Engaging Young Londoners in Urban Development
- 3 May 2023
- Lucille Watkins-Brazier
- Head of Social Impact, Europe
Children and young people provide valuable insight into a local area and as London evolves with new development it is crucial to include them in the process. But research shows that 89% of young adults have never been asked their opinion about the future of their neighbourhood and only 8% have taken part in a public consultation on plans for their area.
Meaningful engagement gives local young people the chance to shape the future of their neighbourhood and can not only build much needed trust and support for development, but also shows young people they can be active participants in the shaping of their city, making it feel like a place for them.
But what does meaningful engagement look like? What are the barriers that prevent young people from taking part? When is the right time to involve young people and what are the best activities for different age groups? And how do we ensure the process is inclusive and accessible?
These questions were tabled at NLA’s latest Think Tank on Engaging Young Londoners. Hosted by Lendlease in a unique community space, The Tree House, at the heart of the Elephant Park development, the session brought together private, public and third sector professionals with youth representatives to come up with solutions.
Defining meaningful youth engagement
Public consultation forms part of the statutory planning process for most development projects, but this does not mean that it should be tokenistic. Engagement should be genuinely meaningful, which was characterised as follows:
1. Meaningful engagement is a two-way street
Young people have to benefit from consultation as much as the company involved, said Mayfair Youth Forum representative, Nida Zahra. She gave an example of a consultation programme that the Mayfair Youth Forum were involved in with developer Grosvenor, whereby activities involved both consulting on development plans and providing employment skills and work experience opportunities for the young people involved.
Carl Konadu, CEO of social enterprise 2-3 Degrees, agreed that young people benefitting from engagement is key to getting them involved and keeping them engaged. He suggested that young people should be considered as youth consultants, not volunteers, and that they should be paid as such to achieve optimal input and engagement. The group expanded on this to identify ways that young people could be compensated for consultation to ensure they also benefit. Ideas included:
- Employability workshops (e.g., CV writing, interview skills, presentation skills)
- Access to work experience or employment (e.g., placements, internships, or apprenticeships)
- Mentoring and networking with professionals
- Recognition of participation in the programme (e.g., certificates)
- Payment (e.g., monetary compensation, vouchers)
2. Opportunity for genuine influence
Meaningful engagement means that young people have high levels of influence and control over the outcomes and a diverse range of ideas are sought, listened to and acted upon. Natalie Wells of the Greater London Authority explained that the expectations of young people should be managed with realism in relation to their level of influence and the timescale of implementing their ideas into a scheme, recognising that development can take years, sometimes decades. I furthered this by explaining that engagement with communities should ideally be radically transparent, honest and open, particularly with the things that communities are not able to influence and why.
Croydon Youth Assembly representative, Gabriella Brown, offered a counter point that recognised that ‘you can’t just let young people rule the world’, but that giving them the freedom to come up with ideas, without too many guiderails imposed, will provide better outputs. The group unanimously agreed that engaging young people helps to challenge ‘traditional’ ways of doing things and to think differently about a scheme – something that is incredibly valuable for developers and ocmmunities, alike.
The right time to engage young people
Engagement with young people should start as early as possible when starting a project. Tringa Kelmendi from Sarah Wigglesworth Architects said that if there is already a design, there is going to be less trust in the consultation process.
Nida also stated that an engagement programme should ideally take into account the school curriculum, for example, at the start of sixth form or college, students aged 16-18 may have some disposable time to take part, as opposed to exam season, where energy and attention is needed elsewhere.
Karen Douglas from Haringey Council added that engagement programmes can also work alongside the school curriculum for under 16-year-olds, with SEND providing a good, but often unconsidered route for doing this.
Susan Mantle from Heyne Tillett Steel said that involving young people shouldn’t be a one-time ‘nugget’ of engagement and that the relationship should be long term. I shared that at Lendlease, we aim for engagement to be ‘mobius’, meaning that it is not just undertaken for statutory consultation purposes but is cyclical throughout the lifetime of a project.
Activities for effective youth engagement
1. Make it fun!
Rather than thinking of it as part of the development process, Carl kicked off this part of the session by suggesting we think ‘what does an incredible youth programme look like’? and go from there.
Meaningful engagement is fun for young people to be involved in, which Tringa said can be achieved from the start by not calling it an ‘engagement session’ or worse, ‘consultation’. Instead, call it a ‘design workshop’ or something similar, to spark interest and give reassurance that their voice will be heard.
Experts in the field of youth engagement should be on board, rather than just development or planning professionals, said Nida. Rozita Leetham from Camden Council agreed with this, referencing a successful meanwhile-use project she ran that involved workshops with artists and used creative techniques to engage young people from a variety of backgrounds.
2. Have multiple rounds of engagement
Adina Bisek from Grimshaw Architects outlined three steps that should take place for optimal engagement. Firstly, listening to young people’s needs, wants and ideas for the neighbourhood; secondly feeding those into the design; and thirdly presenting how their ideas were turned into design concepts.
But, it can be challenging to get young people to commit to it in the first place, let alone get them to attend multiple events. Youth representative from Camden Youth Council, Hdayet Otaky, said that companies shouldn’t expect young people to come to them, which Carl responded to emphasising the need for a ‘boots on the ground’ approach whereby young people are engaged with proactively, purposefully and directly.
Lauryn Brown from Commonplace suggested a fourth round of engagement - post occupancy evaluation - to get community feedback on the finished scheme that can be taken forward into future projects. The group largely agreed that this step is often missing in community engagement programmes.
Making engagement inclusive and accessible
To make engagement activities accessible, they should be diverse, said Lauryn. The group acknowledged that despite the common assumption that young people prefer digital engagement, it isn’t for everyone and can take a large budget to execute well (e.g., virtual reality). Therefore, a mixture of methods is best.
Young people should also be made to feel comfortable, safe and supported throughout engagement. Gabriella proposed providing clear instructions on how to get there and what to expect upon arrival to help quash anxieties for young people. Carl provided some best practice tips for doing this, including setting up Whatsapp groups or having a quick phone call beforehand. He also suggested engaging parents and guardians in the process too, saying that this can help ensure suitable adjustments are made ahead of time to maximise accessibility for all young people.
Accessing harder to reach groups such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds who often feel like places undergoing development are not going to be ‘for them’ is so important, said Karen. Engaging them in the first place is the first (often challenging) step, but making sure sessions are accessible for them to contribute meaningfully to is just as important. She suggested breaking down information and language and using creative ways to capture their insights. For example, at the Royal Docks in Newham, young people were taken on tours of the area and took photographs as a way of sharing their thoughts of the places they visited.
How to measure impact and create a legacy
To measure results and help drive accountability, Nida gave an example of a Youth Manifesto that was created as part of the Mayfair Youth Forum. This set out the expectations of both the young people and the developer, was signed by both parties, and was used throughout to check in on progress against commitments.
Youth engagement should not only create a visible legacy through the places that it helps to shape but should also leave a lasting impact on the lives of those involved too. We all agreed that one of the key benefits to youth engagement for the young person is the ability to grow their professional network. I explained that the more touchpoints young people have with employers throughout their education, the more likely they are to access good work post study, therefore also supporting social mobility for those without access to these benefits through parents or other opportunities. For the property industry in particular, this is a critical piece of the puzzle – we need to engage young people into Built Environment careers in order to sustain the industry into the future.
The session came to a close with the group describing how they feel about the future of development in their local neighbourhood, in just one word. ‘Hopeful’ was the word given by youth representative, Amario Michael-Nicholas, from the Haringey Learning Partnership, who said that coming to Elephant Park made him feel hopeful that development in his local area could make it feel safer, cleaner and more modern. This was a sentiment shared throughout the room, and it was enlightening and inspiring hearing from the young people in the room about what we can do as an industry to help amplify young voices.