How to effectively engage young people in our urban future!

How to effectively engage young people in our urban future!

This article was written by a friend of the Architecture Social, Simeon Shtebunaev.

Why is it important to engage with young people regarding urban growth and development of our cities and towns?  

 Understanding what is the worth of engaging young people in the development and maintenance of place matters is the first question that I always get asked and a key one if proper funding and importance is to be allocated to such activities. I summarised ten key reasons that we need to consider in an essay accompanying the Voice Opportunity Power toolkit commissioned by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. The reasons vary from statutory, democratic and stewardship arguments to social cohesion, economic and innovation. Young people have the right to be involved and possess the agency to change their communities. If we are serious about retaining young people in their communities, they must have a say and if heard they can offer new perspectives on the place where they live. Engaging young people can also benefit them personally by developing skills and knowledge, acting as agents of change within their communities, challenging the status quo and creating new cultures. Young people’s activities can also be an economic boost, shaping physically the built environment around them and innovate. My doctoral project is focused on expanding those reasons and establishing a much-needed framework that can provide justification for youth inclusion in envisioning our collective urban futures. 

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 Do younger people have different views or perspectives around the growth of cities and neighbourhoods compared to older generations?  

 Adolescents are at the stage of their development as human being where socialisation and peer opinions become paramount. In my work with teenagers there is a definite manifestation of this process in the form of community-oriented ideas and concerns which is distinct to the individualistic responses traditionally presented by older adults. In a recent consultation I undertook for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets Good Growth strategy, we consulted young people in an online workshop about their ideas for future housing on small sites in the area. Their views resulted in the introduction of a community principle – aimed at promoting a sense of community and fostering community life. This was an element of the proposals which was overlooked in the development of the policy until young people stepped up.  

How are young people’s expectations about their housing needs and where they want to live different (or not) to older generations?   

In the past three years I have been consulting with young people in Birmingham between the ages of 18-29 regarding their preferences about housing and urban developments during and after the pandemic. The project was devised as part of the Academy of Urbanism Small Grants fund. Whilst short-termism was present in some of the answers reflexing the anxiety around the pandemic, there were definite long-term trends which have remained strong – such as that young people want housing, which is solving the issue of climate change, which tackles inequality and presents designs which are suitable for maintaining personal health and wellbeing. Specifically, affordability has been a top issue for this generation. Trends are changing too – maintaining physical and mental health are challenges which young people consider much more now when choosing accommodation. Access to community services to combat loneliness and access to immediate external space are also key issues. Post-pandemic the size of the accommodation, light, air and noise quality indoor top the criteria to select housing.  

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In terms of community engagement practices, what are effective ways to get young people motivated and involved in consultation/ engagement processes?

Be present and proactive. In April 2022 by being present on a site, together with a few other volunteers, we managed to speak to almost twenty young people over two hours on a rainy afternoon. The consultation was about a proposed Supplementary Planning Document unfortunately had omitted youth’s voices. Harder to reach demographics are hard to reach in a system where the presumption is passive consultation. If you take an initiative-taking approach this demographic responds positively.  

Be creative and open to innovative ideas. Young people respond to approaches which challenge and engage them, ideally in an entertaining way. For example, this winter we developed an engagement tool in the form of a board game called CLIMANIA together with thirteen teenagers who acted as co-researchers. The game aims to engage the demographic in built environment climate research, and it is free to download, print and play. Using serious play as a tool of engagement and research can benefit not just young people by making complex issues accessible, but also challenge understanding by policy makers.  

Be honest and respectful. Young people are coached from an early age to spot fake content online. So, it is no wonder that they spot disingenuity offline too. Make sure to not overpromise anything, be honest about the results and follow back with feedback. Respect their opinions and labour and reward it appropriately, all consultations are transactional so make sure you live up to your end of the bargain!  

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How is technology changing or enhancing opportunities for engagement with young people?  

Technology is undoubtedly enfranchising young people in community consultations – examples can be given with the report published by the digital consultation practice Commonplace  in 2019 (UK based practice) but also around the word. In Australia I was impressed by Brisbane’s Local Plan consultation density game as way of engaging a much younger generation. But technology can also carry bias and entrench inequalities. In my research I have come across many smart city strategies that do not aim to fundamentally rethink the relationship between youth and planners, but rather just digitalise current physical tools, thus perpetuating inequalities that already exist such as access, financial barriers and language. 

The project I have been working on since 2018 is the long-term research project I am undertaking as part of my doctoral program at Birmingham City University. I am researching the participation of teenagers in the development of future city vision in cities in Bulgaria, Spain and the UK. What has come across so far is the general desire of this demographic to be involved in the processes of city-planning, however, contrasted to their lack of knowledge about how to. In trying to dissect future city visions, I have been uncovering the perceptions that young people hold towards ideas of ‘smartness’ and their preferences. Across cultures, issues of community cohesion, climate injustice and better education prevail.  

 Distribution of youth as a percentage of the population across the world is unequal and in a late capitalist society, we cannot assume the relationship between youth and labour as a given. In early 2022 we launched a new network with the Commonwealth Secretariat – the Commonwealth Youth for Sustainable Urbanisation. The network is supported by multidisciplinary parent institutes, one of which is the Commonwealth Association of Architects which I represent on the Steering Committee and builds upon the Youth Manifesto published in 2018 at CHOGM in London. It is important that we acknowledge the role young people need to play on international stage by establishing much stronger interdisciplinary connections. 

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Author:Simeon Shtebunaev BA(Hons), MArch. Simeon is a Doctoral Researcher in Youth, Urban Planning and Future Cities at the School of the Built Environment, Birmingham City University. He is RIBAJ Rising Star 2021 and RTPI West Midlands Young Planner of the Year 2021. Simeon is Founder of Urban Imaginarium – an engagement consultancy focused on empowering young people.  

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