The City Wants to Engage More Youth in Urban Planning
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The City Wants to Engage More Youth in Urban Planning

A new strategy aims to create space for young Torontonians who care about city building.

Walk into a planning meeting for the City of Toronto, and you’re bound to find few attendees younger than 55. According to the City’s research, that’s the norm these days.

For many youth, public planning meetings are a hotbed for intimidation. Rachel Lissner, who runs the Young Urbanists League on Facebook, says few young people feel they can speak up. “A lot of the time there’s this dynamic of where people are expected to just sit, listen, absorb, and just accept things as truth,” she says. “It’s not really explained clearly that it’s actually a conversation and there is room for conversation.”

That’s why the City created the Youth Engagement Strategy last summer.

The strategy recommends ways the City can improve its relationship with Torontonians 18 to 30 years old within a minimum two-year timeframe. The project aims to define why youth are not participating in city planning initiatives, focus on four key areas where in which to engage them, and implement 20 different actions that were suggested by youth, for youth.

The Youth Engagement Strategy is a part of a larger effort to better connect the City’s planning division, residents, and stakeholders. Youth, among those classified as residents, make up more than 14 per cent of Toronto’s population.

The team working on the strategy is made up of ten Torontonians ages 18 through 29 who have a strong interest in city building. Among them is Corey Horowitz, who holds a master’s in planning from Ryerson University and is keenly aware of the need for this project. Horowitz grew up in Toronto and was unaware of the existence of formal city planning as teenager. He believes planning is relevant to everyone because the issues affect most city dwellers, but he does understand that there are barriers to getting youth involved—from simply being unaware of the issues, to a lack of interest among young people.

A recruitment poster from Youth Engagement Strategy

A recruitment poster from Youth Engagement Strategy

One of the ideas the planning department has is to interact in virtual spaces, much like the Lissner’s Facebook group. (Full disclosure: Lissner is a former Torontoist contributor.)

It’s an apt idea, one Lissner believes can help educate young people. She says there’s often poor youth attendance at meetings because the local government has a steep learning curve that can be discouraging for newcomers.

“A lot of the language is really hard to follow, and the moderating isn’t really amazing—people take up a lot of time,” she says. “Often I don’t feel intimidated but confused and afraid to ask for clarification, as a young person I feel like I don’t have any authority in any way.”

Lissner also believes that having open discussions instead of formal meetings where people are talked at, rather than to, is the way to go. She also suggests workshops that explain to youth how to attend public meetings and embrace leadership roles.

These suggestions could become reality. According to Daniel Fusca, coordinator of stakeholder engagement in the Office of the Chief Planner, one of the many ways the Youth Engagement Strategy will benefit Toronto’s youth is by changing how public meetings are organized. The strategy introduces the idea of “under-30 ambassadors” who will work alongside City planning officials to ensure that the youth voice is heard. These ambassadors will also be required to sit on future consultant teams, and help implement the strategy through school-credit internships.

“Youth as a category is a pretty diverse group: you could be finishing high school, you could be studying [in] university, you could be doing your graduate work, you could be just starting a job, you could be just starting a family [and be] within this 18 to 30 youth group,” Fusca says. “So the idea is to think about the situations [and] life stages that people are in, and tailor the engagement to that particular segment rather than thinking that there’s one magical thing we can do that will engage all youth.”

To make sure the Youth Engagement Strategy connects with as many youth as possible, the Youth Ambassador Team decided to focus on the similar stages of life that citizens ages 18 to 30 go through, rather than just defining the category “youth” strictly by age. Horowitz says there are cross-age issues that people under a certain age commonly face, such as access to affordable housing, struggles with transit, fights for social equity, interactions with youth violence, and finding employment.

Kevin Vuong, co-chair of the Toronto Youth Equity Strategy community panel, hopes that more clarifications as to what specific roles youth will have within the planning department will come with further implementation of the strategy in the years to come. (The City is currently one year into the process.)

Among the already-implemented roles are eight youth panellists on the new Toronto Planning Review Panel. This panel structure is likened to the Toronto Public Library Board made up of eight public members where “a youthful perspective” is listed as a qualification. Fusca says there is consideration put youth on future consultant teams, though this has not yet been implemented.

But representation isn’t always enough. “Having youth present, or youth able to speak their mind doesn’t mean that they will be listened to,” Vuong says. He fears that in practice these youth advisory bodies will end up being a “rubber-stamp approval”—something that is heard but not taken into account.

Vuong has reason to be skeptical: he has held a position on the official youth advisory body for City Council, and while he was asked to give his opinions on a number of issues, those opinions didn’t always translate into anything concrete.

Horowitz hears these concerns and says that the actions and guiding principles outlined in strategy, such as youth ambassadorships and the restructuring of City Planning consultant teams, will give confidence to youth that they will be respected and heard.

Toronto is not the first to attempt to improve its youth relations. The Students Commission from Kingston, Ontario put out a youth engagement strategy that was endorsed by the city in 2013. In 2014, the Ontario Trillium Foundation gave a three-year grant to the project to support its implementation. So far 17 recommendations have been put into action from the strategy. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau headed to Twitter today to talk about engaging youth in politics; the PM pledged to create a youth council if elected into office last October.

In Toronto, the strategy’s implementation process is a slow crawl. Actions, such as recruiting the “under-30 ambassadors,” will be tackled in the coming year. The window given by the Youth Engagement Strategy to implement all 20 actions to completion is a minimum of five years.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that Kevin Vuong feels most, not all, suggestions from youth do not translate into anything concrete.