Interview With Roger Hart

Roger Hart, Prof. of Environmental and Developmental Psychology at the Graduate School of CUNY, and co-Director of the Children's Environment Research Group.

Discussing his work: My research deals with practical relevance, which always concerns children and their environment. While it serves urban planners and designers, landscape architects and environmental educators, very often the research is highly collaborative with communities, enabling them to investigate their own communities in order to change them.

I also work for UNICEF as a consultant for very poor urban children, including children living and working on the street. I help them develop new methodology for understanding the lives of children.

On children's rights: The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is a powerful treaty that all countries have signed except for the United States and Somalia. Somalia has an excuse; they have no government. It is a revolutionary document that sees children as citizens with rights, and hence deserving to be protected. There is a more progressive side to the CRC, which says that "children have the right to participate in all matters affecting their lives, according to their capacity." Children in most parts of the world now know that they have rights. This is helping them to protect themselves. Also, if children are included in genuine dialogue as children, maybe they will be able as adults to create the kind of participatory democracy that we don't have in any country of the world right now.

Problems with the waterfront project: There is a lot to be disappointed about with the waterfront design. It is such a narrow strip of public space along the waterfront. The waterfront is a treasure, it is a treasure for the community and for the whole of Queens and it is outrageous that those buildings are being built so close to the water. I'm horrified.

Children design at the Long Island City Community Garden: Five children, 9 years old and under, participated (see above photo). In the dirt they planned their view of what the garden should be like. They built this lovely winding path with little stones, sticks, petals and flowers. I never tried this method before, working in the dirt. It was fantastic, they built an accurate, detailed plan of the garden. Giving children a voice often just means providing the right medium. When children are able to create such designs, adults will get involved in dialogue with them, whereas normally the children's perspectives would not be considered.

The successes of community gardens: While public space is dying, community gardens are a clever solution. This city really doesn't have recreation funding anymore, where as in the 1950's you had thousands of Parkies (park attendants), who gave a sense of security to children in parks. Community gardens are successful for young children because they create, in a semi-public space, a space controlled by local residents, a space that is very safe for young children.

When you ask people to remember their favorite childhood spaces they tend to be found spaces like streams, not institutional spaces. I have a trick I play on architecture students. I ask them to draw for me their ideal playground from when they were nine years of age. And they draw this amazing natural environment. I then compare them with what they now design and ask them to explain the contrasts. It is terribly embarrassing for them, as it should be. And it's an indictment of not only the design profession, but where we've gone in our society in the past 30 years, with the limited freedom of children and growing liability concerns.

My favorite play areas are in the Netherlands, where landscape designers are making wild lands for children in urban areas. Instead of manicured parks, they just let the land go wild with woods and long grass. Kids are allowed into the space to create their own play environment.

It works really well. The parents have a regular route that they walk to look out for danger. Kids are building their own tree houses right in the urban area.

My friend Peter Beeton, a landscape architect from England who is now living in Hunters Point, is building play gardens. This photo shows one funded by the Trust for Public Land at 6th Street and Avenue B. These gardens use water, sand and other materials in a setting which enables him to work with kids to design and build.

We welcome your comments.

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Last Update: June 1997