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Children working on a model city.

When Children Design Cities

Urban planner Mara Mintzer asked it best: What would happen if we asked children to design our cities? Introducing young people to civic engagement through real-world examples can set the foundation for future implementation of policies that elevate environmental education.

Mara Mintzer, co-founder and executive director of Growing Up Boulder (GUB), based in Boulder, Colorado, asked this question at a TedxMileHigh talk in 2017. This question urges us to consider how we can elevate the voices of young people in civic action, empowering them to share their ideas, work across communities, and build collective action. 

Your locality is the perfect place to begin your civic engagement journey. By introducing yourself and young people to city processes, you begin to understand the real power in sharing your voice. City hall meetings provide the perfect forums for citizens to make sure the outcomes of local initiatives meet the needs of their community. Parks are imagined, roads designed, elections run, and yes, taxes collected, all at city hall. Localities are responsible for deciding zoning laws that influence natural green spaces conducive to use as outdoor classrooms. Many localities assemble special committees charged with overseeing sustainability, conservation, or policies related to tree planting and cutting. But civic engagement isn’t just accessible in local government. 

It’s also present in education! On June 22, 2021, Mara Mintzer joined Louise Chawla, Victoria Derr, and Kianni Ledezma to lead an eeWEBINAR on how to involve young people sustainably and with impact in civic action. Using their book, Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices for Planning Sustainable Communities, and three real-world projects as examples, they show that children want to make a difference in their lives and in their communities. These projects were school-based and demonstrated the students' desire to lead the creation of outdoor spaces that fit their needs. 

As an organization, NAAEE is charting a new path toward increased collaboration between the fields of environmental education and civics education. Our new Civics and Environmental Education Change Fellowship—CEE-Change—was developed with this intent. Fellows are expected to envision and execute a community action project that addresses both an environmental and civic education component in an effort to show how environmental education and civic action are united. Fellows work with both children and adults, highlighting the importance of cultivating a lifelong culture of learning. This work is intended to foster leadership within schools and at the community level, promote civic engagement and environmental responsibility, and ultimately build more resilient, equitable, and healthy communities. 

So what would happen if we asked children to design our cities? Chances are we’d live increasingly active and green lives, as Mintzer explains in her TEDTalk. It’s also possible we’d see a more intentional relationship with the environment and a heightened awareness of collaboration to achieve our desired results. 

It’s also more than asking children to become urban planners for a day. It’s about providing them with a platform to share their ideas in safe and open spaces. This is critical to help them understand the importance of a diversity of thought, as well as to build a relationship with civic engagement that aligns with their talents. 

When children design cities they create in earnest with levels of imagination that are unsurpassed. It is our job to help them hold on to their ideas for as long as possible so when they’re ready, they have the support, tools, and determination needed to propel environmental education practice and policy far into the future.