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Children in the City

After a long period of neglect, the field of urban studies in France is showing a marked revival of interest in children. In bringing together texts that offer different perspectives on children’s experience of the city and their place within it, this series of articles seeks to contribute to the collective efforts currently under way in terms of reflecting upon (or rethinking) the specificities of these unique city-dwellers.

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In France, urban studies have, to date, taken little interest in children. While analyses of young people [1] abound, they tended to favour domestic and educational spaces, with the aim of observing forms of socialisation and understanding how a society develops and implements its notions of “what children are capable of” (Garnier 1995). Indeed, it is somewhat paradoxical that the human and social sciences, in the broadest sense of the term, take such a marginal interest (Hirschfield 2002) in children (excluding sub-disciplines relating to education), if we consider that one of the founding premises of the human and social sciences is that culture and social reality are things that are learned and not innate. [2] And yet childhood has long been nothing more than a “minor subject” (Sirota 2012) for both French urban studies [3] and for the social sciences in general.

In recent years, the gradual rediscovery of childhood and children as objects of study has led researchers to take an interest in the spatial dimension of child socialisation processes – for example, in playgrounds (Delalande 2001) or bedrooms (Glevarec 2009), but also in terms of children’s mobility practices within the urban space (Depeau 2003; Esterle-Hedibel 2003; Haddak et al. 2012;. Authier and Lehman-Frisch 2012; Rivière 2014). This renewed interest contrasts with a focus on the mobility practices of young people from working-class neighbourhoods that has been relatively strong to date: the emphasis placed on studies of working-class youth as a “problematic” population group accounts for the existence of this abundant literature (Kokoreff 1994; Boissonade 2006) and may well also explain the more limited interest that French researchers have had for the ordinary urban practices of the youngest members of society from all backgrounds.

The field of children’s studies (or childhood studies) that has developed in the English-speaking world since the 1970s (Jenks 1996), including contributions from geographers and planners in particular, has for its part established a real tradition of reflection on forms of mobility (O’Brien et al. 2000), gendered learning of territorial practices (Valentine 1997) and, more generally, the way in which urban spaces are arenas of socialisation for children (for example, Cahill 1990; Cahill 2000; Holloway and Valentine 2000).

This series of articles seeks to contribute to the efforts recently undertaken by the French social sciences to try to fill what is, on the scale of France, still quite a gap, as is now well established (efforts evidenced, for example, by recent thematic issues of journals such as Politix or Les Cahiers du Genre), by bringing together contributions from researchers whose work enables us to reflect upon and describe the presence, experience and place of children in cities. These works raise a series of questions and present a wide, though non-exhaustive, spectrum of reflections and investigations to be developed.

Children as a focus for understanding the city

The child [4] offers a focus for understanding our world and its “normal” uses, highlighted by the explanation of norms in educational contexts and the contrast produced in moments of transgression. This offset view of “normality”, as embodied and implemented by and in the adult world, represents children as “Garfinkelian” [5] beings par excellence: by showing themselves to be “incompetent”, by producing effects that break with the most commonly accepted order, by adopting an oblique perspective on our practices, seen but unnoticed, they reveal to us the underlying normativity, calls it into question, and removes its apparent obviousness. In this way, the practices of children and practices oriented towards children inform us about the ways we perceive and reflect upon the city and social order in general.

Studying the city-dweller as a child also informs us about the meaning that we give to the biographical division of roles in society. The form of spaces indicates, literally, the place occupied, assigned or conquered (Certeau 1980). As a result, describing the uses that children make of cities makes it possible to describe the status that they are accorded, and the status they accord themselves or aspire to accord themselves. Such an approach allows us to reflect upon the way we consider children, the role and the qualities attributed to them, the skills that we intend for them to develop, the things we try to protect them from, and the ways in which we do so. An approach via the city thus reveals an approach of learning by practice: the “how” of the process of becoming an adult (man or woman, citizen or foreigner, etc.) is inseparable from the “what” of these concepts, spaces and situations where these affiliations are developed and experimented.

Socialisation to and by the city

While thinking in terms of “the child” ensures that we do not reduce the social world to the world of adults, childhood can and should also be considered in terms of its internal heterogeneity. This is particularly true when apprehending the role of urban areas in learning about social life and the effects of urban practices on the world view that children develop as they grow up. In particular, practices in and experiences of urban territories involve learning about the transitions between private spaces and public property (Breviglieri and Cicchelli 2007) and the impersonal demands of the latter, as well as learning about social diversity and gendered forms of learning (Cromer, Dauphin and Naudier 2010).

From this perspective, it is important to take a reflexive look at architectural and urban forms, which not only put theories of childhood into practice but also can help to innovate and produce fruitful experiments and journeys. Indeed, particular concepts of the child and of children’s participation in social life underpin, more or less explicitly, development projects in our cities. Architects have, in some cases, devoted a significant part of their reflections to features and amenities designed specifically for children: in particular, we might cite Louis Khan, studied by Bendicht Weber, or Émile Aillaud (1975). They strove to think like designers, taking into account children’s specific needs – play areas, for example (as in the case of Van Eyck [6]) – and, more generally, the tensions that exist between the specialisation of spaces and intergenerational integration, between experimentation and protection, or more generally still between the current demands of education and the prospect of future autonomy (Ricœur 1990). These tensions run through childhood studies (Dolto 1998) and have also marked the thinking of labour historians (Cottereau 1977; Farge 2005). At present, the proliferation of separate play spaces devoted to children reveals the prevalence of protection requirements, as well as the continuing decline of their autonomous presence in the street. This functional specialisation should not, however, obscure forms of reappropriation of public spaces, particularly in the context of mobility-related learning.

Where do children fit into the city?

Children are all citizens of the future to be formed and moulded. Reflections on the links between democracy and teaching practices (Dewey 1916) invite us to consider forms of experimentation and participation as various means of learning about public life. While educational innovation has long focused on the inclusion of children in decisions affecting them, measures such as participatory budgeting for children, “children’s parliaments” (Boone 2013) and peer-mediation activities would all appear to be interesting initiatives in terms of understanding the place granted to children in the city. While these initiatives may undoubtedly generate criticisms similar to those produced on the subject of innovations relating to the “participation” of adults, it is nonetheless important that they be described and discussed.

But while the city is a teacher of sorts, and while learning urbanity is a means of learning citizenship (Bidet et al. 2015) and can be a positive event, the city can also be an inhospitable place, especially for children in situations of insecurity. The advantages that the city offers to better-off children should not mask the condition of those children who are most vulnerable, and who benefit most imperfectly from the immunity and treatments commonly considered a right for any child. They are, moreover, frequently designated using other terms and categories (minors, offenders, illegal immigrants, etc.), as in the case of slum children or children detained in holding areas, for example. The most ordinary and basic things (going to school, playing, having adequate clothing and footwear, having a space in which to do homework, making and keeping friends at school) are subject to uncertainty and insecurity, as shown in the case of children living in social-security hotels. The trials of exclusion and marginalisation afflict these young city-dwellers, who do not benefit from the protection that their status as children is supposed to bring. Despite the recognition in principle, both legally and socially, of this specific status, the practical implementation of the special circumstances that they are supposed to benefit from does not always occur in reality.

A paradox is thus visible, at the very the heart of our urban societies, between, on the one hand, the care and unconditional kindness that the figure of the child appears to invite, the unanimous recognition of its innocence and of the imperative protection it calls for, the absolute prevalence of child status over any other determinant of a child’s situation or identity and, on the other hand, the accommodations and policies concerning children that give priority to other factors in determining the care they are provided, such as the origin, legal status and/or the economic situation of their parents.

Ultimately, children play a role in the organisation of the social worlds in which they take their place. Often thought of as beings to be welcomed, trained and integrated, they are also – albeit less obviously – a potential vector for the integration of adults, a medium and a vehicle for links, local roots, urban sociability and solidarity between adults, focused around them and for them. Their role as citizens is, in fact, already fully active: they are not citizens in the making or unfinished beings but inspirers, catalysts and sometimes teachers who provoke changes of perspective in their parents (Cottereau 2012) in terms of their habits and their ways of seeing and doing things.

Articles in this series:

See also on Métropolitiques (in French):


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Carole Gayet-Viaud & Clément Rivière & Philippe Simay, “Children in the City”, Metropolitics, 2 October 2015. URL :

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