Involving Youth in Planning: The Progressive Challenge

By Ann Forsyth

How can children and youth have a voice in planning? What are the responsibilities of planners to incorporate children and youth in their activities? This issue of Planners Network features a number of articles about these issues of democracy, participation, planning, and youth.

In the past decades the process of planning has become more broadly participatory. Whether from a commitment to democratic involvement, due to legal mandates for participation, or as a strategy to neutralize opposition and create constituencies for implementation, planners now include significant public input in many of their activities. Vigorous debate about how to incorporate and empower people who are socially and economically disadvantaged has been a hallmark of progressive planning, as has an increasing concern with recognizing different cultural backgrounds. These populations may still be often on the margins of planning, but they are increasingly recognized as important constituencies and collaborators in planning. On the environmental side, and particularly in the area of sustainability, attention is being focused on future generations, the regional population, and even the land itself.

This move to incorporate more voices has its limits. There are real constraints on participation for non-citizens, for example, something that is of great concern in areas with many immigrants and temporary workers. Children and youth also fall into this category and are excluded on multiple levels. They are not able to vote. They rarely own property. They are perceived as incapable of participation. They are considered adequately represented by adults. Children and youth may be acknowledged in analysis, but they are not seen as a core constituency for participation and participation is not tailored toward their specific interests and needs. Children in low-income neighborhoods battle with poverty and exclusion; in middle income neighborhoods they may be seen as disorderly.

How much can children and youth participate? Although limited by language and motor skills, children at the age of three have demonstrated the ability to build models and create mental maps. While environmental awareness is fairly basic at this age, even very young children have a capacity to participate and this ability develops with age. The process of being involved in planning and neighborhood projects can help children and youth develop a sense of the consequences of actions and a sense of self and others. Among older youth such participation can build skills for later community involvement.

Youth involvement in planning is not just about personal and civic development, however, but about creating places and communities. Children are the dominant users of some spaces such as parks, playgrounds and schools. As teenagers they are often perceived by adults as problem users of public spaces, but their intimate experience with such locations makes them uniquely suited to make decisions about them. As Imre Kepes, Fernando Marti and Llewellyn Golding demonstrate in their inspiring case studies of YouthPower, the HOME’s Skateboard Task Force and the Youthlink violence prevention program, the rewards to both the young people and the wider community can be significant. In my work with the Urban Places Project at U.Mass/Amherst in the mid to late 1990s, I was tremendously privileged to watch the young people in YouthPower overcome huge barriers of poverty and ethnic discrimination to physically improve their neighborhood. This in turn helped develop respect from the wider community. The High School Adoption program at the University of Texas/Austin is also notable in this light as it began the task of connecting young people to both the university and to community development groups from their neighborhood, bridging across racial lines (see the article by Teresa Vazquez in this issue).

Involving youth in planning is a challenge for progressive planners. Children and youth almost certainly have to involve people other than themselves, that is adults, in any significant planning work or projects. This creates a delicate balance where participation needs to be carefully designed to be interesting and also give power to youth directly, not only through adults. Planners are often inexperienced in the methods for including youth. Planners are also often ambivalent about youth contributions. Given other pressing concerns, youth may simply be ignored. This is in spite of the fact that as both Suzanne Speak and Kim Knowles-Yanez describe, the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes participation a human right.

The APA Resources Zine, described here by its editor Ramona Mullahey, is an important on line resource for planners interested in involving youth. Other articles provide web links to resource groups, manuals, and details about their programs. The important first step is to realize that youth are important partners in planning.

Ann Forsyth is Associate Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard. She was a project manager for the YouthPower Guide.