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Young Minds Have Big Ideas for Local Cities

What changes would make our cities better? It’s an important question—and Colorado kids are answering.

We all remember that one time—actually, many times—a child in our lives dreamed aloud about how cool it would be to take a zip line to school, navigate a licorice trapeze, or slide down a giant popsicle into a pit of jelly beans. No, a city park can’t really have a slide made from Fruit Roll-Ups, but yes, these wonderments are the essence of why everyone from civic leaders to teachers in Colorado are asking young people to think about what kind of cities they want.

Mara Mintzer, program director of Growing Up Boulder (GUB), a 10-year-old initiative that seeks young people’s input on local issues, says a city that’s friendly to children is friendly to everyone.

Her 2018 Ted Talk, entitled “How Kids Can Help Design Cities,” has been viewed more than 1.4 million times and has earned Mintzer invitations to speak around the world. Mintzer says her 14-minute talk—which she spent several intense months and countless hours preparing for—has “given people around the world a fast and accessible way to begin this discussion.”

Building Child-Friendly Cities

Cities that want to be child-friendly, she says, must first earn buy-in from the local government, which Boulder has been fortunate to have. GUB has involved young people in many high-profile projects in the city of Boulder. It has consulted local second graders and senior citizens as part of a larger transit study, in which both age groups asked for (and received) benches at bus stops. Scores of ideas—like water play, better lighting under bridges, and safer creek access—from elementary, middle, and high school students were used in Boulder’s Civic Area redesign.

CU graduate students collaborated with Boulder teens to create a teen-friendly map of Boulder. And in perhaps its most visible move to date, this past year a printed, child-friendly map of Boulder came to fruition. Ninety-five percent of locations highlighted on the map came from kids, Mintzer says; the other five percent came from parents and teachers. From summer 2018 through spring 2019, GUB worked with more than 700 children, parents, and caregivers to co-create the city map.

“The map was a personal dream of mine,” Mintzer says. As the mother of a young daughter, Mintzer began pining for a map of simple things—like where changing tables were located around town—things, she says, other countries already had. “We planned for the map to serve as a publicity tool about this work,” Mintzer says. “I think it’s working.”

These moves make economic sense, too, she says: Families spending more time at the outdoor play space by the library are more likely to patronize the surrounding businesses, such as the library’s Seeds Café, or to finally make that visit to the Museum of Boulder after spotting it on the child-friendly map.

A Future With Student Ideas

Boulder isn’t the only Colorado city where students are encouraged to think about city planning. With teachers’ guidance, middle schools across the state are currently at work on the Future City competition, an event in which student teams research, design, and build cities that showcase a solution to a sustainability issue. Past topics have included public spaces, public transit, and green energy.

Dorothy Bleakley, a science and math teacher at Liberty Classical Academy in New Castle, took a team of students to Future City’s national competition in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Around a natural disasters theme, the team imagined a futuristic source of energy they called a hydrofoil. “It uses the ocean currents to spin and turn a generator creating a constant green energy source,” Bleakley says. The team won a national award for their idea.

In addition to encouraging kids to be forward thinking about urban design, Future City is set up so students of all abilities can contribute their ideas. “It’s not just for the kids who favor science and math,” Bleakley says. “It also takes kids who are skilled at seeing the big picture, from writers to gamers.”

Rebecca Spearot, a chemical engineer and volunteer and regional coordinator with Future City Colorado, says the project, in which teams are supported by an educator and a STEM mentor, goes far beyond what many see as the typical purview of youth-driven design. “Colorado is growing so much right now,” Spearot says. “[The Future City competition] is not just a touchy-feely project about playgrounds. It’s about where people work, how they can afford to live in this city. It’s about an infrastructure.”

Bleakley says this year’s Future City theme—“Clean Water: Tap Into Tomorrow”—is especially geographically relevant for her students: “Water is Colorado,” she says. “The usage and conservation of water is so important here.” She says many Colorado kids already know a lot about solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and have been exposed to many discussions about clean energy sources, which will help them do well at competition.

When her students are not working on the Future City competition—a large part of the school’s STEM curriculum—they do inner-city studies and have taken trips to Denver and Grand Junction to learn how the community is helping those in need. Jonathan Cappelli, a former Liberty Classical student, and president and founder of Cappelli Consulting in Denver, set Bleakley’s class up with a tour of some of the buildings his firm was redesigning.

On the tour, Bleakley’s class learned that cities work because of something called city planning, and got answers to questions like, “Why are there homes in one part of town and coal plants in another?”

When Cappelli worked with the Urban Land Conservancy in Denver to gain youth input on the design of Thriftway Park (which used to be an abandoned grocery store and laundromat), he says it was rewarding for young people to see that city planners care about their ideas. “Kids need exposure to urban planning early so they can be part of the process,” Cappelli says, “but kids and the elderly are not spending the most money—so they tend to be forgotten about.”

Near-Future Student Planning

Up next for GUB, Mintzer is working with the City of Boulder to solicit children’s input for a plan for the East Arapahoe section of Boulder, a neighborhood that is home to large employers, parks, recycling centers, and arts and cultural organizations. The project, she says, is proof that youth input is needed about a variety of civic issues. “This is much broader than playgrounds,” she says. “This is about what Boulder should look like over the next 10 to 20 years.”

Beginning in spring 2020, GUB will also be facilitating the inclusion of young voices regarding programming and outdoor play for the North Boulder Library, slated for completion in 2021. Mintzer hopes this project in particular will ease some of her frustration that input so far has come largely from Boulder’s majority white population. “They’re really orienting [the library programming and outdoor playspace] to be inclusive for the Spanish-speaking community,” she says. “We want to meet with parents for several sessions to talk about what they would like in that space.”

City Planning in the Classroom

It’s not only parents with children living at home who benefit from the work of GUB. Teachers in particular, Mintzer says, love to have the opportunity to invite their students to share ideas that could become reality.

“It creates meaningful, authentic learning,” Mintzer says. “When we are in a classroom, we start with the idea that kids are experts in their own lives. We can guide them through a thought process when we are in a classroom setting.”

In a classroom setting, Mintzer can ask young people to reflect: How would you actually build this slide out of popsicles? Would it hold up to the elements? What’s something else that might be similar but would last longer?

“Kids can be as creative if not more than adults to problem solve,” she says. “Just like no adult gets everything she wants in a city plan, neither does a child. Adults use a lot of structures around logic to make suggestions. Kids can often think outside the box in ways we often can’t.”

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