Summer is a time of nostalgia. With the hot weather and summer rain storms come memories of my youth spent growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota. Summer was a mixture of freedom, boredom and adventure for farm kids. With the exception of the County Fair, there were few chances to see friends (“townies”) but rather time was spent in idyllic pursuits at the swimming hole or riding horses and in less idyllic moments like bailing hay or picking rocks in the fields. How a farm kid grew into an urbanist with a passion for cities and transit has been a mystery to me (and to my family).
Yet, I was recently reminded during a lecture by Sir Robert Harvey, former mayor Waitakere City in New Zealand, that landscape shapes us in powerful ways: be it the untamed coasts and mountains of western New Zealand or the rolling farms and wetlands of southern Minnesota. During our youth we are shaped by our physical environment and by those who set an example for us whether it’s a father like mine with a devotion to caring for the land, or one who loved his neighborhood and the city skyline as so eloquently blogged by Kristen Jeffers on the Black Urbanist.
I write this with an eye towards the future. School is out and kids are riding bikes around the neighborhood and preparing for summer camps. What examples are we setting for them as parents and neighbors? And, how are we doing as urban planners to engage youth in the visioning, planning and design of the cities and farms that they will inherit?
The answer appears to be that we’re making progress. Here are just a few examples: The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) established a program called Future Leaders In Planning (FLIP) to give youth a voice at the regional planning level. Portland, Oregon has a Youth Planning Program that hires students age 14-21 to assist city planners with long-range planning. The National Building Museum in Washington, DC provides summer camps to introduce kids to planning, architecture and engineering (with the help of a large supply of Legos). And the American Planning Association has several great publications on innovative ways to involve youth in public engagement. And we need to give a fair amount of credit to SIM City for making planning seem pretty cool, and even fun. Today, it may be Mine Craft that is generating future waves of architects and perhaps bringing back Cubism.
As the dog days of summer get underway, there are ample opportunities for planners working on site plans, station area planning, long-range or comprehensive planning to engage youth and take advantage of the fresh ideas and eagerness which the next generation brings to these issues. Youth also provide an important bridge to parents who may not speak English or are new to a community. With the emergence of innovative social media tools like Mind Mixer that take community engagement to a whole new level, our young, tech-savvy residents can engage directly or be enlisted as partners to shape engagement techniques.
In a few weeks I’ll be back in rural Minnesota for our yearly summer pilgrimage. Last year when I attended a regional planning meeting in Brainerd, a high school student stood up to ask what could be done to ensure that he and his classmates could stay in the area where they grew up. He and his peers love the landscape with its amazing lakes, pine forests and farms. These farm kids want commuter rail to connect them to the Twin Cities. They want to see a revitalized and vibrant main street. They want more choices in housing and green energy. To my ears, it sounded like the makings of another rural urbanite. Maybe we are not such a rare breed after all, but like with all farming it just takes someone to nurture it.
Postscript: The Washington Post ran a nice piece on the National Building Museum's Teen program which explores neighborhood transformation and history. It's a great example of engaging youth and awakening their planning sensibilities.