Forget Age. Treat Youth As Equals When It Comes to City Building

Alexander Furneaux
Aug 7 · 5 min read
Youth pitching their ideas for Toronto Public Library’s York Woods branch at the 2019 1UP Conference.

Youth are residents of cities today and stewards of our cities tomorrow. In the landscape of city-building discourse, youth voices are frequently lost to engagement processes that are intimidating, inaccessible, and unclear. In other cases, youth voices are simply not sought after based on assumptions that youth do not want to participate and that even if they did, their feedback is too unrealistic to ever be implemented.

We know that when we treat youth as equals, they consistently demonstrate the ability to identify challenges, empathize with users, and develop solutions that benefit a broader spectrum of the community. The question is, how do we get people on board with that idea?

Our recent participation in the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) Conference in Ottawa shed some light on ways we can work towards treating youth as city-building equals.

Urban Minds at the Canadian Institute of Planners Conference in Ottawa (left to right: Janice Cheung, Ryan Lo, Angela Ng, Alexander Furneaux).

Respect and Elevate Youth Knowledge

Youth have just as much right to shape their environment as adults do, yet we often discount their knowledge as naïve, uninformed, and unrealistic. By doing so, youth are pushed from getting involved in their city. To add insult to injury, assumptions are made about what youth want from the spaces that are built for them. If a project is being designed for youth as users, youth need to be involved in the decision-making process from the beginning so that it reflects their needs.

Going one step further, if youth are not found in a particular space where you might expect them to be, such as a park, library, or community centre, take this as a clue that youth engagement is lacking. Ask youth about these spaces and you will be pleasantly surprised by the insights they provide. At the CIP Conference, we shared our 8 Rules of Youth Engagement with our workshop attendees to use as a framework to support co-creation processes with youth.

Janice Cheung presenting at the CIP Conference.

Rethink The Engagement Process

Sticky notes. Coloured dots. Online surveys. Chances are if you have been asked at a public meeting or an email blast to provide your feedback, you have probably used these tools. While these tools are readily available, reasonably flexible, and generally easy to understand by both the person providing feedback as well as the person collecting it, what they lack is their capacity to be fun, intriguing, and playful. But it is these qualities, ones found in engagement activities utilizing games and craft materials, that are often perceived as naïve or an ineffective use of engagement resources. After all, how could playing with pipe cleaners be a good way to collect feedback? Our experience tells us otherwise.

Design Jams at the 1UP Conference use craft materials for youth participants to rapidly prototype their ideas and share their solutions to self-identified challenges.

Across Canada and beyond, we’re continuing to learn about innovative techniques that challenge the idea that engagement is ineffective unless it follows the same techniques we are familiar with. At the CIP Conference, we learned about fun and interactive ways to make engagement less of a chore, including a 5-minute SimCity-esque game you can play on your phone and communities built out of LEGO. Our team also shared our experience engaging youth through design jams that allow them to create solutions using craft supplies that demonstrate a commitment to empathetic design. Check out some of the solutions youth came up with at the 1UP conference in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Plan Your Brisbane shows you how your decisions about what size of buildings are built impacts lifestyle, travel time, available greenspace, and affordability. Play the game here. (Source: Brisbane City Council)

These activities get at the creativity and imagination of individuals to interpret questions and respond in ways that reveal unforeseen opportunities. When we embrace co-creation, we begin to discover new ideas as a result of these unanticipated opportunities.

These opportunities may be more challenging to digest into a quick summary report, but who said city-building should be easy? Just because these ideas came from a video game or were built out of craft materials does not make them less valuable. It makes them unique, personal, and embedded with qualitative knowledge, arguably the most important elements of any engagement feedback.

Let Them Represent Themselves

Sure it’s great to have adults telling other adults that youth are important, but does that really show the ability of youth to be effective communicators? Not really. If youth are going to be seen as equals in city-building decisions, there needs to be the opportunity for them to represent themselves and their work.

Inviting youth to share their work at events like the 1UP Conference is a good start to building a platform for youth to transfer their knowledge to older generations. This past school year, 1UP York Mills redesigned portions of their school’s library to create a communal working and artistic demonstration space. In addition to representing their work at the 1UP Conference in March alongside fellow 1UP Chapters, they created a video communicating their design process and extending the reach of their work beyond the walls of their school.

The next step is to support youth attendance at events where adults are currently attending on behalf of youth. To achieve this requires both the will of events organizers to provide space for youth but also requires tangible investments in supporting youth to attend these events. This funding allows youth to present their work through subsidized attendance costs and allows for continued guidance from mentors to support their ideas and perspectives.

1UP A.Y. Jackson sharing one of the challenges they faced during the development of their projected focused on creating a more enjoyable and interactive pathway near their school at the 2018 1UP Conference.

Why does all this matter? It comes down to the fact that youth are active in defining our world today, and will inherit the future of tomorrow. Treating youth as equals demonstrates that their ideas are worth being heard and introduces them to city-building processes early on to help combat apathy. In order to see youth as equals, urban planners, designers, architects, engagement specialists, and other city-building professionals need to continually seek out and respect youth worldviews and knowledge, rethink how we gather this information, and provide youth with opportunities to share their knowledge and ideas themselves. Only once we begin to abide by these methods of collaborative city-building will we be able to better reflect the needs and desires of youth.

Learn more about our approach to bridging the gap between youth and decision-makers on our website.

Urban Minds

​We are creating new ways for youth to participate in city building.

Alexander Furneaux

Written by

Alexander is a public engagement specialist based in Toronto, ON with published work on children and youth engagement, urban planning and design, and resiliency

Urban Minds

​We are creating new ways for youth to participate in city building.

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