Mapping Chester City Centre with Children and their Families

Monday August 7, 2023

In 2021, as part of a review of Chester’s ‘One City Plan’ (a high-level strategy guiding development in the city centre), we were commissioned by Cheshire West and Chester Council to gather evidence from children and their families about their views and experiences of Chester city centre. To do so we created maps with our research participants.

“Spatial and creative methods, including mappings, walkabouts, photo walks and talks (Pyyry 2015) and spatial technologies can offer a meaningful and interesting way to engage children in sharing their life experiences (Freeman 2019) and help adults develop ways of paying attention to how space can work for children.” (Russell et al, 2023, p5).

Critical/creative cartography

Critical cartography originated as a concept and method that challenged the supposed objectivity and neutrality of scientific mapping. Mapping reflecting the shapes, sizes, undulations and borders of spaces lacks the ability to tell the stories of those who inhabit space. Space becomes place through the interactions and sensorial affects and physical effects encountered through spatial practices (Kraftl and Blazek, 2015). Creative mapping techniques offer an opportunity for a different kind of representation, one that seeks to not only visualise what matter matters but how and for whom and when, through the telling of the stories of those involved in spatial practice, legitimising perspectives neglected in scientific map making (Reitz, 2021).

Lester (2020) suggests this critical cartography is, in fact, more-than-representational, documenting as it does accounts of the coproduction of space amongst the relational achievements of human and non-human actors in their endeavours to make life worth living and the assemblages of opportunity, materiality, disposition, capability and, and, and… that make that possible.

“Deleuze and Guattari (1988, p.13) urge us to ‘make a map, not a tracing’, to develop ongoing processes that work with sensual, mobile, and more-than-representational methods. From this perspective, account-ability becomes the ‘ability to articulate [take account of] how practice affects conditions for playing, what happens, and how this contributes to policy objectives” (Lester 2016, p.50).

Creative mapping: combining the social and the deep

Borrowing aspects from both social and deep mapping helps reveal the ways the built and natural environment are imbued with societal structures and values that influence and are influenced by one another, affecting their use by different individuals and groups (Reitz, 2021). One example of this is the availability of safe public toilets, the lack of which was a significant issue for both teenage girls and parents with young children. For another, a wheelchair user, couldn’t enjoy the circular route non-wheelchair users made around a local wilderness area because it included a steep set of steps inaccessible by wheelchair. Equally spaces with unintended value for play, leisure and enrichment can create a feeling of subversion and transgression; a wide pedestrianised walkway, was an asset for first bike riding experiences but parents felt anxious about allowing this activity if there were too many other people around because of the sense this might be a precluded activity. Incorporating aspects of social cartography in this way through creative mapping can elucidate social perspectives beyond conventional views of urban space (Irving and Moss, 2018).

Through the creative mapping of the routes, affordances, and narratives of those involved in spatial practices and placemaking we combine the visual with the felt (deep mapping), incorporating the stories of participants, about the sometimes-fleeting sensorial affects of their spatial practices and how these can become almost ritualistic features, enjoyed recursively through which time-space is bound in memory making (Reitz, 2021).  The maps produced detail the movements and encounters of participants, their relationships with one another and their physical and social environments, through their stories photographs and reflections. As Lester (2020) observes, used this way, critical cartography imbues the environment with life. This creative and non-prescriptive map-making process goes some way to legitimise neglected perspectives (Reitz, 2021) and describe the aspects of the city that work and work less well for our participants, enabling policy makers to make informed responses to child/family-friendly city planning.

Research approach

The creative mapping activities aimed to gather examples of children’s and family’s everyday lived experiences in the city centre and their views about the city centre, with a particular focus on:

    • Children and teenagers who get around and make use of the city centre independently of their parents/carers.
    • Families who spend time together in the city centre.

The mapping activities involved participants taking a journey around the city centre, following their typical routes, and visiting the places that matter to them. Due to restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, all mapping activities had to be carried out remotely, with children and families using GPS apps to track their routes using their phones, photographing what mattered to them on their journeys, and talking through a selection of their images via online meetings; a process that turned out to work well for a wide age range of participants from 5 to 50-year-olds.

Throughout this process, the researchers were careful to ask openly about how children and families get around and use the city centre and what is important to them. Participants were not instructed to pay attention to any particular aspect of the city centre other than the way in which they, or they and their children, use it. It is however important to recognise that these were leisure journeys/outings, that were a routine aspect of participants’ lives but in this instance were specifically carried out to inform the research and undertaken in lockdown conditions when many businesses and services were not open.

The majority of participants for the creative mapping activities were identified from people who expressed an interest in being involved in the wider review of the One City Plan undertaken by the Chester branch of Good for Nothing (GFN). 30 research participants were actively involved in the mapping activities including 17 children aged 5 to 15, 10 of which were girls and 7 boys, and 13 parents, 7 of which were mums and 6 dads. Participants lived in a variety of areas across Chester.

The collection of resulting ‘maps’ provide unique, detailed and insightful accounts of how children and families perceive and make use of the city centre, combining both memories of life before ‘lockdown’ and current experiences in it. Data generated through this critical creative mapping approach are read diffractively, not reflectively, in doing so it is possible to consider the dynamic and variable interrelationships between spatial and social policy and practice (Lester, 2020). This process surfaces patterns and commonalities evident within the maps, described through the following section as substantive themes and sub-themes.

Theme 1) Playing anywhere at anytime

Participants’ stories are littered with references to playing along the way, through and in a multitude of places and with a multitude of things across the city centre. Play is not confined to designated times and spaces; it imbues all aspects of children’s experiences of the city. Children’s instinctive drive to play influences where they and their families choose to go and how they choose to spend their time.

1a) The importance of paying attention to play

 The act of doing creative, qualitative research of this nature with children enables adults (both researchers and parent participants) to pay attention to the particularities of how children use and move through the city; revealing the seemingly mundane and everyday things that matter to children (paths, curbs, walls, rocks, trees, plants, bridges, ramps, slopes etc.), as well as the occasional and extraordinary things they experience throughout a year (events, public art, particular people and novel adaptations to the environment).

1b) Playing in, through and along the way

 Playing is ever present in children’s and their family’s use of the city centre but there are also examples of different intensities of play. There are incidental moments of play that occur as part of people’s journeys, making the task of getting to places more interesting and enjoyable for children. There are longer bouts of playing that occur within interstitial spaces on the way into and around town, where people take a break from their journey to ‘hang out’ and ‘have a little play’. And there are prolonged periods of play in destination and designated spaces, where children have sufficient time and space for their play to develop in complexity, often involving other playmates.

Theme 2) An affective and effective environment

Children illustrate a strong affinity to, and place a high value on, both the aesthetic qualities of their surroundings and its functionality for their play. From scenic views to the tiniest of details, children are affected by what they see, hear, find and feel around them and this influences their play. The beauty to be found in the city centre is not lost on five-year-olds but what children appreciate and how they make use of the most mundane of features is often overlooked by adults.

2a) Aesthetic value and nature

Children are attracted to things they find beautiful and unusual, where there is novelty, colour and detail to be explored. As a consequence, families purposefully incorporate aesthetic features and events into their journeys throughout the city centre, be that public art installations, artistic graffiti, textured surfaces, statues, ornate architecture, flowers or festivals. Equally, children and families avoid and spend less time in places they perceived to be insufficiently maintained, polluted or unsafe. Well-maintained spaces matter to both children and parents.

2b) Effective physical features

Children are equally interested in the effectiveness of their environments in terms of the physical features available and how they can use these in their play. There are repeated references to opportunities for exploring, climbing, clambering, balancing, rolling or skating and hanging on. There is a pattern throughout the maps of children making efforts to access different levels, to be at different heights to other people, to see the world from a different perspective, to look up to and down from. Many if not most of the physical features talked about by children are not intentionally provided for play but that makes them no less valuable to those children and their play.

2c) History, heritage and landscape

The evocative nature of Chester’s architecture, heritage and landscape lends itself to children creating pretend scenarios and provides many of the physical features they seek out in their play. The Roman Gardens, the amphitheatre, the city walls, the Rows, Grosvenor Park, the Cathedral grounds, as well as the river and the canal, provide vital spaces for play and for children and families to spend their time. By playing in these spaces children actively engage with the heritage and historic nature of their city, which in turn opens up possibilities for further exploration of these artefacts and their histories.

Theme 3) A web of opportunities for play

The maps illustrate a web of potential opportunities for play across the city centre combining natural and fabricated features and points of interest, together with interstitial and destination spaces. Much of what is identified as having value for play has not been provided with that explicit intention. That does not diminish the value of places purposely provided for play, this is a situation of ‘and, and, and’. Designated places for play matter but so do all the other less obvious ways in which children play throughout the city centre.

The features and places within this web of opportunities have significant cultural value for children and their play as well as providing landmarks, enabling children to understand where they are in the city and to meet up with friends. Research participants identified opportunities to further develop this web of affordances for play which would in turn enhance children’s and family’s experiences of the city.

3a) Destination and designated spaces for play

Chester is fortunate to have a range of destination spaces that children and adults value visiting for play. This includes parks and designated play areas like Grosvenor Park, St Anne’s field and Edgar’s field on the edge of the city centre, all of which are used by children and families when visiting the city centre. Some participants identified a lack of designated places for play in the heart of the city centre. This perceived lack of provision may be less of an issue because of everything else that is available for play.

There are also spaces that, whilst not purposely provided for play, are being used by children and families as destinations for playing. It is not necessary and may not even be desirable to explicitly recognise or designate these places as spaces for play but it is important to protect and maintain that which enables children to play in these places, this must include the implicit permission that they are allowed to do so.


There is value to some spaces having a physical boundary, particularly where children who are likely to run off are concerned. This makes it easier for parents to relax and allow young children some freedom. However, as the play area in Grosvenor Park illustrates, having a clearly defined play area, separated from a wider, equally playable space, can result in play equipment being confined to a relatively small space which in turn increases the contested nature of that space at busy times.

3b) Beyond play equipment and play areas

Engineered play equipment is valued by children for their play but so are many other natural and fabricated features. These architectural landscaped features get it right at least as often as formal play equipment. There are also examples of inexpensive and subtle facilitated opportunities that introduce novelty into spaces and in doing so offer children further inspiration and incentive to play.

3c) Children valuing biodiversity

Trees, plants, flora and green open spaces are highly valued by children and families for both their play value and aesthetics. Efforts to increase the biodiversity of the city are likely to be of benefit to children and their play, as long as these developments take account of children and children continue to be permitted to play in these places.

Theme 4) Safe enough routes and ease of access

Children’s ease of access to and use of the city centre, and the web of potential opportunities for play that it affords, are dependant on an incomplete network of possible ‘safe enough’ routes. Traffic is the single biggest barrier to children’s and families’ health, safety, freedom of movement and play across the city.

The maps reveal tensions between different modes of transport be that cars, buses, bicycles or walking and suggest that attempts to combine these are fraught with difficulties. As people who cannot drive, the walkability and rideability of the city is of vital importance to children but children’s safety and well-being is also of the utmost concern for their parents. Pedestrianised areas and traffic-free routes enable parents to afford their children greater freedom. Further investment in these assets will be of benefit to children and their play and will likely increase children’s and family’s use of the city centre.

4a) Access for all

 The maps provide examples where designing for the youngest people and those with limited mobility or significant impairments would benefit the majority of other people as well. By failing to accommodate these people we prevent them from accessing essential elements of the good life to be had in Chester.

4b) Motivations to visit destination places

Motivations to visit destinations are influenced by their atmosphere, physical accessibility, and the facilities available. Children want to feel safe and welcome and that they have some permission to play. Parents equally value places that make parenting easier, where access is easy with a pushchair or wheelchair, where there are clean and accessible public toilets, where they can feel relaxed and easily supervise their children, and where efforts are made to support their children’s play.

4c) Enough different routes for everyone and everything

Children and adults value being able to choose between alternative routes into, through and around the city centre. On a practical level, this can mean avoiding traffic, polluted air or crowded paths but also makes journeys more varied and interesting. Parents described taking different routes for different types of trips either into or around the city centre and when walking or cycling. For children, these alternatives were often focussed at a more micro level, for example being able to choose different ways of covering the next short distance in front of them and enjoying the associated fleeting sense of independence and freedom of movement.

4d) Children move differently to adults

More so than adults, young children have a tendancy to wayfare, they meander and wobble, they don’t just move in straight lines. Children will repeatedly take the more interesting but less logical route and they don’t necessarily conform to adult intentions for the use of streets, pavements, and other public spaces.

Riding, skating and scooting are all important forms of transport for children so features, routes and spaces that support this are valued. In particular, riding bikes into town with young children is reliant on having an infrastructure that supports cycling including access to traffic free routes.

Theme 5) Play is living

Playing is a part of life in the city centre rather than being apart from it. Play occurs in amongst other uses of the city and moments of play emerge wherever and whenever opportunities arise. Children make use of where they are and what they find and in doing so their play affects their environments. Playing makes life in the city centre more vibrant and interesting both for the children playing and for other people engaged with or watching them play.

5a) Permission and rites of passage

Younger children’s freedom to play in the city centre is co-dependant on the adults who accompany them. Both children and care givers need to feel that it is safe enough to play. The maps suggest that as children reach the end of primary school their independent access to the city centre becomes a rite of passage. The maps also illustrate parent’s efforts to prepare the way for this independent access by supporting children to navigate themselves into and around town safely.

5b) Children as citizens and consumers

The maps reveal children as both active citizens and consumers in the city centre. Children want to shop and they eat, drink and hang out where they can afford to do so. Children want to be involved together with other people. Having places to visit for free is important but this is nearly always accompanied by somebody spending money.

5c) Attachments to people and places

Spending time playing together in and around the city centre enables children and families to form strong attachments to the people, places and events of Chester. These are mutually beneficial relationships and hold real significance in people’s lives, all of which contributes to their sense of community and belonging.


Irving, A., & Moss, O. (2018). Imaging homelessness in a city of care. In kollektiv orangotango+ (Eds.), This is not an atlas (pp. 270–275). transcript Verlag.

Kraftl, P., Blazek, M. (2015). Mapping and Making Spaces of Childhood. In: Blazek, M., Kraftl, P. (eds) Children’s Emotions in Policy and Practice. Studies in Childhood and Youth. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Lester, S. (2016) Children’s Right to Play: From the margins to the middle, in Ruck, M.D., Peterson-Badali, M. and Freeman, M. (eds) Handbook of Children’s Rights: Global and multidisciplinary perspectives, New York: Routledge.

Lester, S. (2020) Everyday Playfulness: A new approach to children’s play and adult responses to it, London: Jessica Kingsley.

Reitz, T. (2022). Back to the Drawing Board: Creative Mapping Methods for Inclusion and Connection. In: Franklin, A. (eds) Co-Creativity and Engaged Scholarship. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Russell, W. K., Tawil, B., & Barclay, M. (2023). (At) tending to rhizomes: How researching neighbourhood play with children can affect and be affected by policy and practice in transcalar ways in the context of the Welsh Government’s Play Sufficiency Duty. Civitas, 23, 1-11.


Recommended citation for this blog:

Barclay, M., and Tawil, B. (2023), Mapping Chester City Centre with Children and Their Families. Wales, Ludicology.


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