Urban Synergies Group: Creating space for young people in urban informal settlements in Sierra Leone: Empowering youth through public space dreams and actions

Urban Synergies Group: Creating space for young people in urban informal settlements in Sierra Leone: Empowering youth through public space dreams and actions

Young people in Sierra Leone are the country’s most urbanised population group, with 15-35-year-olds making up 44 % of the urban population. During a time of global political uncertainty, change, and unprecedent need for urban transformation and action, the project ‘Creating space for young people in urban Sierra Leone’ focuses on the development and improvement of public urban space for youth living in informal settlements across nine communities the three cities Freetown, Makeni, and Kono. Young people’s access to quality public spaces in the city is very limited and a largely overlooked aspect of urban development in the country - an alarming trend in relation to the overall wellbeing of youth, as the individual living conditions of many young people are poor and their needs for active recreation and socialisation remain unfulfilled. Therefore, the overall objective of the project is to improve the wellbeing of young people in urban Sierra Leone, by increasing their meaningful engagement in shaping their local communities and improving access to safe and inclusive public spaces in the city.

Project partnership for SDG17

The project is a cross sectoral collaborative effort between the Danish NGO Dreamtown, the Australian organisation Urban Synergies Group, the Sierra Leonean NGO Youth Dream Centre Sierra Leone (YDC-SL), the University of Makeni, and the University of Canberra- Health Research Institute, funded by the Danish Civil Society in Development (CISU). As a response to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Goals 3: Good Health and Wellbeing, 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, and 17: Strong Partnerships for the Goals, one aim of the project is to co-design targeted public space interventions in urban communities as opportunities to generate ownership and participation for, with, and by youth.

This unique collaborative project enables several key outcomes relevant to achieve the overall objectives of the project. Firstly, this includes the establishment of a culture-specific definition for the concept of Public Space. Secondly, the development and testing of the Dream Collection Tool in the communities, and thirdly, the training of students and key personal involved in the data collection of a youth wellbeing survey and its testing in the field.

A proposed country specific definition of Public Space

In order to be able to introduce the concept of public space to the target communities, we initially had to gain an understanding of how the space between buildings is perceived locally. A co-design workshop was organised, based on qualified technical input from Urban Synergies Group’s Gregor Mews. With the reflections of our local partner Youth Dream Centre Sierra Leone, who specialise in providing free non-formal education to vulnerable urban youth, a shared and idealised vision was created that defines what the concept of public space means in the context of Sierra Leone. The draft vision was then introduced during a pilot session to the community of Funkia in Freetown. Together with 45 community members, the definition was shared, discussed, and verified. In order to ensure all community members understood each term in the definition, it was orally translated into Krio. The definition is as follows: A public space is a space available to people of all ages where they can meet everyday socially and comfortably. These spaces are safe, accessible, free of cost, inclusive, free of discrimination, enjoyable and encourage idea sharing. Such spaces will contribute to our collective wellbeing.

Dream Collection Tool

With a grassroots designed concept definition of public space, we were now able to introduce the Dream Collection Tool within the test community of Funkia, Freetown. In Copenhagen in December 2018, Urban Synergies Group and Dreamtown designed a process in which we can collect the dreams of young people in the urban communities and convert some of those dream into reality in a cost-effective way. We consciously designed the process to be as inclusive and open as possible, with collective reflection as well as non-formal education as integrated parts of the tool. The process takes place over three day, for 2-3 hours each day in the community. Day one includes a collaborative exploration of the context with a community mapping exercise and an introduction of the concept of public space. On day two, we all dream together - the higher level of fun the better! Although some dreams are too big to actualise within the scope of this project, there is no reason to worry as the co-design process is designed in a way that mitigates false expectations and keeps the participants focused to find tangible and joyful solutions for public spaces. On the third day, the model building process takes place. All participants are able to articulate and present their dreams to the rest of the community. Collective voting on the top three dreams that came out of the process were collected by YDC-SL for their Dream Mapping of all 9 communities across the country. The aim is to work with local CBO’s and the community itself during the implementation phase where the dreams are realised and developed as actual public spaces.

Reflections and anticipated outcomes

During a reflection workshop on the test of the Dream Collection Tool, all partners recognised the unique value of this project as it delivers not only traditional place making interventions, but transforms the thinking of the youth and empowers them to see their own community in a positive and loveble perspective in which the benefit of working together for a shared outcome ensures that no one is left behind. Consequently, the benefits of the co-design approach have already proven to be effective, even prior to completion of the project, allowing for non-formal education and enabling community ownership. This carries the potential of upscaling and replication in other communities and the delivery of a paradigm shift that explores a new horizon beyond liveability.

To advance knowledge of the nexus of wellbeing, community empowerment, and public space in informal settlements, a quantitative youth wellbeing designed by Dr. Jacki Schirmer, University of Canberra, Health Research Institute, has been tested with upskilled students from University of Makeni. The youth wellbeing survey widely covers holistic aspects of subjective wellbeing and will assist in measuring the progress of the intervention and identify the most dominant youth wellbeing indicators. The research findings will provide a comprehensive dataset with up to 1000 respondents in the nine communities. An evaluation of the potential impact of the public space intervention on youth wellbeing will take place through qualitative semi-structured empathy interviews in the target communities.

We look forward to sharing our results in the foreseeable future. Should you be interested in learning more about this project or wish to explore potentials for collaboration, feel free to reach out to them

www.urbansysnergiesgroup.org and www.dreamtown.ngo


Article by Gregor Helmut Mews, USG & Nina Fredslund Ottosen, Dreamtown
Photo credits: Urban Synergies Group & Dreamtown