Is youth engagement just a PR stunt?

Ryan Lo
Ryan Lo
Jul 3 · 4 min read

The short answer is yes, but we can change that.

Look, let’s be real. We know that engaging youth in urban planning and development, if done at all, is carried out mainly to make an organization look good. These shallow attempts may look like well-marketed, splashy events or programs that succeed in attracting youth but fail to yield any concrete next steps.

Unless we can trace the path of youth’s ideas translated into policies and designs, youth engagement is a waste of time for both the decision makers and the participants.

How can we change that?

1. Redistribute power.

Let’s take a page from the diversity committees now being set up in many large companies and organizations. Without the backing of a partner or senior-level director, these committees have no real power. The changes they propose are simply suggestions with no bite, giving people the illusion that the organization truly cares about equity and inclusion.

Similarly, the power of youth engagement comes from the top. For youth engagement to be meaningful and successful, decision-makers in governments and organizations need to believe in its worth and give deference to the process. Furthermore, the ideas that come from youth should be given real and thoughtful consideration, rather than a simple acknowledgment without acting on their ideas.

If you are a partner or director in your organization, read on, we’re glad that you’re here.

If you are a project manager or someone who’s working on the frontlines, please take the time to get the buy-in from your superiors. Let them know it’s not just about goodwill, it’s also good business that brings value in the form of more thoughtful planning and more people-centred designs.

2. Engage youth early on.

Youth need to have ownership from the beginning, not prettying up something that’s already a done deal. It has to be genuine and begin early on in a project.

Whether it is a neighbourhood master plan or a project to design a new park, library, school, or community centre, youth engagement begins at the RFP or design brief stage. By mandating youth engagement as part of the broader public consultation requirement, we can ensure that proponents are already thinking about strategies to engage teenagers as they submit their proposals.

As a project kicks off, be sure to include youth in the visioning and early design stages. At this stage of their lives, teenagers offer unique and surprising perspectives that straddle the line between child-like imagination and adult-like pragmatism — the sweet spot of creativity. It is then the planners’ and designers’ job to use their technical expertise to help bring youth’s ideas to life.

3. Turn the photo-op into something more authentic.

Sure, nothing looks better than having bright, smiling, youthful faces on your corporate Instagram feed. But as digital natives, teenagers are better than anyone else at discerning what is staged and what is authentic. Many have very high standards for the visual content they see on social media as they are used to seeing brands fiercely outdoing each other to win their attention.

If poorly planned and produced, an image can become a source of ridicule on social media, representing the organization’s superficial attempt to pander to a younger demographic. At their best, however, photos or videos can tell a real and enticing story of how youth participated meaningfully in a project. They document the participants’ journey and the impact of their involvement. Powerful, effective imagery will resonate and inspire, showing youth what they are capable of as co-creators in city building.

Go beyond the superficial.

We challenge the urban planning and development profession to do better. If we truly want to have an inclusive city-building process where everyone’s voices are heard, let’s not leave out young people, or worse, turn it into a PR stunt and pretend to have heard them. Let us challenge ourselves and our peers to create a culture and best practices to bring youth’s ideas to reality.

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

Urban Minds

We are youth city-builders. We are Urban Minds.