Mara Mintzer – Director of Growing Up Boulder
Our society routinely makes decisions without consulting a quarter of the population. We are making choices about land use, energy production, and natural resources without the ideas and the experiences of a full community. The car — an inanimate object has more say of our public policy than this group of citizens. Can you guess which group I’m talking about? It’s children!
I work in urban design and not surprisingly, most cities are designed by adults — urban planners, architects, developers, politicians, and, occasionally, a few loud citizens. Rarely do you consider the voices of a group of four-year-olds, barely tall enough to reach the podium at city council chambers. But today I’m going to ask you this: What happens if we ask children to design our cities?
Back in 2009, I was introduced to a small group of people, who wanted to start a child-friendly city initiative in Boulder, Colorado. I come from a family of civil rights advocates, and I had spent my career until that point working with low-income children and families. But I had never heard of a child-friendly city initiative before! So, I figured its purpose would be to address some of the frustrations I had encountered as the parent of a young child. Perhaps, we would advocate for more changing tables in restaurants or create indoor play spaces for those cold and rainy days.
In other words, make the city more hospitable to children and families. It wasn’t until after I committed to this project, that I realized I had it all wrong. We wouldn’t be designing better cities for children, children would be designing better cities for themselves and for the rest of us too. I bet you are skeptical about this idea, and honestly, I was too.
I mean, there must be a reason why the voting age is 18. How could children possibly understand complex ideas, such as the affordable housing crisis or how to develop a transportation masterplan. And even if they had ideas, wouldn’t they be childish or unreasonable? Do our cities really need a park made out of candy? Or a bridge with water cannons that fire water onto unsuspecting kayakers below? These concerns sound legitimate.
I realized that not including children in city planning was a bigger design problem. After all, shouldn’t we include end users in the design process? If we are building a park to be largely used by kids, then kids should have a say in the park’s design! So with all of this in mind we formed a program called “Growing Up Boulder”, and my job is to work with children ages zero to 18 to come up with innovative city design solutions.
How do we do this, you might ask? Let me give you a real example. In 2012, the city of Boulder decided to redesign a large downtown park known as The Civic Area. This space is bounded by a Farmers Market on one end, Boulder Public Library on the other end, and by Boulder Creek, which runs through the middle. The space needed a new design to better handle the creek’s inevitable flash floods, restore a sense of safety to the area and support an expanded Farmers Market.
So from 2012 to 2014 we engaged more than 200 young people in the process, ranging from pre-school to high-school students. First, we visited children in their classrooms and presented the project: what it was, why their ideas mattered and what would happen with their recommendations. Before we could influence them, we asked children to record their ideas based on their own lived experiences. Then we asked children to go on a field trip with us to document what they liked and didn’t like about the space using photography.
Through green picture frames students highlighted what they liked about the space such as college students tubing down the creek. Then they flipped those frames over and used the red side to highlight things they didn’t like, such as trash.
Our sixth-grade students studied the Civic Area by researching sites with similar challenges from around the world. Then we invited the kids to combine their original ideas with their new inspiration to synthesize solutions to improve the space. Each class invited adult planners, city council and community members into the classroom to share and discuss their recommendations. Boulder senior urban planner stepped over blocks and stuffed animals to explore pre-school students’ full-size classroom recreation of the Civic Area. Adult planners marveled at the students’ ideas as they shared a park constructed out of a jelly bracelet — it was supposed to be an ice-skating rink and then public ark constructed from animal-shaped plastic beads. And though this may seem ridiculous, it isn’t so different from the models that architects create.
Now fast-forward four years, and I am pleased to report that many of the children’s ideas are being implemented in the Civic Area. For example, there will be improved access to Boulder Creek, so kids can play safely in the water. Lighting in previously dark underpasses, so high-school students can walk home safely after school at night. And separated biking and walking pads, so speeding bikers won’t hit young people as they stroll by the Creek. My daughter and I even skated on a new child-requested ice-skating rink last winter.
Were all of the kids’ ideas implemented at the Civic Area? Of course not! Democracy is a messy process. But just as a reasonable and well-informed adult does not expect all of her ideas to be utilized, neither does a nine-year-old. We’ve now been using this process for eight years, and along the way we found some incredible benefits to designing cities with children.
First of all, kids think differently from adults, and that’s a good thing. Adults think about constraints: How much time will a project take? How much money will it cost? And how dangerous will it be? In other words, are we going to get sued? It’s not that these constraints aren’t real, but if we kill off ideas from the beginning, it limits our creativity and dampens the design process.