How can we include young people in the design and planning of our cities?

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How can we include young people in the design and planning of our cities?

Adultcentric cities

Adultcentricsm denotes the bias that our society places on the views of adults in comparison to those of children and young people. In social practice, the term is closely related to the exaggerated egocentrism of adults in relation to youth. In a system where the adult’s views carry more weight, young people’s perspective is often dismissed or restricted. Indeed, one’s citizenship rights and privileges are closely related to one’s age – we acquire the right to drive, drink, tattoo, buy cigarettes and most importantly, participate in democracy, at specific time intervals of our lives. Our right to participate in the planning and design of our cities is often derived through our citizenship rights. Yet, we use, alter and appropriate the built environment all throughout our lives. Youth are not passive recipients but active shapers of our urban environments, however, often seen as an external force to the planning process.  Since the 1989, the United Nations in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, stipulate:

 “Children and young people have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and have their opinions taken into account” (UN, 1989)

However, there has been almost no systematic progress in involving young people in urban planning, arguably the policy aspect of most relevancy to them. So, why don’t we include young people in the planning and design of our cities? And if we did, how?

Co-design and education:

Historically, the discussion about children and young peoples’ participation in the built environment, has focused on two main areas – the design of facilities of direct impact to them, such as schools, kindergartens and youth centres; and the education of young people about architecture and town planning.

Participatory design with children and young people has a long tradition in architectural discourse. Researchers such as Dr Rosie Parnell have discussed the benefits of a constructive dialogue between architects and children in the design of their immediate environment. The online anthology Designing with Children showcases a wide range of initiatives. Architectural practitioners, such as Chiles, Evans and Care Architects (CE+CA) are an example of practices which actively research and publish their participatory design activities with children, ranging from kindergartens to secondary schools.

Beyond the physicality of educational buildings, teaching youth about the build environment is another way of promoting youth participation. The received wisdom states that the more youth know about their city and the processes which drive it, the better equipped they will be at taking action, when they have the ability to do so. Box City is one initiative spearheaded by the Center for Understanding the Built Environment (Cube), a Kansas based organisation. Box City is a curriculum in which young people can engage with a city plan and learn how to negotiate their individual building designs using a framework of grids and boxes. My own experience of co-running a youth summer school in architecture and design for the past four years has shown that when presented with an understanding of the system, young people can successfully come up with ideas for the wider benefit of the place they are designing. The pioneering RIBA National Schools Programme takes a similar approach, connecting young people in schools with professionals in up to week-long workshops, where they can be introduced to the concepts of architectural design and understand the drivers behind city design.

Hybrid organisations, such as Build Up London, combine the two ideas of co-design and education by putting young people in control of small-scale construction projects within communities across London. Youth can in this way actively pick up construction skills and contribute to the place where they live. All of these examples look to a small scale and long-term approach, where participation of young people is confined within the extended realms of education and local communities.

Games as ways of co-creation

A step further towards city design, and we see a way of engagement which is gathering popularity, yet needs to be further researched in regard to its effectiveness – the crossover between gamification and urban planning. In her book ‘Play the City’ the architect Ekim Tan has devised a methodology of collaborative decision making, through the use of physical games. The accessible nature of playing a game has the potential for wider inclusion, specifically in low-skilled groups such as young people.

On the city scale, the ‘Plan Your Brisbane’ project led by chief planner, Dy Currie, has employed both the physical and digital possibilities of gamification to engage its citizens in the production of the new local plan. The traditional ways of engagement such as surveys, school activity sessions and forums have been complimented by a custom build online housing game which aims to demonstrate the complex balancing game a city planner engages in. The game had attracted more than 100,000 players of which the 18-34 demographic had been overrepresented, demonstrating the interest of younger people to engage in innovative ways of participating in urban planning.

Participatory Urban Planning

Discussing youth participation, the role of the local authority and planning department is paramount in cases that transcend the individual building. In the city of Boulder, Colorado, an ongoing project can show us an example of participatory planning in which youth have a meaningful voice.

‘Growing up Boulder’ is a partnership, since 2009, between the University of Colorado, the City of Boulder and Boulder Valley School District. The project aims to engage young people in the planning process and aims to transform Boulder in an exemplary child-and youth-friendly city. There are more than a dozen individual planning projects, in which young people under the age of 18 had been involved in the planning process through the definition of brief, assessment of planning application and, later, the dissemination of the final outcome. The innovation comes in the direct communication between groups of young people and city planners, facilitated by educators and researchers, specifically in the honest exchange of views and ideas. The young people are seen as co-creators in the process and given the opportunity of two-way feedback process, assessing final proposals against the brief they had co-developed. The direct engagement of planning authorities and decision makers from the City Council is key to a meaningful representation and participation.

Power and Politics

Ultimately, involving young people in the planning of their cities in a structural manner concerns tackling the power disbalance which exists between decision makers and youth communities. In the UK, youth organisations are emerging and starting to challenge this dynamic. Birmingham’s Beatfreeks in their annual ‘Brum Youth Trends’ survey consults young people between 16 and 24 in the city about their needs. In 2018, key findings indicated that young people aren’t aware of major developments in the city and lack non-transactional spaces which to occupy with their friends. The West Midlands Combined Authority has listened, setting up in 2019 its Young Board, aiming to tackle the lack of youth viewpoints. In Manchester, the research project Jam and Justice is working with young people from the Children’s Society and the GM Youth Combined Authority to tackle the issue of youth voices missing in the political discourse. Charities have also identified this issue of political representation. Planning Aid Scotland’s project named ‘Bridging the Gap’ aims to match young people with planning committee councillors in effort to exchange views and skills such as understanding of the planning system and digital inclusion. All of the above examples demonstrate various ways to tackle the real gap in ability of young people to be represented at the decision-making table.

Digital revolution

Digital technologies and their advances in the planning of cities can also provide an opportunity for the enfranchisement of young people, however, they can also serve to further entrench the already existing deep exclusions. India’s 100 Smart Cities programme has come under a lot of criticism in the way it engages with citizens. A project by the National Institute of Urban Affairs called Child Friendly Smart Cities, recognised the lack of engagement of young people in the process of smart city development and is currently researching what are the specific needs youth have in the ‘smart city’. However, the project still bases itself in the theories of advocacy planning, rather than looking towards more progressive co-creation processes. In Canada, a co-creation model called 30Lab, led by Youthful Cities programme, looks towards the engagement of thirty 15-29-year olds towards solving a specific theme within the city. The programme encourages the development of innovative ideas, which after being presented at a public forum, have an opportunity to win seed funding. Closer to home, the Newcastle City Futures project, a collaboration between North East councils and the Newcastle University, has developed an open-source device called JigsAudio which aims to solicit views from the public by talking and drawing. Again, the accessibility of the technology can encourage low-skilled citizens such as young people, to take a more meaningful part in the planning process.

All of the aforementioned projects aim to engage with the transient and diverse community of young people, employing varying definitions, but largely working within the age range of 10 to 25-year olds. There is a real need to understand the perceptions and awareness amongst young people about urban planning and their role in the participatory process, in order to achieve meaningful engagement in the design of our cities and overcome the adult-centric bias prevalent within urbanism today.


Derr, V., Chawla, L. and Mintzer,M. (2018) Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices for Planning Sustainable Communities, New Village Press, New York

Wilson, A. and Tewdwr-Jones, M. (2019) Let’s draw and talk about urban change: Deploying digital technology to encourage citizen participation in urban planning, in Environment and Planning B; Urban Analytics and City Science, 1-17

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