Building Stronger Communities through Youth Engagement
There have been countless studies that prove the value and importance of community-oriented spaces for the health and vitality of a community. Purposeful placemaking has a social, cultural, economic and environmental impact on the development of individuals and neighbourhoods and can serve to spark growth.
Youth-oriented placemaking is no different. Young people are least likely to be involved in placemaking activities, limiting their sense of belonging. However, resources that cater to young people could represent some of an area’s most purposeful investments.
Youth-friendly community centres, both indoor and outdoor, can provide the opportunity for teens and preteens to self-actualize, developing through recreation, experiential learning and relationship building activities with their peers. This can lead to greater rates of volunteerism as it gives them a sense of stewardship and pride as a contributing member of that society.
Communities that make room for young people through engagement send a clear message that young people are valued members. Through youth-specific programs and spaces, individuals are encouraged to become the next generation of leaders, by getting involved in the decision-making process and helping to drive a new wave of success.
The youth demographic can be a community’s most essential segment, as they represent the next generation of parents, leaders, mentors, educators, business owners, healthcare professionals, coaches, public servants, service providers and other important civic stakeholders.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 31) outlines that it is a right of children to engage in play and recreation, as it has proven instrumental to their successful development. It is imperative that they have safe and welcoming spaces for this to take place.
While all demographic-specific spaces and places are vital to the functioning of a strong community, youth-specific centres have an even greater impact given the impressionable nature of ‘tweens’ and teens as they transition into adulthood.
Youth is defined in three distinct age ranges: early adolescence from nine to thirteen years of age, middle from thirteen to sixteen years of age and late adolescence from sixteen to nineteen years of age. The needs of each group vary, and the times of transition are important to an individual’s growth, especially regarding brain development.
While youth are at the height of their physical condition and strength, emotionally, it is a time of great uncertainty because of the stages of brain and emotional development. The better these stages are accommodated; the more support they have when making these transitions.
How can young people at different ages be engaged and why is it so important to do so?
To engage youth, they must have meaningful participation in the decision-making process on matters that directly relate to them. Through involvement, they can meaningfully contribute to have more successful individual and community outcomes.
The main way young people can be engaged is through the creation of their own spaces that are designed to meet their demographic-specific needs. This can take many forms. Designated spaces have been integrated within existing community centres, schools and other institutions like churches or shopping malls, as well as standalone youth centres and indoor and outdoor recreation spaces like skate parks, libraries or drop-in centres.
Be it through the arts, recreation or other programs, engaged youth help improve the overall health, well-being and potential of these places, making them vibrant, welcoming and safe for all to enjoy.
Local spaces that provide a welcoming, safe and engaging environment for youth to grow are proven to have countless benefits for the healthy functioning of individuals, families, organizations and the community as a whole. Younger people who are active civic participants are more likely to be confident and achieve academic and career success into adulthood. The advantages include a better capacity to learn, increased volunteerism, lower rates of crime, fewer school dropouts and improved psycho-social behaviour and a reduction in the costs associated with healthcare, the justice system and social services.
However, for this to be achieved requires coordination between individuals, families, educators, institutions, organizations, the community and every level of government, which is not standard practice.
The cost of standalone centres can exceed the funding available, which is the case with many social programs. Often, the most effective spaces are those within existing centres that are already developed, accessible by public transit and can be integrated with other age demographics, which represents the diversity of the community itself.
There is a perception that it is challenging to engage youth, but many young people are intimidated by authority and feel that they cannot meaningfully contribute when adults take control of the forum and make prescriptions, rather than engage.
In addition to intimidation and uneasiness around authority figures, there are many other barriers to engagement that young people face. As they have yet to achieve financial independence, cost can be a significant barrier to engaging in the community.
Lack of transportation options or family support, minimal credibility or low self-esteem, the perception of limited opportunities, disabilities and even bullying can serve as barriers to engagement, and if adequate spaces or programs are not in place, youth can become dissociated from their communities.
Transit-accessible public recreation spaces, both indoor and outdoor, can significantly even the playing field, regardless of financial ability. Centres and programs that encourage physical activity and recreation also reduce the public health burden caused by increasing rates of obesity.
Consultation is a good starting point when designing places and programs for youth and helps to reduce negative perceptions of the teen and preteen demographic. It is also vital to create spaces where young voices can be shared and strengthened in a safe place.
Instead of assuming what youth want or need, it is important to have discussions about the design of the spaces and processes that are meant to serve them, asking them their preferences and how best to achieve these ends. There are many ways spaces can be more inviting and youth-friendly, which creates an engaging environment that helps them to reach their full potential.
It is essential for communities to create pathways for young people through youth-specific spaces that have been designed to meet their needs. There are many organizations that are taking the lead to engage younger members of society through placemaking activities in society.
Students Design For Education (SD4E) helps to create schools that are designed by students, for students, to increase their likelihood of success. By engaging students in the design of the spaces that are meant for their use, these spaces can better meet the needs of youth through thoughtful design.
To prove the impact of SD4E’s efforts, one needs to look no further than the two public high schools that were designed in Providence, Rhode Island through this revolutionary approach to placemaking and design. These schools reflect the youth and in turn, enable them to flourish in a space that was designed specifically for that purpose.
Similarly, organizations like Play Works, a group of not-for-profit organizations that advocates for play and recreation, emphasizes the importance of physical activity in the development and healthy functioning as youngsters transition to adulthood. Since 2005, it has recognized forty Ontario communities as youth-friendly and certified them as such.
Adults, organization, agencies, governments and communities can become better allies, but it requires them to think and act differently and work collaboratively to consider and address the needs of youth and directly assist them.
Youth engagement breathes new life into traditional development approaches and can stimulate innovation and growth through fresh perspectives. When individuals are at their best, so too are the communities they call home, resulting in great social, cultural, economic and environmental outcomes. Purposeful placemaking becomes an investment that has substantial benefits for all.