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A new toolkit putting young people at the heart of development

In the Architects Journal Dinah Bornat introduces Voice Opportunity Power, a new youth engagement toolkit developed by ZCD Architects, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, TCPA and Sport England

Most regeneration projects don’t ask young people about what they want to happen in their area, although the changes will have a significant impact on their lives. Many architects are not used to talking to children and young people, often labelling them hard to reach. This is crazy: we know exactly where they are – in schools and youth clubs. So, if we can reach them, how do we talk to them on their terms and use what we hear to inform our briefs and design better places?

Through our work in this area we have helped develop a youth engagement toolkit, which architects and others can use, as it is now free to download. We’ve worked with Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, the TCPA and Sport England and together we are launching the toolkit and will run three pilot projects across England. Over five sessions, the toolkit takes you through a step by step process that gathers the lived experience of young people, develops a manifesto with them and tests the proposals for the development.

Young people are unlikely to object to a planning application, so it’s not about good PR, but they do know their area really well and they care deeply about it too. Grosvenor carried out a digital survey over the summer ahead of the launch, with over 500 16 to 18-year-olds taking part: 89 per cent said they have never been asked their opinion about the future of their neighbourhood, and 82 per cent say they would want to be involved.

That takes care of need and demand, but what you can learn from listening to young people? In our experience they can be optimistic, empathetic and insightful. These are skills that can be tapped into at a strategic level which means we really get to do planning properly. And it’s timely as the planning white paper calls specifically for more participation from young people.

Often young people surprise you with their observations and see the world differently from many adults. This toolkit facilitates a conversation about choice and agency, which is something deeply connected to happiness and wellbeing, rather than just asking people what they like and dislike.

For example, we ask them to think about a space that they know and decide whether it is ‘green’, ‘amber’ or ‘red’. A green space is somewhere where you get to choose what you want to do; an amber space may have more rules and regulations and a red space is somewhere where you can’t do what you like.

Too much red space isn’t good for a local area, a good balance of predominantly green and amber is. However, what might feel green to us as adults, might be amber or red to a young person. Our aim should be to create more green and amber spaces for all age groups, when we make any changes to a local area. Young people get this concept immediately, and we use it to analyse the spaces they know well and move on to look at new proposals.

The results are positive, recent work with LLDC on the Pudding Mill scheme has resulted in spaces that are better connected and that really have things for young people to do in them. Comments like ‘It’s incorporated everything that we really wanted, and I didn’t think that was going to happen’ are exactly what you want to be hearing.

In our practice it informs our urban design work. We are working on a number of large-scale neighbourhood renewal projects, such as Aberfeldy Village in Tower Hamlets, with Poplar Harca and Ecoworld. We have put child and youth-friendly design at the forefront of the masterplan vision. The idea is to have the same conversations about public realm and place in the design team meetings and the youth centre, that way the proposals are truly informed by young people.

We can’t be involved in every project, so we hope the toolkit is taken up and used by as many development teams as possible, as the more we try out this way of working, the better we become as designers. As one young person said: ‘This scheme prioritises the youth and they are mainly going to be the people that are living there’. Hard to argue with that sentiment.

Dinah Bornat is co-founder of ZCD architects and a London Mayor’s Design Advocate

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