Youth Engagement in the Age of COVID
How we got youth to help shape a future downtown, online, in 90 minutes.
It was a chilly, overcast Thursday afternoon in March when I got the phone call.
There had been murmurs about a potential lockdown due to a pandemic that we knew so little about then. Premier Ford announced earlier that day that all public schools would be closed for two weeks following March Break, which was a telltale sign that the situation was becoming more severe and I was starting to feel uneasy. But up until that day, life went on as usual. We just had our 1UP Toronto conference the Saturday prior and we were about to host two events for the City of Markham. A pop-up at the YMCA Teen Night in two days and a Design Jam at Markham Civic Centre on the following Saturday, both for the City’s Secondary Plan update for its growing downtown core, Markham Centre. We got our display boards printed and even ordered a brand new shipment of Play-Doh and Lego blocks the week before. We were all ready to go.
Then our contact person at the City of Markham called and confirmed my suspicion: “We’re suspending all in-person engagement events.”
The Covid Pivot
We all know what happened in the following weeks and months.
It wasn’t until later in the summer when municipalities were gearing up for online community engagement events, recognizing that this would be the alternative format to in-person meetings for the next little while.
Our team also needed to rethink how we would engage youth for the same project in an online environment.
Previously, we were hoping to gather meaningful responses from youth through our pop-up about their perspectives on the existing Markham Centre. We also framed the Design Jam event to be a creative process where the participants would work together in teams to generate ideas and suggestions for the future of Markham Centre. With these two main objectives in mind, we had to move our engagement initiative online while adapting to a young audience who was quickly being overwhelmed by the reopening of schools and Zoom fatigue.
We decided to host one single online event that would accomplish both objectives and still be fun and interactive. But first, we needed to promote the event.
Social Media Campaign: Dream. Share. Win.
The message was simple. Through this campaign, we wanted youth to know that there was an opportunity for them to dream of a vision for Markham’s future downtown, share their vision with us, and get a chance to win a prize. All they needed to do was to spend an hour and a half with us on a Friday afternoon.
We created Instagram stories and posts for our team and the City to share. We also recruited other youth organizations in Markham to cross-promote the opportunity. Youth within the Markham area also received targeted ads on Instagram so that they knew about the event.
Online Design Jam: Our Kind of Friday Afternoon Fun
Like an operator would announce at the beginning of a roller coaster ride, we warned our participants at the start of the Design Jam that it would be a fast-paced, action-packed afternoon. Within the 90-minute time limit, they had to complete three activities and then give a two-minute pitch to our panelists about their response to the design challenge: “How might we create more enjoyable and functional public spaces to attract young people to live, work, and have fun in Markham Centre?” The stakes were high: the winning team would win a $300 cash prize.
After an icebreaker game and a brief presentation by City staff and their lead consultant, Gladki Planning Associates, we led the participants through the first activity called the Empathy Map. In a chart, the participants noted down what they would do and feel in Markham Centre today and what they wished they could do and feel in an ideal version of Markham Centre. Then, the participants worked in teams to brainstorm and research ideas that would respond to the opportunities they identified in their Empathy Maps. Finally, the teams used Google Jamboard to create idea boards together, adding sticky notes and images on top of a base map of Markham Centre, before pitching their ideas to the panel of City staff.
Extracting Key Themes
Our team got back to work after the weekend and began reviewing the recording of the teams’ pitches and their idea boards. We found there were five key themes that were prevalent in all the presentations:
- Social gathering spaces for people of all ages
- Active transportation infrastructure that connects the social spaces
- Public art and cultural events that are interesting to youth
- Access to open and green spaces
- More urban and diverse community through residential and commercial development
We thought it was interesting how these key themes heard from our participants were not exactly groundbreaking ideas, but rather should sound quite familiar to urban planners and designers today. When we asked them, “What are the ingredients that make a vibrant, youthful downtown?” These youth participants, who had no previous training in urban planning or architecture, simply reminded us that we should go back to the basics.
It was truly impressive how, within minutes, our participants were able to go from understanding the design challenge in front of them to pitching their own ideas and suggestions for City staff to consider. We understood that at the time of this event, many young people were (and still are) experiencing exhaustion from video calls, dealing with uncertainties of the new school year, and therefore expected to have a shorter attention span online. While the brevity of this event was our response to these challenges, our hope is that there will be a sustained effort in engaging youth throughout the project.
The success of this online design jam is proof that youth are capable co-creators who can add value to a large-scale project like the Markham Centre Secondary Plan update. Given the right platform, tools, and facilitation, youth can overcome the challenges of online engagement and come up with great ideas for city-building projects based on their own perspectives, experiences, and preferences.
Learn more about how our Strategy + Design service can help you engage youth in your next project.