Critical Youth Participatory Spatial Planning: What does it have to do with Degrowth?

By Amerissa Giannouli

I remember during the classes of Fundamentals for Degrowth, we were asked to think about research topics and questions we would like to explore. Democratic planning has always been a particularly intriguing subject, although I hesitated to work on it, as I perceived it to be more suited for political scientists. However, after taking the course on spatial planning, I felt as though a whole new world was revealed to me. It was a world full of politics, policies, alternative economies, processes, and institutions, all intertwined in a manner that encouraged me to let go of my insecurities and embrace the unknown.

At the same time, I kept a strong belief that educational spaces and learning experiences have the potential to mobilise personal and collective transformations. It happened to me in the past and I have seen it happening to others. Thus, it seemed natural to me to attempt to bridge these elements together for my thesis, to experiment and explore what outcomes might emerge. And I did this while exploring the counter-hegemonic potential of public space through participatory spatial planning focused on young people.

Interestingly, this thesis belongs to a degrowth master’s program but it doesn’t focus explicitly on degrowth. However, I came to realise that the approach developed for the purpose of this thesis can be connected to degrowth planning in a way that is worth exploring.

More explicitly, my thesis addressed the misrecognition, misrepresentation, and marginalisation of young people, defined as individuals who lack legal rights of participation in official decision-making processes, typically those below 18 years old, in public spaces and spatial planning. It focused on the role of youth participatory spatial planning in fostering transformative socio-spatial changes and youth empowerment in the production of public space. Together with my supervisor, Angelos Varvarousis, we developed a novel framework called “Critical Youth Participatory Spatial Planning” after critically reviewing relevant literature trying to counter tokenism and promote meaningful youth participation. Then, to explore the potentials of this framework, we tested it through Action Research in the form of a workshop in the city of Kalamata, Greece, involving 12-year-old school students.

During the workshop, participants shared their stories and experiences related to the public space and brought together their diverse experiences by constructing a collective map of impressions and characteristics of the public spaces they engage with. They were encouraged afterwards to critically reflect on their diverse and complex lived experiences connecting them with broader socio-spatial issues and engage with the politics of space. The participants expressed in a creative way their visions for imaginary public spaces and indicated the need to have more free time to play and socialise with their friends in open, easily accessible, inclusive, and safe green public spaces. They also mentioned the need to have more interactions with the municipality and be invited to share their ideas for change.

It seemed that their proposals moved beyond mainstream grand development projects. The process itself was an empowering and enjoyable experience they wished to have more often. The programme concluded with policy recommendations addressed to the Municipality of Kalamata presenting the outcomes of the spatial planning programme (including a model of critical youth participatory spatial planning programme) and proposing ways for involving young people more regularly in spatial planning (see the related policy brief).

As mentioned in the beginning, my thesis does not explicitly refer to degrowth. Nevertheless, it offers a critical approach to participatory spatial planning that could incorporate degrowth aspects to influence policy making towards this direction. It responds to the need to “engage insurgent professionals” as described in step four from the Special Issue “Urbanizing degrowth: Five steps towards a Radical Spatial Degrowth Agenda for planning in the face of climate emergency” in which diverse professionals and actors (eg. architects, teachers, care professionals, IT experts, etc.) of the society incorporate degrowth into everyday life experiences (Kaika et al. 2023). More explicitly, Critical Participatory Spatial Planning is aligned and can be a tool for Degrowth Spatial Politics. It can build a critically reflective space that allows for alternative economies and perspectives about well-being that do not necessarily align with growth-oriented, commodified, and commercialised spatial experiences to be revealed and co-created by the participants. It also offers an illustrative example of how democratic spatial planning could be experienced, at least at the scale of local governance, holding the potential of upscaling, and building futures of participatory economies and democracy.

If you find these topics interesting and happen to attend the upcoming International ESEE – Degrowth Conference 2024 in Pontevedra, you will have the chance to experience a more complex version of this approach firsthand during an interactive session that I will be hosting!

Amerissa has recently completed the master’s degree in Degrowth: Ecology, Economy, and Policy. She holds a B.Sc. in Economics and an M.Sc. in International and European Economic Studies. Currently, she works as a radical youth worker and project manager at Inter Alia NGO in Greece. She is passionate about socio-ecological transformations through educational praxis. She currently coordinates the Transformative Learning Circle of the International Degrowth Network. She also enjoys watercolor painting and the early springtime.

The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.