Having been involved in the built environment profession for nearly twenty years, I have seen many a consultation exercise, many an engagement process, many a community workshop. For every one of these I have been involved with, organised, sat through I have seen disenchanted and disillusioned participants. Extracting the intelligent views of representative people on proposals for new development, or plans for new development is notoriously difficult. Not only can such events draw in the same old people with single issues, but they can also be dominated by fruitcakes and empty vessels.
That’s not to say that all events are like this. I’ve always held that the most satisfying part of working in planning is the opportunity to widen a person’s understanding of the practical and political processes around policy making and the joy of knowing that whilst they still object to new housing abutting their back fence, they now do so with legitimate, objective and sensible reasoning, reasoning that can at least be taken into account in determining or advancing the proposal.
But for the most part, consultation and engagement – or whatever it might be called in an overly sensitive world – often excludes children and young people, and it does so to its detriment. A couple of roles I’ve held in the past have made it their business to actively engage primary and secondary school children in the consideration of the changes taking place in their neighbourhood. In my experience, this has been eye-opening, rewarding and beneficial to the place and the kids.
The first of these was aimed at teenagers. The aim of the project was to introduce teenagers of around 14-16 to the idea of change in their neighbourhood, to explain how the process of change worked, to let them contribute to that process and allow them to speak about what they thought was best for them and the place. The young people approached this task with enormous enthusiasm and intelligence, and contributed valuable lessons to elected members and officers in the Boroughs which had volunteered for the project. Teenagers are often perceived as irresponsible, lazy or lacking motivation or care, but the experience in this work was very much the opposite.
The second project I wanted to mention involved a primary school in a deprived part of a Midlands town. The school had a very poor environment with a very poor educational reputation. Our organisation was asked to work with the school kids on raising awareness of the changes going on around them (the estate was to be the subject of some fairly major regeneration over the following ten or more years). The tool for doing this was a game, played a day a week over six weeks, in which the kids each built a little circular house and were asked to place it in a made up environment with a river, a forest and some meadows. They were asked why they placed it where they did, and asked to chose a profession (the boys wanted to be soldiers, the girls wanted to be shopkeepers – but some had to be priests and hunters). They were asked to trade and choose leaders; some trades were riskier than others and the leaders had to make tough decisions. Eventually, their community was invaded by people who wanted to change their livelihoods, and they were asked if they wanted to go with it or resist.
During the project, the kids were excited, focused and responsive; even those with a bad reputation played the game week on week. They remembered the game through the week and looked forward to it, playing out their roles in the playground with classmates and teachers.
What they learned about this community they built was then related to their own environment; they told their parents about it and their friends and neighbours. It was a highly effective and highly successful little project that amazed many adults with its ability to engage young minds that were thought to be rather closed to education.
Both these projects, along with the Toddle in the City project, have opened my eyes to the ability of young people to take complex ideas and express themselves within and around it, provided that the information they are using to do this is appropriately weighted and presented. Any young person can offer a unique perspective on the world which has the power to astonish, bewilder and influence. We should give them the credit to do this and not be so willing to dismiss young people on the conformist, cynical, structured and stereotypical views and opinions we often hold as adults.