Press "Enter" to skip to content

We let kids design our city — here’s what happened | Mara Mintzer | TEDxMileHigh

our society routinely makes decisions
without consulting a quarter of the
population we’re making choices about
land use energy production and Natural
Resources without the ideas and
experiences of the full community the
car an inanimate object has more say
over 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
want to ask you this what would happen
if we asked 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 and 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 was mental 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
now I
you’re skeptical about this idea and
honestly I was too I mean there must be
a reason the voting age is 18
how could children possibly understand
complex ideas such as the affordable
housing crisis or how to develop a
transportation master plan 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
while these concerns sound legitimate I
realized that not including children and
city planning was a bigger design
problem after all
shouldn’t we include end users in the
design process if we’re building a park
to be largely used by kids then kids
just 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 0
through 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 the space
is bounded by a farmers market on one
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 creeks inevitable
flash floods restore a sense of safety
to the area and support an expanded
farmers market so from 2012 through 2014
we engaged more than 200 young people in
the process ranging from preschool
through high school students first we
visited children in their classrooms and
present 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 not 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 use 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
inspirations 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 preschool 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 art constructed from animal
shaped plastic beads and while 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 place safely in the water
lighting and previously dark underpasses
so high school students can walk home
safely after school at night and
separated biking and walking paths 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
where 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’ve
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 gonna 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 kids on the
other hand think about possibilities for
kids the sky is the limit
literally when we worked with middle
school students to design teen friendly
parks they drew pictures of skydiving
hang gliding and jumping from jet
trampolines into giant foam pits some of
this sounds far-fetched but the
commonalities among the activities
revealed an important story our
adolescents wanted thrill seeking
opportunities which makes perfect sense
given their developmental stage in life
so our task as connectors between
inspiration and reality was to point
them towards activities and equipment
that actually could be installed in a
park this is exactly what parks in
Australia have done with their extensive
zip lines and their 30 foot tall
climbing towers when kids dream up a
space they almost always include fun
play and movement in their designs now
this is not what adults prioritize but
research shows that fun play and
movement are exactly what adults need to
stay healthy too
who wouldn’t enjoy a treehouse
containing a little lending library and
comfortable beanbag chairs for reading
or what about a public art display that
sprays paint onto a canvas each time you
walk up the steps in addition to fun and
play children value beauty in their
when tasked with designing dense
affordable housing kids rejected the
blocks of identical beige condominiums
so many developers favor and instead put
bright colors on everything from housing
to play equipment they placed flowers
between biking and walking paths and
place benches along the creeks so kids
could hang out with their friends and
enjoy the tranquility of the water which
leads me to nature children have a
biological need to connect with nature
and this shows up in their designs they
want nature right in their backyards not
four blocks away so they design
communities that incorporate water fruit
trees flowers and animals into their
common spaces on-site this is logical
because five-year-olds today are rarely
allowed to walk four blocks to access a
park by themselves and nature and one’s
immediate environment benefits everyone
since it has been shown to have
restorative effects for all ages it may
come as a surprise but we even take into
consideration the desires of our
littlest citizens babies and toddlers
from toddlers we learn that the joy of
walking comes from what you discover
along the way when they evaluated the
walkability of boulders 19th Street
Carter toddlers spend long stretches
exploring leaves in the ditch and
sparkles in the sidewalk they reminded
us to slow down and design a path where
the journey is as important as the
destination in addition to trees and
plants kids almost always include
animals in their designs insects birds
and small mammals figure
prominently into children’s pictures
whether it’s because they’re closer to
the ground and can see the grasshoppers
better than we can or simply because
they have a greater sense of empathy for
other beings children almost always
include non-human species in their ideal
worlds across the board children are
inclusive in their city planning they
designed for everyone from their
grandmother in a wheelchair to the
homeless woman they see sleeping in the
park children designed for living
creatures not for cars egos or
corporations the last and perhaps most
compelling discovery we made is that a
city friendly to children is a city
friendly to all bogota colombia mayor
and rico peñalosa
observed that children are a kind of
indicator species if we can build a
successful city for children we will
have a successful City for all people
think about it kids can’t just hop in a
car and drive to the store and most kids
can’t afford an expensive lunch at a
nearby cafe so if we build cities that
take into consideration their needs for
alternative forms of transportation and
for cheaper food venues we meet the
needs of many other populations too the
more frequent and more affordable bus
service so desired by our youth also
supports the elderly who wish to live
independently after they can no longer
drive cars teens recommendations for
smooth protected walking and
skateboarding paths also support the
person in a wheelchair or the parent
pushing a new stroller so to me all of
this has revealed something important an
important blind spot if we aren’t
including children on our planning who
else aren’t we including are we
listening to people of color immigrants
the elderly and people with disabilities
or with reduced incomes what innovative
design solutions are we overlooking
because we aren’t hearing the voices of
the full community we can’t possibly
know the needs or wants
other people without asking that goes
for kids and for everyone else so adults
let’s stop thinking of our children as
future citizens and instead start
valuing them for the citizens they are
today because our children are designing
the cities that will make us happier and
healthier cities filled with nature play
movement social connection and beauty
children are designing the cities we all
want to live in thank you
Please follow and like us: