What do you like about your city? If it were to win a gold medal, what might that be for? What would you change, and what do you wish for in your future?
These are the types of questions that were posed to over 22,500 young participants aged 4 to 19, as part of the largest child and youth participation project in Vienna’s history.
In total, 1,309 workshops took place, where topics ranging from environment, wellbeing and mobility to leisure, public spaces and community and togetherness were discussed. Children and young people came up with 193 measures that were then converted into a holistic local strategy with the help of experts; always taking into account what children want.
“More trees, less plastic, fewer planes, a day without cars, less stress or a peaceful coexistence” – were just some of the requests that poured in.
As a result, every child will, among other things, now get to plant a tree every year, and will additionally be given an opportunity to give back to the community instead of attending normal classes, by helping in the construction of local gardens or visiting the elderly in care-homes.
The Werkstadt was a very inclusive exercise, as it involved children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, children of migrant origin, children with disabilities and those living in institutional care. In total, 128 languages were spoken by participants, reflecting the city’s diversity and making sure that all of Vienna’s young voices could be heard. Yet this was much more than a one-off activity; it will mark the future of Vienna’s local approach to children and young people, based on a system that puts children and youth at the very centre of local efforts.
Vienna’s children and youth parliament will monitor the implementation of the strategy, making them full actors in the design of their city’s future. A sum of €1 million will be dedicated to projects for and led by the city’s new generations this year. Vienna believes that children’s rights are human rights, and that long-lasting, transformative impact can only be achieved if they are empowered to lead their own future.
“Every generation perceives different things as interesting or beautiful,” says Fleta Rexhaj – Lower Level Spokesperson for Ettenreichgasse High School who participates in the youth parliament. “Accordingly, I think that young people should also be involved in the design of the city or at least certain parts of it, so that their interests are also represented. You would then identify a lot more with your own city, if you knew that you have made a contribution to shaping it. As a young person you would feel honoured to be part of such a project. It could also convey what it is like to take responsibility for something that affects not just yourself, but an entire city.”
One barrier to participation can be poverty. Vienna believes that quality education is the best tool to prevent child poverty, a fight it must win given that 34% of children younger than 14 years old are at risk of poverty, almost double the average rate in Austria. To make sure that all children have access to quality education from the very beginning, regardless of their background, free child-care services are provided for those aged zero to five.
“More than 250,000 children have benefited from this since 2009, and only additional services such as language courses and meals have to be paid for by the parents. Plus, families on a low income can be exempt,” says Dunja Gharwal, Ombudsperson for children´s rights for the city of Vienna. “The city of Vienna also offers children and young people a wide range of leisure activities that are offered by public and private organisations sponsored by the city,” she adds.
The Vienna Child and Youth Ombudsman is an organisation of the city administration that is free of political direction and to which children and young people, or their caregivers, can turn in case of problems relating to child rights. A next step for Vienna, according to Gharwal, will be the introduction of a “child rights contract check, which will check all legal provisions of the state in future to see whether they conflict with the interests of children.”
In the city where the UN Convention on the Right of the Child was signed back in 1990, children are making their designs on the future quite clear.
On Thursday, 18 February, Eurocities will be hosting the event ‘Growing up and out of poverty: Lessons from cities for the EU Child Guarantee’ to discuss approaches by cities to alleviate child poverty and help children succeed.