How listening to kids leads to better urban design

When we engage youth in city planning, the results benefit everyone.

Photo from behind of a group of kids walking together along a street in the Bloemhof neighbourhood of Rotterdam. The street is lined with 3-storey brick buildings
A group of young boys walk together along a street in Bloemhof, Rotterdam. (Mark Bolk)

Jan. 5, 2023

By Emma Avery and Charles Montgomery

In 2019, the City of Rotterdam wanted to create a network of parklets to boost pedestrian activity in its Bloemhof neighbourhood, which had one of the lowest walking rates in the city. The City was rightly concerned about how these low walking levels might impact the wellbeing of the community: Regular walking is one of the easiest ways to boost people’s health and happiness. But people’s ability to go by foot is influenced by things like their age, income, gender, ability, and race—and where they happen to live.

What was keeping people from walking? City staff weren’t sure. They told us that they were having trouble reaching residents in Bloemhof, which has a high proportion of low-income households, recent immigrants, and people of North African and Middle Eastern backgrounds. There was a gap in trust between Bloemhof residents and City staff. To help bridge this gap, our team and our partners at Humankind spent several weeks embedded in the community, building relationships with local residents—primarily youth—to get to know them and to ask them directly what they thought about walking and public space in their neighbourhood.

It wasn’t enough just to invite people to workshops or survey them in the streets. We needed to ensure that what planners call “engagement” was actually worth people’s time. For example, youth in Bloemhof’s immigrant communities spent a lot of time in the public realm, but the City had not been successful in hearing their perspectives. So, in collaboration with local youth allies—including community organizer Mohamed El Koubai—we offered them a photography workshop led by Mark Bolk, a popular Rotterdam photographer known for his shoots with Dutch rappers and artists, as well as Nike and Adidas. This workshop offered a chance for the kids to learn a skill they cared about, share stories about their friends and their neighbourhood, and document the best parts of their community.

What did we learn from these youth? As it turned out, they weren’t actually interested in the new parks that the City was planning. In fact, neighbours often called the police when they saw groups of teenagers hanging around outside, making youth feel unsafe in many public spaces. What the kids told us they really wanted was not new parks, but an indoor space where they could hang out with their friends.

At Happy Cities, we have spent more than a decade investigating how the design of our cities can make or break human health and happiness. Over time, we’ve learned that it’s not just physical design that matters. How we include people in design and planning processes is just as important.

The wise youth of Bloemhof are what public engagement specialists like to call “lived experience experts.” They are the people who use neighbourhood spaces and services on a daily basis, and who know what it feels like to experience a given space as a person of a particular age, gender, ability, race, or cultural background. Many of these experts are unlikely to show up to a typical public engagement event (what kid wants to attend a dull public hearing?) but we must not leave them out. We must find creative ways to meaningfully include all hard-to-reach community members.

Ultimately, Rotterdam listened to the young experts: Instead of imposing parklets as planned—an outcome that would have generated further distrust and disillusionment with local government among residents—the City worked with community groups to secure an indoor space that met the Bloemhof community’s needs. Collaborating with local residents ultimately led to a more successful solution, while simultaneously creating a foundation for future dialogue around public spaces in Bloemhof.

Photo from behind showing a teenage boy taking a photo on a smartphone of his friends who are sitting on benches in a public space
Through a photography workshop, local kids learned a new skill and had fun showing us their neighbourhood. (Mark Bolk)

Letting the kids take the lead

In the fall of 2020, Chloe Carlson, a student at Glenbrook Middle School in New Westminster—a city near Vancouver, Canada—noticed that the street outside of her school wasn’t safe for kids walking and biking to school. With the help of her dad, she wrote to the City with her concerns.

“Cars don’t yield to us while we are riding our bikes,” Chloe wrote. “We end up having to pull over because we feel unsafe.”

Chloe’s advocacy led to conversations between students, parents, teachers, and City staff about how to make the street safer. To ensure that the local community would support the final design solution once it was implemented, it had to be shaped and driven by the primary users of the street—the students. So, with the help of the Glenbrook art teacher, and with support from Spin and the City, we co-organized a student art competition to design new painted curb bump-outs to slow traffic on the street. Studies show that these street murals can encourage cars to slow down, making streets safer. After submitting and voting on their favourite patterns, a group of enthusiastic students came out to paint and install the bump-outs, just in time for back-to-school.

Instead of dismissing this feedback from a young community member, the City and the school took it seriously, supporting the student’s desire for change. Through this collaborative, student-driven process, the new curb bump-outs not only helped to slow traffic, but instilled a sense of pride and belonging, encouraging greater care for community spaces.

“I’m going to bring my kids back here in 20 years and show them how we made our street safer!” one student told us.

The students learned that it can be fun to shape their community. They learned that their voices mattered. Just as importantly, city planners and school staff learned to trust youth to take the lead on an important issue of safety and wellbeing. The whole process nurtured trust between young people and local government, while equipping young people with tools to shape a more sustainable and equitable future.

For us, it was more proof that listening is perhaps the most powerful tool in the planners’ toolkit.

Photo of four students painting colourful curb extensions on the intersection outside their school, to create a safer street. The students smile as they paint a bright yellow, orange, red and blue pattern on the street together.
Young people can be involved in shaping their community, leading to a greater sense of meaning and belonging over public spaces and city streets. (Jared Korb)

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