Planning for children, by children

Photo credit: StoreFrontLab.org

I wanted to share a few resources I’ve come across on the American Planning Association website that are meant for planners who are targeting children as key components to the development of a community plan. I find it odd that amongst the buzz of community engagement and participatory work that there is not more of a push from the parents, stakeholders, or planners for that matter to get more youth involved in the process. Of course there are planners out there who are utilizing the brilliant minds of children for unique and creative approaches to development of cities and what’s in them (here’s a great example). Frankly however, I don’t think we talk about it enough. As a learning planner, all of the literature I’ve come across when it comes to engaging with the community for input has been specifically directed at attaining opinions and ideas from adults. Yes that’s important, but what about the kids? If it’s the children who will someday be the future planners and inhabitants of the current neighborhoods, streets and developments we’re producing, then shouldn’t we do more to engage them and build a better place with their wants and needs in mind?

Through my perusal of the APA site, I found an entire page devoted to planning with children in mind and also part of the process. On the education page there is an entire Youth and Teachers sub-page that provides a few resources for how to get children engaged in the planning process, understand what a planner does, and even teach city planning and engagement strategies to youth from curriculums. The curriculums are downloadable and obviously can be modified, but are great places to start for planners who want to visit schools to get student’s input but don’t have an idea on how to get started. Also, the fact that you could inspire children to some day be future planners is just awesome, along with that you’ll be connecting with people in the community that matter who typically don’t have as much of a way to be “heard”: teachers and children.

Metropolis: A Green City of Your Own is one curriculum meant for grades 3-6, produced by a third grade teacher and planner:

Packed with illustrations and exercises, it is intended for use by elementary classroom teachers and other adults who seek to expose children to a variety of urban forms from around the world. The city elements presented in the lessons are edges, districts, public spaces, landmarks, and transportation — taken from Kevin Lynch’s book Image of the City. These elements provide an organizing mechanism for children to design their own ideal cities.

The Urban Natural Guide is a re-printable document that allows planners to interact with a community of their choice through probing questions based off of Jane Jacobs’s style of inquiry. These simply approachable questions challenge you to look at the surroundings, and can be adopted to help children tell what they notice and value also. There’s a City Detective lesson plan that definitely seems more suited for children in middle school or high school, but the plan is completely able to be scaled down for K-5. This plan would be a great “plug” for planning, geography and design careers to children through mapping and history. Finally, the resource printout is a great reference for how to incorporate planning activities in the classroom at every grade level (beginning with grade 4) and also has resources for interested teachers. You can read Youth Participation in Community Planning to find supplementary materials and ideas for how to engage with youth in their communities in appropriate but valuable ways, and see where it’s been done well! APA even has their own blog just for youth engagement planning- check it out at Kid’s Planning Toolbox.

Happy planning!

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Automobile Reliance v. Urban Fabric- What’s at Stake?

On reading the post Urban automobility, a dead paradigm that we refuse to abandon.. from the blog Scientia Plus Conscientia, I was reminded of just why I, as a future planner, want to work in the planning field. His post talks about the automobile and the reliance on it overtime, and how ultimately is just unnecessary in many large or megacities. It often creates more of a hassle through traffic and road design and has lessened the social fabric and vibrancy of cities over time. Through suburbanization and a societal built-up reinforcement that the automobile is king, it has disconnected people from their place as they travel about the city in their shielded vehicles, isolated from their surroundings and other people, and thus limiting their interactions with everything around them.

To put it simply, as a planner, I am in it for the people’s interactions with their environment. I’ve always been keen on these interactions since my beginnings in anthropology and later sustainability and civic engagement studies. Seeing how people interact with their “place” and what their sense of place is and means to each person, has just always been of a huge inquiry and passion. When a city becomes dominated by the automobile, that urban fabric, the social interactions and street ballet that Jane Jacobs would refer to, becomes limited naturally so. Many people would ask: “How can a city survive without the automobile?” I’m not arguing that we need to get rid of cars altogether, especially with the point that we would need to figure out how to totally adapt the emergency services as well as long-haul deliveries of goods. But I do think that urban planners and stakeholders could really push for more public transportation methods that could decrease the primary reliance of the car. As Scientia Plus Conscientia writes:

A cleverly and densely laid system of tramways, subways and trolleybus can effectively and cleanly deal with the necessary mobility of millions of people, not to mention that people can be encouraged to walk or cycle. Taking cars out of the streets liberates the space for living and meeting, which leads to enormous positive social side-effects because people start having more opportunities to meet and knit the social mesh, something that it is often lost in modern megacities. We have some good examples of this at hand: Vauban, Freiburg (Germany), Pontevedra (Spain) or Hydra (Greece), where parts of these cities have been closed to car traffic and had then been reclaimed by people as living, playing and meeting space, positively contributing to the local social well being and democracy.

Photo credit: Metro Jacksonville

Photo credit: Metro Jacksonville

A common practice amongst planning committees is to establish a “road diet” within heavily congested cities. This usually means taking out a few roads, or reducing lane sizes on roads, in order to improve other transportation methods throughout the city and/or promote social and commercial interactions. Many international cities are developing their own ideas on how to combat against the automobile and bring the streets back to who they were built for- the people! In 7 Cities that are Starting to go Car-Free, various methods are described such as re-designing streets for pedestrians only like in Madrid, doubling bike lanes in Paris, or encouraging the building of “Green Networks” (roads designed for bikes and walking between various city parks) in Hamburg. Sometimes these initiatives begin as simple experiments, but when the city leaders and transportation or environmental analysts see their positive effects on lowering emissions, traffic, and sometimes increase social spots, they will plans and policies. Some cities are even offering incentives by not driving vehicles, while other cities are witnessing coop or share businesses growing for bicycles or smaller, low-emission cars.

I think that if planners want people from any living area to reduce their reliance on the automobile, they do need to make it easier for the people to make such changes. Incentives and positive reinforcement, just like in education and training children or pets, works great! A system of consequences can also work well, as long as they are strictly enforced, and also made publicly known to civilians. I also think that these decisions should not be made by just the planners or officials, but should actually be mostly developed by the citizens of the community. There are many companies now (this will be in a future post of mine) that work with city officials and planners to get citizen involvement in the decision-making, development and implementation processes. Often times when plans are not made by the citizens, they are not received positively and feel more like an imposition, thus reducing morale and productivity of the policy or plan. When people are engaged in the process of decision-making, there are usually greater results in pride and common goal construction, as well information and resource sharing[1]. Bright Spots is one report that I can share, but there are many other reports out there on the web. This report was found on the awesome website National League of Cities, and they also have a commentary WordPress blog CitiesSpeak. In the end, civilians, planners, and leaders all need to figure out just what they want to prioritize in their communities and just what will work for them. By continuously giving in to the car industry, and pretending that environmental or public health problems- let alone our heavy reliance on oil to power automobiles, we are just denying ourselves the chance to better our communities. Sure it may take some hard work and a bit of ingenuity and borrowing or meshing together of ideas, but isn’t that chance for healthier, livable communities worth it? I think yes.

[1] Head, B. (2007). Community Engagement: Participation On Whose Terms? Australian Journal of Political Science, 42(3), 441-454.

Class experiment- What comes to mind when we think of a planner?

What Does A Planner Do Wordle

What does a Planner do? Last week I gave a presentation (next blog post) and at the beginning I was curious of what my other classmates, future planners, think honestly of what a planner is or what they actually do. I thought it would be great to see it in a collage form in real time, so I decided to use Wordle.net. Despite some technological challenges, I now have the Wordle and have had some time to soak in what ideas and words came to people’s minds when asked to only give one word. I wonder how the results would have differed if I increased more words, or allowed the students to write sentences. What would happen if I filled a room with non-planners, like community members and stakeholders, and asked them the same question- how would their word answers differ?

When I look at this word collage, I see words that could be synonymous with each other such as: mediates, facilitates, liaison, and organize. Though all of these words have their own unique meaning, I see how they all work together especially in the role of the planner. A liaison often interacts with the public and private institutions to organize and facilitate events and people to come together. A planner also mediates between stakeholders and community members, as well as between public and private organizations- or even within them!

Words like complexity, integrate, and multidisciplinary encompass the everyday planner because so many tasks are given to us in hopes that we can make sense of all of the pieces and put them (or most of them) neatly together in a nicely presentable plan. Planners are having to listen to a myriad of ideas from all backgrounds, and often try to incorporate them into a crafted plan, especially if public participation is prioritized as part of the planning process. A surprising word, choreography, though striking at first, reminds me of Jane Jacob’s street performance and ballet of the sidewalk. Planners must remember the unique interactions that occur in their own niches and locations, and how there is no “cure-all” plan that can be adapted to any city or neighborhood. Each plan needs to remember the individual dances and social interactions that occur, and how they come together to present a beautiful collective ballet. Here is a great site of her many famous quotes for reference! https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/17285.Jane_Jacobs

Equity stands out to me personally because I believe that many planners throughout history have advised groups not for the benefit of the whole, but of the planner’s individual interests and benefit. So many initiatives and plans have been proposed but often failed because they did not consider the people they would impact and the people that were in charge of implementing the plan. Often planners forget just who they are planning for, and for what? The context of the situations and justices (or injustices) at play must be considered, especially when people are entrusting you with advising their decisions for a better present and future. Though we do not always succeed in this, planners should strive to be fair, listen to all sides, and make judgement calls or plans with equity as the foundation.

So readers, what do you think a planner does? Give me anything that comes to mind! And then feel free to comment on what should a planner do? I think this is a very insightful conversation that needs to be had more often, especially to bridge the gap between the people of the public and the planner.