Book review: Territorial Capacity and Inclusion: Co-creating a Public Space with Teenagers

reviewed by Diogo Guedes Vidal

24 Oct 2023, 9:42 a.m.

Territorial Capacity and Inclusion book cover

Carlos Smaniotto Costa, Marluci Menezes, and Joana Solipa Batista, Territorial Capacity and Inclusion: Co-creating a Public Space with Teenagers. C3Places Project. Culture & Territory, Vol. 7. Lisbon: Lusófona University Press, 2023; 195 pp.: ISBN: 978-989-757-180-0 (eBook).


Teenagers’ involvement in urban planning and the co-creation of public space is a considerable emerging area of interest in urban studies, challenging the established representation of ‘future citizens’, which has been leading to their marginalisation in the planning process as they await adulthood. While a growing body of literature recognises the importance of including teenagers in decision-making processes related to the built environment (Costa, Batista, et al., 2021; Laughlin and Johnson, 2011; Watson, 2009), there remains a gap concerning the practical application of such principles. The involvement of teenagers in urban planning and public space design can lead to more inclusive and sustainable cities through the identification of issues such as safe routes to schools, recreational areas and spaces for social interaction, which are vital for their well-being. Also, their inclusion in decision-making may be a driver of a sense of ownership and responsibility for their communities.

Despite this recognition, some challenges persist, such as ensuring meaningful participation and overcoming the perceived barriers between adults and teenagers in decision-making processes, which makes its practical application difficult. There is already a tradition of studies that reveal processes of institutionalisation and privatisation of childhood and adolescence (Leverett, 2011; Sarmento, 2018; Zeiher, 2003), typically associated with a widely disseminated image of risk and insecurity in cities. Adding to this, the dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic introduced changes in the use of public space, notably imbuing it with silence, especially among children and adolescents (Costa, Menezes, et al., 2021), whose long-term consequences are still largely unclear. One way to overcome this relies on documenting and describing case studies and best practices, together with modern technology (Shtebunaev et al., 2023), which provide valuable insights into how to engage teenagers effectively (Gurstein et al., 2003). Creating youth-friendly public spaces is an essential part of the co-creation process. This involves considering the preferences and needs of teenagers, including elements like seating, lighting and recreational facilities. It is essential to integrate youth participation into broader urban planning strategies and to ensure that the voices of teenagers are consistently heard (Cushing, 2015).

Within the framework of the C3Places Project, Territorial Capacity and Inclusion: Co-creating a Public Space with Teenagers seeks to bridge this gap by providing insights and empirical evidence from the Lisbon Living Lab, shedding light on the challenges and opportunities of engaging teenagers in the creation of inclusive public spaces by exploring the intersection of technology, urban planning and community engagement. Framed by the concept of territorial capacity, which is ‘associated with valuing and understanding the environment, those ties to a place that enable individuals to build, and appropriate knowledge related to territory, space, and place. It is the capacity to understand and make use of the knowledge rooted in places’ (p. 60), the book emphasises the ability of territories to shape their development and create inclusive spaces. However, the literature often lacks a specific focus on the involvement of teenagers in this process. This gap is significant as teenagers represent a demographic group with unique spatial needs and preferences, and their exclusion from urban planning can lead to less inclusive and responsive public spaces. The book’s exploration of the Lisbon Living Lab provides valuable insights into how territorial capacity can be enhanced by involving teenagers in urban planning. It emphasises the importance of recognising teenagers as active contributors to the co-creation of public spaces. The Living Lab’s interdisciplinary approach aligns with the principles of territorial capacity, bringing together various disciplines to address complex urban challenges.

The book is organised into six main chapters. The first chapter introduces the C3Places project, which seeks to enhance public spaces using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). It emphasises the significance of public spaces in our lives and defines its focus on areas like parks, squares and streets by providing a comprehensive overview of the project’s objectives, its origins within the framework of ERA-NET Cofund Smart Urban Futures and the broader context of urban development and sustainability challenges. One of the book’s strengths lies in its clear articulation of the project’s goals. It identifies five key themes that serve as guiding principles throughout the project: increasing the attractiveness, responsiveness and inclusiveness of public spaces, testing the potential of ICT for social research and sharing local knowledge and lessons learned. These themes are interwoven into the narrative, providing a roadmap for readers to follow as they delve deeper into the project’s intricacies. One notable aspect of the book is its emphasis on stakeholder engagement. It underscores the importance of involving various stakeholders, including local communities, government bodies and research institutions, in the co-creation process. This collaborative approach, as highlighted in the Vilnius Living Lab, holds promise for bridging generational gaps and fostering inclusive urban spaces.

In Chapter 2, the authors discuss the Lisbon Living Lab and its focus on teenagers (aged 13-18) as a specific group with unique spatial needs and interests in public spaces. It underlines the importance of involving teenagers in the production and consumption of urban spaces and the need for a dialogue between teenagers and adults in urban planning and decision-making processes. The chapter explains the methodology of engaging teenagers actively in co-research, through a multidisciplinary approach, to gain insights into their spatial practices, needs and preferences. It mentions cooperation with a secondary school and the relevance of participating in a pedagogic pilot project on sustainability and citizenship. The Alvalade neighbourhood is identified as the empirical context for the research, emphasising the importance of understanding the dynamics and conflicts experienced by teenagers in public spaces.

The authors provide a comprehensive review of the current state of research on urban environments, co-creation and placemaking, with a specific focus on teenagers in the context of Lisbon in Chapter 3, defining public spaces as areas accessible and enjoyable by all, owned or maintained by public authorities for various purposes, from infrastructure to recreation. They explore the relationship between young people and public spaces, with an emphasis on redefining ‘citizenship’ through the lens of teenagers. Another aspect discussed in this chapter is the significance of public spaces in urban environments, highlighting their value and benefits while acknowledging the challenges they face, such as accessibility issues and urban design choices. The authors address the impact of factors like economic growth and societal changes on public spaces, emphasising the need to strike a balance between tourism and the needs of residents in urban transformation efforts. A strong idea developed and that could be important in urban studies is that public spaces are not solely physical entities but also have social and relational dimensions. The authors argue that public spaces are shaped by the interactions and practices of the people who use them. Additionally, the concept of ‘publicness’ in spaces is discussed, emphasising its importance in social interactions, communal celebrations and negotiations.

Chapter 4 explores the role of teenagers as co-creators of public spaces, focusing on the Lisbon Living Lab project. The chapter highlights the dearth of empirical research on involving teenagers in placemaking and recreational facilities designed for their needs, by delving into the concept of teenagerhood as a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, marked by physical, psychological and social changes. The authors challenge common misconceptions about teenagers and their spatial needs, emphasising that their spatial behaviours and interactions are integral to their development. This is of particular importance since the evidence provided in this chapter highlights that public spaces serve as platforms for social interactions, independence and identity formation, influencing cognitive and emotional development and the importance of connections to nature. The authors also explore the power dynamics and hierarchies that affect teenagers’ experiences in public spaces and the consequences of limiting their access. It also addresses issues such as adult hegemony over space and the idea of teenagers as ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’ humans’. The discussion of power dynamics and restrictions placed on teenagers in public spaces sheds light on the need for policies and design practices that promote inclusivity and accommodate the diverse needs of different age groups.

The results of the Living Lab organised in Lisbon, with a focus on how teenagers utilise public spaces and their spatial needs and preferences, through a co-creative approach, are presented in Chapter 5. One crucial insight from the chapter is that teenagers require a variety of public spaces that cater to different purposes, including socialising, group activities and individual relaxation. It emphasises the importance of designing quality universal spaces that can be shared by various age groups and that multi-age spaces offer opportunities for teenagers to interact with other age groups, promoting a sense of community. Another relevant aspect is the discussion around the need to promote an interdisciplinary approach, involving various fields such as anthropology, geography, education, urban planning and design, a condition necessary to tackle the complex relationship between public spaces and teenagers. Through the interviews with council planners from the Junta de Freguesia de Alvalade (Parish Council) to complement the exploration of teenagers’ practices in public spaces, it was identified that teenagers are often seen as a challenging group due to inappropriate use of spaces and disruptive behaviour, which sometimes leads to conflicts with other users. Here, the authors emphasise the need for flexibility in space design to accommodate teenagers’ unique needs and behaviours. The limitations faced by the Parish Council, such as a lack of decision-making power and resources, are discussed as barriers to implementing changes that teenagers encounter. The pilot phase of the Urban Planning Workshops in Lisbon laid the foundation for further exploration of teenagers’ spatial needs and their role in urban planning. It provided valuable data and insights that would inform the subsequent design phase and contribute to the development of recommendations for creating people-sensitive public spaces. The diverse backgrounds of the students and the collaborative nature of the workshops contributed to a holistic understanding of urban issues and the potential for positive change in public spaces. Some strong ideas that stand out for this chapter are: the importance of actively listening to teenagers and valuing them as social actors; that co-research and co-creation processes are effective ways to empower teenagers and give them agency in shaping public spaces; that encouraging teenagers to share their contributions with their peers can enhance their sense of recognition and engagement; and that schools provide excellent opportunities for engaging teenagers in co-creating their environments.

The last chapter offers a comprehensive overview of the research findings and perspectives presented throughout the book, with a specific focus on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public spaces and teenagers’ relationships with these spaces. Chapter 6 stresses the importance of creating urban places that are inclusive and responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups, with a particular focus on teenagers. Vulnerable groups, such as teenagers, are more susceptible to social exclusion, which can significantly impact their daily lives and well-being. Therefore, understanding the spatial practices and needs of vulnerable groups is crucial for urban planning and policy-making. The pandemic highlighted the importance of such understanding, as restrictions on mobility and social interactions reshaped people’s relationships with their immediate surroundings. It disrupted daily routines, altered the use of public spaces and highlighted issues of health inequalities and access to green spaces in neighbourhoods. However, according to the authors, the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink urban environments through the lens of public health concerns. It calls for a balance between disease prevention and the creation of safe, accessible and green public spaces to enhance the quality of life. To create more responsive urban environments, the chapter advocates for fostering the participation and engagement of diverse interest groups. It emphasises the need to move away from unilateral urban policies and instead involve various stakeholders in the decision-making process. Some research perspectives and areas that have emerged from the experiences and insights gained during the research programme are also discussed. These include the potential of digital co-creation for urban environments, the impact of the pandemic on teenagers and civic participation and the need for more inclusive and resilient urban planning practices. It is also emphasised that teenagers can play a significant role in placemaking and urban development. Their innovative thinking, creativity and influence among peers make them valuable contributors to shaping their environments. Another idea is that digital tools can empower teenagers to actively participate in urban planning processes and express their views on public spaces. The book’s recommendations for leveraging digital technologies reflect the potential of these tools in enhancing territorial capacity and inclusion.

In a rapidly evolving world where the voices of our youth are increasingly crucial in shaping the cities of tomorrow, this book stands as a beacon of insight and inspiration. It opens our eyes to the often-overlooked perspectives of teenagers, offering a deep dive into their perceptions, values and aspirations within the context of public spaces. It is a call to action – a call to collaborate, engage and co-create cities that truly reflect the dreams and needs of all, regardless of age.



The author acknowledges the support of the R&D Unit Centre for Functional Ecology - Science for People & the Planet (CFE), with reference UIDB/04004/2020, financed by FCT/MCTES through national funds (PIDDAC) and to the Associate Laboratory TERRA, with reference LA/P/0092/2020.



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Keeping People in Their Place? Young-Adult Mobility and Persistence of Residential Segregation in US Metropolitan Areas by Marcus L. Britton and Pat Rubio Goldsmith

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