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Youth Engagement: Creating Inclusive Urban Spaces

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In the historic planning and management of our cities, young people have often been overlooked. For planners and designers, teenagers tend to be a mysterious demographic considered mainly in terms of their possibility for conflict or for their need to be policed. Consciously or otherwise the needs and interests of teenagers have been relegated to the periphery of our urban spaces and facilities claiming to cater for them tend to be at the edges of our neighbourhoods and at the liminal spaces of our parks and squares. The primary aim of the brief seems to have been containing potential nuisance.

With the movement towards ever greater inclusivity in our cities and ensuring urban space works for everyone, engagement is also evolving. Today built environment professionals have a responsibility and a duty to avoid discrimination and ensure they are genuinely designing places for all. To respond to this challenge, empathy and understanding is key to breaking down barriers and challenging traditional ways of working.

When conceiving new neighbourhoods or revisiting those existing, youth provision can often be seen in quite narrow terms and usually includes; skateparks, Multi Use Game Areas (MUGAs) and BMX tracks. In reality, these types of amenities only cater to a minority of young people and recent research has found that among end-users approximately 80% are boys. The majority of teenage girls do not skate, they do not use BMX tracks and they do not play football – contrary to popular belief this is also true of many boys as well. Research also suggests that for the girls that do skate, ride BMX or play ball, most tend to feel intimidated when approaching and being in these spaces.

So, how and where do teenage girls want to spend their time? What might the boys who do not play sport want out of their cities? How do we make these groups better included and more visible? The short answer is that we do not yet know and these propositions are now informing a crucial emerging strand in contemporary practice.

As part of a round table hosted by the practice in 2019 to discuss alternative engagement strategies Neil Onions, founder of the social enterprise specialising in youth engagement Beyond the Box Consultants, highlighted the gaps in standard practice and knowledge;

‘There’s an understanding of how the home or school environment has an impact on a young person’s development, but there isn’t much of a conversation about how the wider physical environment impacts on their development…. I’m quite passionate about that phrase ‘Hard to reach.’ I genuinely do not believe any young person is hard to reach. For me I think it’s an excuse for large institutions to justify their lack of representation. Rather than expect attendance in a pre-planned activity, we should flip the script and simply ask young people, what is it that you want to see?’

As part of the same discussion Akil Scafe-Smith, one of the directors of Resolve, an interdisciplinary design collective underscored the role of young people as future users and stewards of the places we shape;

‘I think young people have the most to lose from being excluded from the built environment. They often have the largest stake in just by time alone. They’re going to inherit the built environment and be there much longer, yet often have the least say so there’s a real inequity that needs to be addressed.’

As a practice, we are actively promoting youth voices in the design process and developing alternative forms of practice to promote inclusive city-making. It is encouraging to see urban practitioners recognise the gap in research and work towards bridging this through new and innovative practices across the sector. It is our hope that what it seen as pioneering today will be common practice tomorrow.