Children using the ‘Minecraft’ video game
Children using the ‘Minecraft’ video game to design public spaces as part of the Block by Block programme, a collaboration between UN-Habitat, Microsoft and Swedish developer Mojang

About 60 per cent of urban populations will be under 18 years of age by 2030, according to UN Habitat, but attempts to involve young people in the design of their cities remain in their infancy. Efforts to enlist this generation have often floundered due to a range of problems — not least an unwillingness to listen to their needs.

“The actual involvement of young people in planning is negligible” says Simeon Shtebunaev, a Birmingham City University doctoral researcher in youth and town planning and a researcher at urban social enterprise Social Life. However, new technologies offer a way forward. Digitisation is becoming a “panacea to youth engagement” in many cities, says Shtebunaev.

Hargeisa, the largest city of Somaliland in the Horn of Africa and home to 1.5mn people, has already been demonstrating what can be achieved by digitally engaging with young people — notably through the Minecraft video game. This enables users to design and build structures in a manner similar to expensive 3D modelling software.

Despite large-scale reconstruction, the city still bears the scars of the 1981-91 civil war, during which former Somalian dictator Said Barre sought to wipe out members of the city’s dominant Isaaq clan. Up to an estimated 200,000 Isaaq died.

The independence monument in Hargeisa, Somaliland uses the colors of the country’s flag
The independence monument in Hargeisa, Somaliland © André Khalil/FT

In September 2019, though, “Urban Visioning Week” brought Hargeisa residents together over five days to discuss the city’s future as part of the UN’s Joint Programme on Local Governance. The aim was for residents to identify the city’s problems and what improvements they felt were needed.

Forty-seven young people took part in an assessment of planning problems, such as the lack of dedicated play areas and sports facilities, as well as basic services — like street lighting and refuse collection. “This was the first time, ever, that the local government [in Hargeisa] had consulted children,” says Anjali Pradhan, local governance programme specialist at Unicef Somalia. That was despite people aged between six and 29 constituting 62 per cent of Somaliland’s entire population.

Using Minecraft, 15 of Hargeisa’s youth took part in designing a young person-friendly public space: Hargeisa Stadium Park. The initiative was run by the Block by Block programme — a collaboration between UN-Habitat, Microsoft, and Swedish game developer Mojang. Since 2012, the programme has upgraded public spaces in more than 35 countries.

Children in front of computer monitors
Block by Block programme participants using ‘Minecraft’

Minecraft lets users digitally create lifelike structures using coloured blocks to represent wood, metal and other materials and can be easily learnt by people of all ages. The skills picked up on the way make it the perfect design tool for countries that lack human capital resources.

After a few hours, those who use it “are almost experts”, says Joy Mutai, UN-Habitat programme development officer and Block by Block manager. “We are seeing people even deciding to be architects,” after they have taken part, she adds.

Almost a quarter of Somaliland’s children do not go to school, with community literacy rates similarly low. But Minecraft enables participation by people whose poor formal education might normally exclude them from such activities as urban planning, says Pradhan. “Given the space and the opportunity” that the game enables them, “they do speak their minds,” she says.

A child using ‘Minecraft’
The Block by Block programme has used ‘Minecraft’ to involve young people in upgrading public spaces in more than 35 countries

Dangerous street junctions, litter-strewn private plots and a small, pay-to-play football ground were what routinely passed as play spaces for Hargeisa’s youth. However, following group discussions and time spent modelling in Minecraft’s virtual world, the young people put forward designs for the Stadium Park site to the city authorities, which included equipped play and sports facilities and dedicated areas for women and girls.

Addressing local policymakers at the end of the workshop, one 14-year-old said: “I hope you accept the opinions you’re hearing from us”.

Shortly afterwards, though, the coronavirus pandemic hit Hargeisa hard, stretching public expenditure and causing the Stadium Park works to be cancelled.

Then, in June 2021, a change in mayoral leadership re-energised the project. Most of the young people’s recommendations have since been reincorporated at a new site.

The city is now placing its young people at the forefront of wider efforts to regenerate urban spaces haunted by a violently destructive past. Consultation with them is expected to become a feature of local planning in Somaliland and the federal states of Somalia. The sharing of best practice represents a chance to continue Hargeisa’s postwar reconstruction.

But, at the same time, Shtebunaev notes that such moves must be “one set of tools among others”. Critical problems remain. Unemployment averages about 70 per cent and climate change effects are being felt.

The long-term success of Somaliland’s experiments in participatory urbanism will ultimately rely on improvements to the economic and political situation.

Even so, the new youth-led park design offers the chance of a brighter future. Young people hope that having their voices heard can lessen the risks of repeating the horrors of 30 years ago.

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