By Bill Lindsay (City Manager, Richmond, CA) and Deb McKoy and Jessie Stewart (CC+S)
The challenge for cities and educators is clear: Creating sustainable opportunity-rich schools and communities for all requires that young people have access to pathways for authentic civic participation, and high quality education that equips them with career and college readiness skills, agency, and civic efficacy to be 21st century thinkers and agents of community change.
City planning decisions profoundly impact young people’s opportunities and life chances. Despite their demonstrated capacity and desire to contribute innovative ideas and insights to improve the built environment, there is often a disconnect between youth and city government as young people are largely uninvited to the urban planning and policymaking table. The only institution set up for students – schools – teach democratic and civic values inside the confines of the classroom in an abstract and largely historic manner – missing a huge opportunity to engage with the communities/cities around them.
City leaders of Richmond recognized that, for the City to grow and prosper in the 21st century, they must innovate how they make city planning decisions and specifically engage the next generation in this process. To truly be a 21st century city, Richmond must be ready to meet the dynamic challenges of a continuously diversifying metropolitan region. For Richmond, this means investing in young people to build a strong, vibrant workforce and citizenry ready to tackle tomorrow’s economic and democratic needs.
Many people have said that Richmond is undergoing a “renaissance.” Once a bastion of American economic and industrial supremacy, Richmond has struggled in recent decades in the shadow of its post-war legacy, experiencing a “brain drain,” underperforming schools, and a work-force struggling to meet the demands of a rapidly changing post-industrial economy. To change the status quo, Richmond is working across sectors, including with local schools, to improve the economic needs and opportunities of all residents. The recently awarded long-term development of the Richmond Bay Campus/Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, presents an opportunity for the city to reclaim and restore its economic health and vitality. Doing so, however, demands improving overall the physical and social infrastructure of the City Richmond in a way that is smart and sustainable; and this means involving young people in city planning and policy-making.
As one city official explained, "We don’t want youth today lost in the vision for tomorrow. We want to change in a way that’s smart and responsive to future needs. We want students to be invested in this community so they see the longevity, and come back after college to make this a better place.” Ensuring that all Richmond residents benefit from the opportunity and investment on the horizon requires planning for and with young people in the community whom plans affect, and addressing core issues critical to creating opportunity rich communities: housing and comprehensive community development; economic and workforce development; and accessible transportation.
For over five years, the City of Richmond has been dedicated to addressing these challenges and recognizing the important role that young people and schools can play in the revitalization of Richmond. In 2008, the City reached out to UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities + Schools (CC+S) to bring the Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan-Learn-Act, Now!) civic engagement and educational strategy to Richmond to engage young people of all ages and backgrounds in re-visioning a new, opportunity-rich Richmond. Through a well-defined, yet flexible process of place-based critical inquiry, Y-PLAN equips young people with the tools and knowledge to take civic action on issues in the places where they live, while simultaneously preparing them for college and careers. The CC+S publically available Y-PLAN framework, Digital Toolkit and one-on-one coaching prepares civic leaders and educators to partner with young people to tackle real world urban planning challenges.
The Y-PLAN Richmond initiative has brought city, educational, and community partners together to work on over ten community development projects addressing the core issues facing the City:
Housing & Comprehensive Community Development (2008-2010):
Nystrom Unified Revitalization Effort (NURVE): Over a 3 year period, 200 high school students worked with three city agencies (Planning, Parks, and Housing) to provide recommendations to align the development of housing, services, and design of both the Nystrom Elementary School and the MLK Community Center and Park to meet the needs of the community. Richmond students emphasized the necessity to create a safe space, and to have services such as driver’s education, job training, and childcare for working families. They also proposed replacing a dilapidated playground with a garden – or even a café – to attract more “customers,” and to include more safe walking paths.
Economic Development (2012):
Re-Envisioning the Richmond Bay Campus (RBC): Economics students in Richmond High School worked with the Richmond City Manager’s Office on the long-term development plan for the new Richmond Bay Campus of UC Berkeley. Y-PLAN proposals focused on transportation services, education and employment opportunities for youth and the larger Richmond workforce. Proposals included having rotating farmers market to make local and sustainable food accessible to the Richmond community; internships connected to the RBC, and bike share and bike paths to connect RBC with the larger community.
South Richmond Transportation Connectivity Plan: History students were commissioned by the City of Richmond to study transportation barriers and opportunities to Richmond's South Shoreline. This project set a new bar for authentic youth participation by including it as a formal task written into the Caltrans-funded South Richmond Transportation Connectivity Plan. Together with city planners, students created, distributed and analyzed over 600 community surveys and presented findings at City Hall. Richmond city officials were surprised to learn that the majority of students had never been to the South Shoreline area, just a couple miles away from their high school. Students made numerous, practical recommendations regarding improved public transportation services, including availability of shelters, lights, restrooms, maps, and an app for the bus-schedule.
Since 2008, over 500 low-income youth in Richmond have participated in Y-PLAN, recognizing their critical role in place-making and urban transformation. Over 30 city leaders and staff have learned how and why to engage young people in civic processes, and ten community development projects have been directly impacted by the students’ work and ideas.
The growth of Y-PLAN in Richmond demonstrates the Y-PLAN “double bottom line”: (1) College, Career and Citizenship Readiness - students increase civic efficacy and learn civics by doing civics - working and learning with city leaders; (2) Building Healthy, sustainable and equitable cities - City professionals are challenged to think differently, the planning process is strengthened, and changes in the built environment reflect the needs and values of young people.
Y-PLAN inspires professionals to think differently about their practice, and the values of the community whom plans affect. Traditional notions of “expertise” are challenged, and negative stereotypes disrupted as professionals realize youth care deeply and hold “simple but powerful insight” about the places where they live. For Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay, Y-PLAN is a best-practice model of public participation – “it isn’t just contributing to a specific project, it’s transforming the process. What makes this different is that there is a lot of research that goes into the work, so what you’re hearing is the voice of someone who has taken the time to learn about the issue or the problem and think about ideas and solutions. That’s different from a normal public process.” Y-PLAN also strengthened planning processes by building capacity, and trust, with community members. This was demonstrated at a recent Y-PLAN Final Presentation, which brought over 200 Latino and African-American parents to City Hall, 70% of whom had never been to City Hall.
A major lesson young people learn through Y-PLAN is that change takes time, but five years of Y-PLAN projects in Richmond have resulted in tangible policy and physical changes in the built environment. This is evident in the incorporation of student’s proposals in the building and design of projects such as the MLK Park, and the design of dynamic public space and art that reflects the values of the user and the diversity of the community. The values articulated by Y-PLAN youth are now core principles for city planning in Richmond, resulting in more vibrant spaces and fiscal savings. Planning for, and with, young people has created a sense of ownership and stewardship of MLK Park, resulting in the active use of a once underutilized space, less vandalism, and savings on maintenance costs.
Y-PLAN demonstrates the opportunities, challenges, best practices, and value-add of authentic youth involvement in city planning – and is available for any city to adopt. As youth critically analyze the places in which they live, they learn the process by which places get transformed, and their important role in that transformation process, fostering trajectories of opportunity for all young people, from all neighborhoods, that they can take into their future.