The Kids Are All Right…About Cities

This past April, I gave a talk and ran a workshop at the Modeshift Conference in Winnipeg. The workshop was an experiment of sorts. When Anders Swanson first reached out to me to speak at the conference, he communicated he wanted to avoid a “typical” conference, where participants were talked at, but rather where participants… well… participated. He wanted the conference to be a catalyst for tangible change in the city he cares so deeply about. If you’re lucky to know Anders, you know he’s an envelope-pushing, out-of-the-box-thinking, community builder.

In the process of brainstorming, Anders said they also wanted to involve kids from a local high school in the conference in a meaningful way. My ears perked up when I heard this. I believe the youth know better than we do when it comes to many, if not most, things. I’d been deeply moved by the courage and advocacy demonstrated by the Parkland Students to force the needle forward on gun control in the US. Those teens had accomplished more in a few months than adults have in decades. They were defying convention in their approach as much as they were defying a system that caters to a privileged few and contributes to the death of many.

The similarities between the #NeverAgain movement and the #VisionZero movement are salient. Both initiatives are aimed at challenging the status quo and pushing our political leaders to act and make the simple, necessary changes that will save lives. And, advocates of both movements are screaming at the top of their lungs for progress.

So, I was quite keen to speak with and learn from these Winnipeg high school students.

The workshop was designed to get the students to generate solutions to problems they identified in their communities. I oriented the students to two frameworks that would assist them in the process. First, I discussed how design thinking can be applied to urban planning issues. Briefly put, design thinking’s core element is empathy; the designer puts themselves in the shoes of the user (to the best of their ability), to best understand how to optimize the user experience. One look at pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in many cities suggests that an empathy-oriented approach to urban design is lacking.

The second framework I taught the students was Lean Startup. When I ran a startup accelerator at a post-secondary, I used this methodology to assist young entrepreneurs in building their products and companies. Lean methodology encourages an iterative approach to design through what it calls a “minimum viable product”, which is basically a functioning prototype without all the expensive bells and whistles of the final product. By using a cheap, easily modifiable prototype to test the fundamental elements of a concept, we save time and money. Oftentimes, people go straight to building their grand idea without testing it on actual users, later discovering that they’ve created something that is neither desirable or useful. This approach also helps provide adequate solutions to problems quickly. We see this type of thinking in our cities with tactical urbanism, where residents take things into their own hands. In San Francisco, residents who wanted separated cycling infrastructure used pylons and other cheap materials to carve some space out on the road for a bike lane. The City ended up making those bikelanes permanent.

 

If we want to build the cities of the future, we must listen to the leaders of tomorrow.

 

After providing the overview of methodologies, I (importantly) shut my mouth and let them get to work. The rest of the workshop was really more about listening to them and facilitating without directing. And, as I listened I was blown-away by what I heard. The empathic design which we have to constantly remind adults of was second nature to them. One girl discussed how she loved running, but found it challenging in the winter when sidewalks were left unplowed. She followed that up with “if it was difficult for me, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for elderly people, people with disabilities or mothers with young children.” 

Over the course of the afternoon, the teens brainstormed and came up with tangible projects that could be implemented quickly in their neighbourhoods. Their ideas included turning a run down recreational centre into an accessible community space, making a back alley students used to walk to school safer and more visually appealing, and (sadly) building sidewalks out of cheap materials in a neighbourhood that lacked them.

As I moved around the room to hear the students discuss their ideal city, it was apparent to me that what we herald as revolutionary thinking in the urbanist world came to them naturally. When cycling infrastructure was brought up, I think the consensus was “we need more”. I heard nothing from them about the need for more parking or how they wanted their city to be easier to drive through. They wanted more inclusive spaces they could meet with their friends – and, I didn’t get the impression what they were talking about the mall. They wanted more access to nature, citing the physical and mental health benefits. When they were asked what they loved about their city, a common response was “the diversity”.

These kids are the leaders we need right now. They get it. Most importantly, they’re inheriting the cities we’re building. I recognize that city-building requires balancing the needs of everyone, but, in most Canadian cities, I think urban planning decisions are extremely short sighted. By all accounts, today’s youth are not interested in driving, let alone owning, a vehicle. Yet, we’re moving full steam ahead with building wider roads and more parking lots, while making little progress when it comes to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. In a context where evidence-based decision making is paramount, we seem to be willfully ignoring the research demonstrating the next generation’s driving preferences. Don’t get me started on how we’re ignoring the research demonstrating the health, environmental and financial benefits of building better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

The greatest lesson I took from the teens that day was the regard they had for others. And, how that sense of compassion was reflected in the ideas they had to improve their city. Teens are often mischaracterized as selfish and self-absorbed; I can only imagine how wonderful our cities would be if they were built with their input.

We need to recognize that bad urban design decisions we make today will take twice the amount of work to undo by future generations. So, it would serve us well to actively engage youth in the city-building conversation. Not only to include them, but also to learn from them and benefit from their ideas. If we want to build the cities of the future, we must listen to the leaders of tomorrow.

 

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