Empathy-based stories can be useful for collecting children’s perspectives on urban green spaces across different cultural-geographic contexts

Shu, X. ., Mesimaki, M. ., Kotze, J. ., Wales, M. ., Xie, L. ., Benicke, R. ., & Lehvavirta, S. . (2022). Needs and expectations of German and Chinese children for livable urban green spaces revealed by the method of empathy-based stories. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 65. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2022.127476

Adults are generally the planners and designers of urban green spaces; yet children are frequent users of such spaces. This study was framed around the understanding that giving children the opportunity to express their needs and preferences towards green spaces could result in the development of green spaces more reflective of their needs and interests.

Over 700 children, age 8 – 10, from two urban areas in two countries (Chengdu, China, and Ruhr Region, Germany) participated in this study. Researchers used a storytelling method – referred to as the “method of empathy-based stories” (MEBS) – to help children express their preferences, expectations, values, and mental images regarding urban green spaces. “Empathy” as used in this context involves placing oneself into a specifically described situation. For this study, children were asked to empathize to a specific situation given in a script provided by the researchers and then continue the story based on their own imagination. Each participant received one of 17 script versions and was then invited to use their imagination in writing and/or drawing the rest of the story. The scripts were based on three interlinked concepts relating to design and planning of urban green spaces: sustainable development, livability, and ecosystem services.

Results indicate that MEBS can be an effective and efficient way to collect rich and specific information from children as to what they prefer and find meaningful in urban landscape features. From the children’s stories, 14 main thematic categories were identified. Of these, the four primary categories were “Open spaces” (parks, meadow, forest), “Physical elements” (sun, sky, rain), “Activities” (sensory, games), and Feelings (happy, beautiful). The types of green and blue spaces described ranged from wild natural (Rivers, Forests) to designed urban spaces (Parks, Lawns). Children suggested that the spaces they imagined would provide “opportunities for play, socializing, contact with nature, aesthetic and restorative experiences, learning and exploration.” The German and Chinese children seemed to have corresponding needs and expectations regarding urban green spaces, yet there was some variation suggesting that “the use of, and experiences in, green spaces are linked not only to the landscape but also to conceptual-cultural contexts.” Both German and Chinese children recognized the importance of urban green spaces for their health and the sustainability of cities. Both groups also showed awareness of urban environmental issues, although concerns about urban pollution – especially air pollution – were expressed more frequently by Chinese children than German children.

Children in this study imagined playing in both designed green spaces like parks and gardens and less managed spaces like forests and ponds. The children’s responses indicated that they appreciated contact with nature for aesthetic experiences, restoration, learning opportunities and social interaction. These results indicate that urban planning should promote green spaces that are easily accessible to children and include vegetation and other natural elements, along with manufactured structures and landscapes. This study also indicates that children are aware of diverse ecosystem services that green spaces can provide, along with livability and urban sustainable development.

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