“Helsinki has a strong profile as a city of children and young people, and unlike in many other cities in Finland, their numbers are growing in Helsinki. The Child-friendly Cities Initiative is a natural fit for us.”
What the City of Helsinki’s Director of Youth Affairs Mikko Vatka is referring to is Unicef’s Child-Friendly Cities initiative, the goals of which Helsinki started working towards in February this year.
Vatka also points out that the initiative provides good practical tools for the further development of children’s rights.
“The initiative supports Helsinki’s efforts to be a city where the point of view of children and young people is taken into account in decision-making.”
All of the City’s divisions are contributing to the implementation of the initiative. According to Head of Master Planning Pasi Rajala, Helsinki should be developed in a way that takes into account the needs of different population groups.
“Children and young people are a distinct population group whose perspective the Child-Friendly Cities initiative is helping us to highlight,” Rajala says.
The aim of the Unicef initiative is to help municipalities ensure that children’s rights are realised as fully as possible for all children. It helps assess what kind of impacts operations and decisions will have on the lives of children and young people.
The goal of the initiative is to create permanent, structural changes in local governance structures.
Pirjo Mattila, one of the coordinators of the initiative, points out that children are not allowed to make decisions on matters that impact them, nor are they responsible for them. This is just one reason why children’s matters warrant special attention.
Vatka hopes that the initiative will increase understanding of children’s rights throughout the City organisation. Helsinki has not had a systematic process for assessing the impacts of decisions on children before.
“The initiative requires cities to commit to it in an all-encompassing manner. Taking children and young people into consideration in decision-making and operations cannot be left up to a select few,” Vatka says.
The decisions made by city administrations have very concrete impacts on children and young people: Does the City hire teaching assistants? Are there enough school nurses and welfare officers?
“In practice, the realisation of the Child-Friendly Cities initiative can mean the reallocation of resources. You do not necessarily need more funding, but you might have to make some cuts elsewhere,” Vatka ponders.
A systematic approach instead of individual projects
Children and young people’s issues are always topical, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a major challenge. There have been numerous reports lately that mental health problems among under-18s have increased.
Mattila points out that everyone should do their part to think about how the four core principles of children’s rights have been realised during the pandemic.
These four core principles are: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and the right to be heard.
Mattila points out that Helsinki now has a good coordination group highlighting children and young people’s matters. The group includes representatives of not only the City administration, but the Youth Council and the City Council as well.
“The Unicef initiative includes the idea that the realisation of children’s rights cannot be ensured by cities alone. Instead it requires everyone to pitch in: every one of us can contribute to the realisation of children’s rights,” Mattila says.
The City of Helsinki is currently in the process of assessing its current level of child-friendliness in accordance with Unicef’s instructions. Factors considered in the assessment include school health records and information collected directly from children.
“The initiative is systematic. After analysing the current state of the City, we will engage in dialogue with Unicef to choose the most effective development measures. Their realisation will also be systematically monitored,” Mattila explains.
For the benefit of children now and in the future
Vatka, Rajala and Mattila point out that Helsinki has already taken great strides in terms of taking children young people into consideration.
But on the other hand, children and young people might also have a great deal to say about things like what the yards of daycare centres should include or what kind of books libraries should have more of. Or what kind of recreational opportunities the City should offer more of.
One good example of children and young people being heard is school meal panels. Young people’s views are also listened to extensively in the operations of the City of Helsinki’s youth services.
“Nevertheless, it is great that we can now examine the realisation of children’s rights throughout the City organisation using a shared assessment model that is also being used by many other municipalities,” Mattila says.
Different City divisions have a great deal of existing information regarding children and young people, but this information needs to be aggregated, and the City’s child-friendliness must be examined as a whole as well.
Rajala also points out that when making decisions, the temporal perspective must also be taken into account: we are planning, developing and building the city not only for today’s children and young people, but the children and young people of tomorrow as well.
“In other words, we must be able to look further ahead and consider how we could anticipate future needs.”
“It is important to take long-term impacts into consideration in decision-making and related preparations, and take steps to mitigate potential negative impacts, when necessary. After all, what we are building is the future of today’s children. And we must do so responsibly,” Rajala says.
Hearing student bodies
The implementation of the Child-Friendly Cities initiative is also being contributed to by the City of Helsinki Youth Council. According to its chair, Katja Legeza, Helsinki is already doing quite well, but children and young people should be heard more.
“We are only just starting the implementation of the Unicef initiative in Helsinki, and it will take some time for its impacts to become visible.”
Legeza already has a concrete idea for helping find out the opinions of young people.
“Decision-makers could listen to school student bodies and the boards of student bodies. They already exist and the feedback collected from them could be utilised in the Urban Environment Division’s and the Education Division’s decision-making, for example.”
Legeza has been pleased with Helsinki’s efforts thus far. The City’s decision-makers and officials have listened to young people and appreciated their feedback.
Municipalities that start the implementation of the initiative this year must engage in at least two years of related development work before becoming eligible to receive Unicef’s Child-Friendly Cities recognition.
“I’m sure Helsinki will get it,” Legeza says.
More active participation
In Rajala’s opinion, one of the ways in which Helsinki can make itself more child-friendly is by helping to highlight issues: children and young people may not always recognise things that could be changed themselves.
“But on the other hand, due to limited resources we have to prioritise measures that will have the greatest positive impact.”
Rajala says that over the decades he has often thought about how to increase and improve interaction with the public in city planning. Not everyone is interested in attending traditional public events.
“We need to become better at approaching young people via social media channels and applications, for example. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of making our rather official communications appealing to young people, motivating them and giving them opportunities to share their views.”
Vatka often wrestles with similar issues, though Helsinki’s youth services have of course put a great deal of effort into promoting the participation of children and young people already. In his opinion, one of the best examples of this is the City’s participatory planning model, RuutiBudjetti.
“Despite what we have achieved so far, we still have plenty of work to do to ensure that children and young people are heard,” Vatka says.
Text: Kirsi Riipinen
Image: Konsta Linkola