a message tree? suggested one child, so that children could leave messages there and read messages from others.
‘A community intent,’ Caroline reflected.
Engagement with Children: an Advisory Group
One of the strongest elements of community intent in Caroline’s own work is a Children’s Advisory Group comprised of a small group of children representative of the local primary schools. They meet regularly to contribute to the planning of the Children’s Forum, design surveys and give feedback on ideas. The Children’s Forum is age and culture relevant because of their critical eye of the process. This reminds me of how important advisory and reference groups are to the success of citizens’ juries.
Next: Children’s views on Harmony Square
Why decide on engaging children?
- Many assets from buildings and parks to water are of special value to them.
- They make us sit up. Their perspectives on relevant strategies and services are outside an adult’s way of thinking.
- Children are a vulnerable group in crowded city spaces. We need to understand their experience of roads, public transport, water and public space.
Local Government and children views
In Local Government there is a growing imperative to engage with children. They are users of services and infrastructure. Parks and libraries immediately come to mind. However roads, footpaths and crossings are also a crucial concern for kids. The Victorian Child Friendly Cities & Communities Charter supports these principles: freedom for children to experience environments that consider their needs; respect and dignity for children to express their individual opinions, participate in and contribute to decisions about their communities and wellbeing; equitable access.
Signatories are: City of Greater Dandenong, Port Phillip, Maribyrnong, Moonee Valley, Whittlesea, Wyndham, Banyule, Moreland, Ballarat, Maroondah and Cardinia Shire. They provide members to a Child Friendly Cities and Communities Advisory Group supported by Victorian Local Governance Association.
Each of them takes engaging children seriously. Taking on board children’s views improves the quality of services and infrastructure being planned. You can see this in documentation by the City of Greater Dandenong. City of Melbourne and the University of Melbourne also documented a valuable engagement project with children.
Children, Water & Catchments
I hold a Working with Children card. Annie Bolitho & Associates was part of the Western Sydney Region of Councils (WSROC) project Water in the Landscape. Our project ‘The Water Closest to You’ explored community views in three areas of the Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment.
At one site, the Fairfield Festival, the children joined an activity at trestle tables using wiggly scissors, paper, paint and stamps. They did not hesitate. They stamped bikes on bike paths by the river, drew organisms underwater and addressed their books to a wider audience. They announced their values around water: leisure and recreation, healthy rivers and clean available water.
Parents helped younger children. Older cousins helped their younger family members. It was a highly multi-cultural festival crowd. There were references to water in Egypt and Africa. Some parents had grown up in the western suburbs and had detailed knowledge of the catchment in earlier days. They contributed their views to us while their children became authors of tiny handmade books.
Conference session: Learning more about engaging children and case studies
I’ll be running a curated session on this topic at the upcoming Engage2Act conference. That’s Thursday 14th September. Come and join us to learn more, share stories and case studies, and hatch plans for engaging with children in your municipality or water region. The session will include Caroline Meier, member of the Child Friendly Cities and Communities Advisory Group talking about projects from City of Greater Dandenong, especially their Children’s Voice forums.
Look forward to seeing you there.
Coming together to think. It’s an important time. Say it’s your family and you own a property in common, and now it looks like time to sell. Say it’s your community and there’s a planning proposal that’s going to affect the amenity of a special place. Say it’s your city, and the practices of the elected representatives has gone so far downhill that the state government has stepped in. There are commissioners running the city. But that’s a short-term solution. How would citizens respond to various options for the governance in the long-term? The Geelong Citizens’ Jury on electoral reform saw citizens come together to think.
The Geelong Citizens’ Jury
One Saturday in March I spent the morning at the splendid Geelong Library. The Minister for Local Government, the Hon Natalie Hutchins MP, had made a date to respond to the Jury’s recommendations.
At least a hundred people turned out for the event, many of them interested citizens. After a stunning welcome to country, the Minister highlighted the transparency of the process, in which the jury took place alongside submissions from ‘the people of Geelong’ and online surveys. In other words the government had undertaken a hybrid process. She gave a warm thanks to the jury, highlighting their good sense and commitment, and said that she supported the main ‘practical’ recommendations to go forward to legislation. They had been taken to cabinet. ‘People power shone brightly through this process,’ she said.
There were three jurors as panellists who told of their experience. ‘Discussion without acrimony, one said, ‘it was a democratic experience’. The other woman said: ‘I was proud to be part of the human race, and what democracy can be’. Another juror was clear that the process had taken him outside his comfort zone.
The Minister spoke of the jury as ‘a catalyst for community leadership’. Ideally some of the underpinnings of this might be:
- learning new skills in collaboration and negotiation
- learning about policy and governance
- learning to influence elected representatives
- becoming spokespeople or ambassadors of positive governance
- an understanding of the commitment required in policy decision-making
[Setting: Readings Bookshop, Carlton]
[Event: Launch of ‘Plastic Water, the social and material life of bottled water’ by Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter and Kane Race, MIT Press, 2015]
Annie is the perfect person to launch this book. She is someone who has been intimately involved in the multiple lives of water for many years, as a scholar and artist, through stakeholder engagement and community consultation. She has worked with water as a material force, as technical object, and as cultural matter.
It’s an honour to be here to launch ‘Plastic Water, the social and material life of bottled water’ on behalf of its authors Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter and Kane Race. I do have a longstanding interest in the subject. One context from my working life I’d like to mention is my association with the University of Melbourne’s fabulous interdisciplinary Master of Environment. In one of their core units, many students engage with water as an urban ‘flow’. Their projects are situated in a rapidly changing environment, and must be long ranging. Future leaders like these will really benefit from the insights in this book.
Right now I’d like us to get together around the book! Isn’t it a beautiful production? It’s the product of seven years’ work. It’s a huge collaborative achievement.
The book started life as an Australian Research Council project. None of the authors imagined they’d be working on it for so long. Yet their stick-with-it-ness’ rewards us with a complex, often mesmerising study, which follows the object of the plastic bottle into multiple unanticipated scenarios.
Gay has consolidated her empirical and theoretical work on everyday practices of sustainability. Emily and Kane note with appreciation Gay’s insistence on the empirical. They’ll take this into future work. All the authors identify with different disciplines, as well as Cultural Studies. Nonetheless I’d like to take the occasion of this launch as celebrate the contribution of cultural studies as a discipline. It’s how I connect with the authors. It’s where I find some of my favourite theory, for example by Isabelle Stengers.
But most importantly Cultural Studies as a discipline doesn’t organise itself slavishly around method. This causes alarm to many! However we see in this book, an unusually close examination of a cultural institution, say the accelerating habit of what the authors term ‘frequent sipping’ and all that makes it so. Say the corporation Evian or Coca Cola Amatil, generally speaking seen as a brand. Perhaps a brand with ethical overtones. The authors bring these corporations to light as a plethora of social and material embodiments: their PET bottles, their labels, research programs to provide authoritative content for website marketing, corporate executives and operational staff, in-house purification plants, investment in ‘disadvantage’, as well as our society’s ‘attachment to a cluster of promises’ (Isabelle Stengers quoted in the book).
The UK commentator and sociologist John Brewer highlights the way today a narrow impact research agenda pushes people’s attention away from the very issues and complexity we need to be dealing with in our society. That is not the case here. We are invited into engagement with complexity and wonder, in a diffuse global transnational context.
A frequent criticism of Cultural Studies is that it fails to connect beyond the academy. One reading of the chapter on the Northern Territory Intervention knocks that on the head. The material on hydration reminds us of the relatively short period in which we have come to see ourselves as ‘me, me, me’ biological subjects. Think about it. We urban humans did not run before the 1970 New York Marathon, prior to its unprecedented media coverage. We run because of Gatorade. Read the book to find out more. The material on South and South East Asia brings forward what Simon During terms ‘a vernacular globalisation’. A great achievement.
Let’s raise our glasses to the authors, and launch this book. Cheers!
Hear more about this project in an interview with Emily Potter on ABC Radio.