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In A City So Young, Where’s the Youth Voice in Planning?

foreign born youth map nyc 2009

New York is a young city. With a population of over eight million people, 27 percent are below the age of 19, with 10 percent between the ages of 12 and 19. Young people are an integral part of the fabric of New York, representing more than a quarter of the population in neighborhoods such as the South Bronx, East New York, and Corona. Teens, particularly, make intensive use of the public spaces, businesses, and parks and playgrounds in their own neighborhoods and in neighborhoods where they attend school. Issues critical to the quality of life for young people, such as public safety, public health, and a clean environment are part and parcel of debates over urban planning and development, but youth participation in neighborhood decision-making is rare. The obstacles to their participation are considerable, but not insurmountable. Across the city young people and their adult allies are working together to ensure that young voices are heard.

Engaging youth in neighborhood decision-making is especially important in New York, where more than 30 percent of the population is foreign-born. In neighborhoods with large foreign-born populations such as Flatbush where there is also a high concentration of youth, there are many young people who need to take on adult responsibilities for other household members because of language barriers. Many young “New New Yorkers” are still acclimating to a new country with an unfamiliar civic structure. Participating in neighborhood civic life is a chance to gain familiarity with democratic process.

citi youth top of the rock

Given the prevalence of young people in our city and the unique set of responsibilities and challenges they face, it is not enough to assume that their needs can be adequately addressed by adults. Lack of open space; inadequate recreation space; unsafe streets; lack of local jobs; over-saturation of environmental burdens; and an increased strain on schools are just a few examples of the distinctive planning-related challenges many young New Yorkers face. Twenty-one of New York City’s 59 community districts are classified as “high risk” by the Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York. These are districts where there are greater incidences of crime; more prevalent environmental hazards; and poor economic conditions; along with a number of other factors that negatively impact the lives of young people. Transforming these communities into healthy and vibrant places for young people to live requires that they be part of the conversation.

There are significant barriers to engaging young people in planning. Some factors include that fact that young people can’t vote; that they are sometimes intimidated in predominately adult meetings; and they are sometimes disengaged from civic life. However, unique approaches, such as UPROSE’s Summer Empowerment Program which prepares young people to participate in and initiate citywide environmental justice campaigns, provide examples for how young people can move past those barriers — creating meaningful partnerships with adults that benefit the community as a whole. Moreover, engaging young people in planning is a vital part of building New York City’s long term civic infrastructure and is key to creating the next generation of grassroots leaders.

As the city grows, so does the MAS commitment to building opportunities for young people in the planning process and building the capacity of young people to engage in civic affairs. For the past six years, the MAS Planning Center has run the CITI Youth Program — a program that provides high school students internship opportunities at their local community board. The students attend regular community board meetings where they present maps created for agenda items, and get a chance to be part of the community-decision process. CITI interns are often transformed by their experience — becoming more vocal about the issues in their community and confident about their own ability to contribute to these important community conversations.

Over the next month, the Planning Center will profile the issues related to youth and planning as part of the three part web series: In A City So Young, Where’s the Youth Voice in Planning?. This series will address some of the barriers to youth participation and highlight examples of how young people have become more involved in their communities and are taking a stand on critical planning issues, and how the city’s decision-makers are responding to the call to deepen their involvement.

For the other installments in the “Youth in Planning” series, please follow these links: