Growing Up with No Place to Play

Winner of the Environmental Design Research Association’s (EDRA) 2021 Great Places Award for Place Research

A Participatory Study of Children’s Public Spaces in Manila’s Resettlement Communities

Neoliberal processes such as displacement, exclusion, and gentrification exacerbate inadequacies in the public


Scholars agree that public space is essential for the well-being of children living in low-income communities. These findings drove the UN to adopt SDG 11.7, “…provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, particularly for women and children…” However, design professionals struggle to justify public space in resource-constrained environments such as resettlements. Resettlements refer to the built form resulting from a campaign in which residents are evicted and resettled into social housing—often far outside the city. Although resettlements are widespread, the lives of children in these environments has rarely been subjected to systematic and in-depth study.


Manila, Philippines represents a vivid case where children experience the most violent and extreme resettlements. Focusing on four resettlement communities this study asks: what spaces perform as public space and how do children use them? In response, I documented children’s mobility, described their place use, characterized their environments, and identified existing planning and design aspects that impeded children’s needs. Specifically, I used a participatory research design (n=16) to collect and analyze over 432 photographs taken and 16 maps made by children, 105 hours of site observations and behavior maps, and 61 hours of audio recordings with children, community members, architects, and officials.


From this data, I identified six cross-cutting themes of poor congruence and located the responsible environmental properties. Children expressed frustration with the public space due to feelings tied to the environment: boredom corresponds to limited environmental stimulation; fear corresponds to indefensible space; exposure corresponds to insufficient gradients of control; vulnerability corresponds to unresponsive architecture/limited territoriality; identitylessness corresponds to limited personalization/hard architecture; and, conformity corresponds to standard designs. These findings were validated by member-checking transcripts, using multiple sources of data for triangulation, and saturation through nearly two years of fieldwork.


This study has rich academic and social impacts. It extends previous findings on children’s experiences in low-income communities such as Lynch (1977), Chawla (2002), and Kruetz (2015) by shifting the framework toward the economy of space. Additionally, research involving children’s experiences in resettlements is scare and, as such, this study makes a significant contribution to the interdisciplinary field of children’s environments and, more broadly, to the study of resettlement environments. It has been accepted in Kruetz and Beza’s forthcoming book, Growing Up in Cities III and the original methodology was accepted in Bishop and Dimoulias’ forthcoming, Routledge Handbook on Diverse Childhoods and the Environmental Experience.

The study also has important local impacts. I hired an interdisciplinary team of nine research assistant from local universities and trained them in ethical research with human subjects, working with children, and environment-behavior principles. Furthermore, the results of this study were used to develop a theory of change for children’s safe public spaces in resettlement communities around Manila in conjunction with a prominent NGO. The stakeholder-led process resulted in a funded project with expected completion in 2022. The project was presented and published in the proceedings for “Beyond 2020: The World Sustainable Built Environment Conference.”