Not Just Climate Strikes: Giving Young People Roles in Community Greening

by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

Middle school students documenting a site with photos
Middle school youth photo-document open space adjacent to their school prior to an intergenerational neighborhood park redesign. / image: Lynn M. Lickteig

We are honored to share the first of a three-part interview with Victoria (Tori) Derr, Louise Chawla, and Mara Mintzer. The three worked together on Growing Up Boulder (whose home base is at the University of Colorado Boulder), a program to engage children and teens in city planning and design. They also co-authored the book Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices to Plan Sustainable Communities, winner of the 2019 Achievement Award from the Environmental Design Research Association. A new book, The Routledge Handbook of Designing Public Spaces for Young People, contains chapters by Louise and Mara on developing partnerships for child and youth participation and ensuring that young people’s ideas influence final plans. Happy reading!
– Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, EDAC, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

For readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of placemaking, would you please share a bit about it?

Victoria (Tori) Derr, Louise Chawla, and Mara Mintzer (TD, LC, MM): Placemaking involves bringing people together to plan, design, construct, and inhabit settings of daily life: the local region, city, town, neighborhood, and everywhere people live, learn, work, and play. It is an art and a science, as people contribute their insights, creativity, and knowledge to co-construct places of meaning and memory.

The last two years have seen a wave of youth activism—first climate strikes, and more recently, demonstrations that Black Lives Matter. The climate strikers are rallying for a better future built on renewable energy, social and intergenerational justice, and the protection of biodiversity and the living world. Their scale is global. As one of their slogans says, “There is no Planet B.” Placemaking brings ideas like these down to the local level. By including young people in placemaking, we invite them to participate in creating the world they want to live in. They are telling us that they want a world where people live in harmony with nature.

Standing next to receding floodwaters in their neighborhood, middle school students in Charleston, South Carolina make a music video that advocates restoration of a local tidal creek and wetlands. / image: Merrie Koester

The three of us are based in universities, so we create partnerships for participatory planning and design that include young people, their teachers and out-of-school program leaders, experts like landscape designers, students and faculty in the fields of design and environmental studies, and decision-makers like staff in city agencies. Placemaking with children is intergenerational because adults need to work beside children to change public spaces. We have found it is also intergenerational because children bring forward thinking about what all sectors of society need.

What types of outdoor environments does placemaking apply to?

TD, LC, MM: Placemaking includes residential yards and gardens, but we focus on public spaces outdoors, such as schoolyards, streetscapes, pathways, neighborhood plans, multifamily housing sites, playgrounds, and public parks. Some people may just associate children with parks and playgrounds, but children are experts about far more than play. They observe their communities, and often have important insights into community constraints or challenges as well as ways to make their communities better. In our book Placemaking with Children and Youth and other publications, we give many examples of children’s involvement in designing child-specific places like playgrounds and schoolyards. Here, we want to share an example of their capacity to contribute on a large scale—in this case, a neighborhood plan for all ages.

Fourth grade students and residents from a local senior center worked together to envision the redevelopment of a neighborhood street corridor, including plans to make it safer, more playful, and beautified with more trees and gardens. / image: Erika Chavarria

When the city of Boulder, CO prepared to release a new Comprehensive Housing Strategy, it wanted to hear young people’s ideas. The result was a year-long Great Green Neighborhoods project that engaged children from ages 8 through 16 in the question, “What would dense, affordable child-friendly housing look like?” To anchor brainstorming, participants applied their ideas to a 40-acre site scheduled for redevelopment along Boulder Creek.

One of the third-grade collaborative models for a neighborhood redesign. Children integrated gardens and wild spaces throughout the development. / image: Lynn M. Lickteig

In the fall, three third grade classes and one ninth grade class from schools near the redevelopment site engaged in a variety of methods with the help of Growing Up Boulder staff and interns. They met with experts like architects, engineers, and flood mitigation experts. The students took field trips to the site and to an award-winning affordable housing development. They looked at precedents from around the world that included a diversity of housing types, configurations for yards and shared green spaces, and mixed-use development. They took photographs, did drawings, and synthesized their recommendations in models and reflection essays. They created innovative solutions for flood mitigation, like grassy berms that children could run up and roll down, while preserving access to the creek. The children wanted to see wild corners for animals, fruit trees, community gardens, water features, and nature play spaces woven into car-free zones.

High school students critique design students’ work in the neighborhood redesign project. / image: Lynn M. Lickteig

In the spring, the third and ninth graders passed their suggestions on to undergraduates at the University of Colorado Boulder enrolled in a design studio led by a landscape architect and an architect. The undergraduates were tasked with integrating their ideas into master plan prototypes for the City of Boulder. The ninth graders also served as jurors for initial design review sessions. The master plans that undergraduates presented to city staff and other officials specifically integrated young people’s ideas.

A design student’s rendering of play spaces that draws from student recommendations. Children recommended hills for flood mitigation and play. / image: Nathalie Doyle

In this current COVID-19 pandemic, what thoughts do you have about how the process of placemaking could be facilitated in novel ways to accommodate social distancing?

TD, LC, MM: Growing Up Boulder (GUB) now has gained significant experience collaborating with children and youth virtually, as we were in the midst of projects with several hundred young people when the pandemic hit. Overnight, we needed to restructure our school and community engagements to be remote. Our North Boulder Library project, which asked 280 elementary school students to share their recommendations for the design and programming of indoor and outdoor spaces for a future new library, illustrates how COVID transformed the way we work when we are not able to meet in person.

Fifth grade classes in public schools near the designated library site undertook this project. When COVID hit and everything shifted to at-home learning, GUB undergraduate interns supported teachers and children to remain engaged by holding daily online “workshop” sessions where children could get help with their SketchUp designs, 3D models, drawings, and digital presentations. This relieved pressure on their classroom teachers, gave design students leadership and teaching opportunities, and resulted in well-researched proposals from the children. Because students had different levels of access to digital technologies, they were given different ways to share ideas, including letters to city officials, written surveys, physical drawings, photos of physical models, and participating in meetings by phone.

A fifth-grade student digitally shares his learning garden plan for the library during the coronavirus pandemic. / image: Growing Up Boulder

In one class, students divided into teams, with each team focusing on one of four spaces for the new library: an outdoor play area, a plaza for community events, a community garden, and a community kitchen—which students suggested should offer indoor and outdoor options for cooking and eating. In this class, every single student, whether they came from advantaged or disadvantaged families, shared significant input. In their teacher’s words, “I had never seen my students work harder on a project, and I fully believe it was because they knew that it was real…This was real life work that city leaders were listening to and wanted their input on.”

For more information about Growing up Boulder, please visit For more information on the books mentioned, please see Placemaking with Children and Youth and The Routledge Handbook of Designing Public Spaces for Young People.

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, is is Co-Communications Director for ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN), Principal of design+cOnsulTation, and Lecturer in the occupational therapy program at Boston University. Her work focuses on collaborative design, programming, and research of outdoor environments for underserved groups. A Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Amy presents and publishes widely on topics relating access to nature. She is co-author of the award-winning book Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

Louise Chawla, Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an environmental psychologist whose work focuses on participatory methods for engaging children and youth in community design and planning, the benefits of access to nature for children, and the development of active care for the natural world. For 10 years she coordinated a UNESCO program, Growing Up in Cities, which worked with low-income communities around the world.

Victoria Derr is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at California State University Monterey Bay. She supports community partnerships that promote culture and nature connections in schools, natural areas, and public spaces, and that facilitate community engaged climate action, particularly with under-represented communities of the central coast of California.

Mara Mintzer is a co-founder and the director of Growing Up Boulder, a child-and youth-friendly city initiative based out of the Community Engagement Design and Research Center (CEDaR) at the University of Colorado Boulder. She presents and writes internationally on the topic of engaging young people in community planning and child-friendly cities, and her TEDx talk entitled “How Kids Can Help Design Cities” has received more than 2 million views.

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