April 8, 2022
Of all the key constituents in planning projects, the group that can be most neglected and directly impacted by planning efforts is people under 18 — despite making up 22 percent of the U.S. population.
"They're a group we often overlook, but they often have the best feedback," says Nepherterra Best, chief communications officer of Pride PR, a strategic communications firm focused on local government and nonprofits. "More planning teams need to be thoughtful about inviting the people that will be most impacted to share their lens[es] and experiences and thoughts."
This was the challenge in Charlotte, North Carolina, as it embarked on the Charlotte Future 2040 comprehensive plan — the city's first major long-range planning effort since the 1970s. Framed around a complete communities concept, the plan will guide growth in land use, investment, and infrastructure development for the next 20 years.
As part of the process, the project team laid out an equity engagement strategy identifying five under-represented groups to intentionally connect with and seek input from: senior citizens, lower-income residents, Black and Latinx residents, and young people.
"Young people are the demographic and cohort where the decisions we make today will impact the most, so why not bring them to the table and help them shape the plan?" says Alysia Osborne, AICP, division manager of long-range and strategic planning for the city of Charlotte.
But bringing young people into the planning process is about more than just ticking a box — it's an opportunity to cultivate diverse, imaginative, thoughtful, unexpected, and forward-thinking ideas. To find impactful ways to connect with this tough-to-reach group in the midst of a pandemic, Charlotte's planning team brought on planning and consulting firms MIG and Pride PR as partners to build and implement an impactful and integrated youth engagement program.
According to Jay Renkens, AICP, MIG's director of planning and design services, the intention of the program was to meaningfully engage youth in the process of visioning, goal setting, policy and strategy development, and implementation. To do that, the program team developed specific tools and strategies and incorporated youth-focused engagement into broader community outreach. Their efforts offer a variety of lessons for planners seeking authentic ways to reach young people in their communities.
1. Keep messaging understandable and approachable.
Charlotte's planning department brought on communications specialists as part of the core delivery team from the outset, enabling the team to identify the most impactful approaches from the start. Pride PR worked with the planning department throughout the multiyear process to develop messaging that clears up the complex, often opaque comprehensive plan process in ways all residents, especially young people, can understand.
"We're such technicians and practitioners, so it was helpful to have a team of people who would take these complicated ideas and simplify them to something that is understandable and resonates from a youth perspective," says Osborne. "They were able to translate really complicated ideas into messaging that resonates with young people."
The core messages and themes centered residents' lived experiences, along with the implications and impacts of the plan on their own lives. "Our approach was 'less is more' in communicating in a way where they could make a connection to how this relates to them, where you're allowing communities to process this information in terms of 'how does this affect me' and 'why should I care,' and being able to make that connection and find ways to connect those dots," says Best.
They tried to communicate elements of the plan that would feel specific to young people and their lives, rather than focusing on wider, more abstract concepts. For example, instead of talking about infrastructure broadly, they referred to sidewalks and bike lanes. And they positioned the plan through the lens of individual and community values, helping young people understand their role in shaping how the city will look 10 or 20 years from now.
The project team was careful to use messaging and storytelling not to talk at young people but rather as an opportunity to listen and engage in conversation to create a safe space where they would feel comfortable sharing their ideas.
"Having these kinds of conversations with adults can be intimidating, but how do you create a safe space for them to share?" says Osborne. "We talked with kids a lot about retaining Charlotte's identity, this city being their home, all the things they love about it, and how to keep what's already great about the city."
2. Embrace digital platforms like TikTok.
With the support of leadership open to innovating and venturing beyond their comfort zones, Charlotte's planning department challenged themselves to embrace nontraditional engagement methods to make sure they were meeting young people where they are — like on social media.
The planning team worked with Pride PR to host an #ImagineCLT TikTok challenge, capitalizing on the attention the platform has captured among young people during the pandemic. Riffing on viral cooking and recipe TikToks, the team came up with their own prompt: They encouraged Charlotte residents to identify ingredients for a recipe that would make a future Charlotte they want to see.
The submissions and posts garnered suggested improving transportation access, parks and sporting infrastructure, sidewalks, small business support, arts and culture access, economic mobility, affordability housing, equity and diversity, and neighborhood development.
3. But don't forget to get creative with analog methods, too.
Keeping inequities related to internet access and technological proficiency in mind, the project team developed an integrated youth engagement program that combined digital interventions with analog activities like coloring sheets and board games.
The coloring sheets, which were created by local artist Marcus Kiser and provided in English and Spanish, show a futuristic version of Charlotte. The designs reflect characteristics of Afrofuturism to show young people of color their influence over the city's future, Kiser told The Charlotte Post. More than 1,000 sheets were distributed in lunchboxes at over 20 schools and available at Black-owned restaurants and local businesses.
Meanwhile, a city-building board game called Growing Better Places: A More Equitable and Inclusive Charlotte was developed and distributed online and at in-person events to show young people and families the different building blocks of growth and development priorities. Upwards of 1,800 people played the game, giving them greater insight into the relationships between transit planning, mixed-use development, and displacement — and how that interplay results in different scenarios, each with its own trade-offs.
These activities aimed to not only solicit and encourage input, but to also do a better job of explaining the comprehensive planning process more generally to young residents.
4. Throw fun, family-friendly events.
After the initial lockdown period of the pandemic, the planning team also started hosting outdoor gatherings and events, including a series of drive-in community meetings, which saw hundreds of attendees. The project team presented updates and developments on the plan while attendees listened through their car radios and used signals like horns, wipers, and lights to respond to the presentation. The final meeting was followed by a drive-in screening of Back to the Future.
5. Make young people a priority stakeholder group.
Youth engagement is often treated as a prescriptive, one-time exercise, with planners or consultants visiting a school for an isolated 45-minute session. But as Renkens says, "Usually that first engagement and quick touch point is insufficient to get anything meaningful." Too often in planning, he adds, not enough is done to raise awareness about the process in general, and instead planners often show up only when they want something.
He suggests elevating young people as a priority stakeholder group and building infrastructure and representation around that: identifying and appointing youth ambassadors and advisors, setting up steering committees to communicate back to decision makers throughout the process, and conducting regular focus groups. Osborne and Renkens both point to the importance of bringing in younger team members, like entry-level employees and interns, as facilitators to help lead youth engagement efforts.
Through ongoing and consistent forums, planners can find fun and interactive ways to facilitate in-depth sessions that create time and space for context setting, explaining planning processes, and group deliberation and discussion. For Charlotte Future 2040, this took the form of a series of equity chats with local high students, delivered in partnership with youth civic-engagement nonprofit GenerationNation. The series of conversations — led by college interns and younger staff from the planning department — covered challenges and opportunities around equity and access in Charlotte and how they inform the planning process. They also discussed what is most important to the student members of GenerationNation's Youth Council, the official student advisory council of Charlotte and broader Mecklenburg County governments.
6. Inspire future planners.
After the equity chats, members of the Youth Council became much more vocal planning advocates among friends and family, says Amy Farrell, executive director of GenerationNation. "They feel more ownership around planning processes and have been able to talk to friends and people in their community about the plan and are proud of their role in that."
Beyond incorporating input from the demographic, ongoing youth engagement efforts can be an important opportunity to help build a lifelong interest in and engagement with the city — and to introduce young people from diverse backgrounds to career pathways.
"A lot of planners like myself didn't learn about planning as a career option growing up," Osbourne says. "But we're asking ourselves, what if we start introducing people to the profession early on and building that into our curriculum as part of our department."