CASE STUDY // City as Designer – Children’s Urban Research Lab

© Lauri Jäntti web Helsinki Urban lab3

Basic Information of the Project:

The concept was designed by Creative Urban Research Lab (CURL): activist/artist Lauri Jäntti and urban geographer Noora Pyyry (University of Helsinki). CURL develops new forms of participation to urban planning and produces important knowledge to policy makers and planners.

The project was conducted with 6th grade students and their teacher, Tiia Niskanen, from Yhtenäiskoulu school in Helsinki, Finland as part of the Helsinki Design Week 2018, the biggest design festival in the Nordic Countries.

Other Collaborators: City Of Helsinki, Helsinki City Hall, Diaconia University of Applied Sciences, Urban Academy


The project integrates children’s geographical interests into the school curriculum, and motivates their learning by placing them as co-leaders of the project. In the project, the city has an active role in guiding the learning process and the methods have been designed to support sensitivity and care towards the urban (learning) environment. The project is informed by place-based education (PBE), where different informal learning environments act as settings for education and/or community collaboration (Pyyry 2015b).

Target Level of Education:

This project is suitable for children between the ages of 7 to 18, with small modifications according to the capability level of the students.

What Was Done:

The emphasis was on the body as a research instrument, which continuously produces knowledge of its environment. During the week, the city was explored with different non-representational methods without the forced need of gathering evidence (Pyyry 2016). The idea was to sensitize the body to its environment and carve space for alternative ways of thinking, as well as to support children’s role as researchers. Creative methods addressed topics that could otherwise be left without much attention and brought playfulness to the learning process. The city had an active role in the process: rhythms, sounds and scents of the urban environment invited the students to follow the city’s lead. This type of imaginative experimentation cultivates engagement and care towards the built city and other people (Pyyry 2017). It generates understanding of the ways in which different spaces take part in making us who we are, and open up space for difference.

How Things Were Done:

During the project week, each day had its own theme and methodological perspective. Helsinki City Hall was both a meeting point to the children and an ongoing exhibition to fellow urban dwellers, as children gathered there in the afternoons to work on an installation of their ‘Own Helsinki’. Children’s urban explorations were visualized in what started as a 48m² (6m x 8m) ‘empty map’. The map was gradually filled with imaginations of urban elements during the research week. On the 1st day, the students researched the city by sound-inspired photo-walks (see Pyyry 2015a). On the 2nd day, they conducted observations at a chosen shopping mall (due to a rainy day). On the 3rd day, students performed experimentations with urban hitchhiking (Malla et al. 2017). On the 4th day, they planned and conducted research with their own methods. On the last day they concentrated on building the map installation.

Age Range of Case Participants:

Participants were 28 6th grade students and 8 adult university students from Diaconia University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki, who joined the children in the city on their explorations to make sure everyone was safe. (In addition, the project welcomed other city dwellers to take part through shared walks in the city and with the map installation at the City Hall.)


Normal salary of the teachers, basic materials (such as cardboard) used at the premises

Evaluation / Assessment:

Evaluation included informal talks with the students in groups, map making and drawing at school after the project week.

Materials Used in the Project:

Mapping platform of 48m² XPS-board, pens, markers, paint, paper, cardboard, wooden sticks, invite signs for urban hitchhiking. Mobile phone cameras (every student had their own), photo-printing paper. The project can be implemented with less materials, so there is no need for this much equipment (markers & cardboard, paper & wooden sticks suffice).

Good Practices:

The project succeeded in encouraging students to approach urban spaces in creative ways. The playfulness of the project both opened up new thinking and (re-)built existing social ties. By placing value to the students’ own interests and knowledge, different types of learners succeeded and voiced their views in the project.

Challenges We Faced / Things to Develop:

The school institution carries certain pre-supposed ideas of what learning can be. The students were therefore a little confused of what was expected of them. The project’s aim of going against the goal-oriented ways of learning would need more time for preparation, so that children could freely follow their interests.

Contact Person:

Lauri Jäntti //