To build a strong town, get the kids involved

Jonathan Holth is an entrepreneur, community developer, and long-time member of Strong Towns sharing today's guest article on youth involvement in local decision making.

Why would we let them be decision-makers?  They’re not staying here anyway!  They’re not the ones footing the bill for this!

Source: Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy

Source: Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy

I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in a number of community initiatives in a few different cities over the years. Recently, we’ve paid special attention to elevating the presence of young people in project development.  And not surprisingly, when we ask them to be involved, we never get turned down.  It seems students are craving community engagement at much younger ages today.  Maybe it’s because they have easier access to information on what’s happening in their communities. Maybe it’s because they’re seeing things they don’t like.  Maybe it’s a little of both. Either way, we should listen to them and value their input and energy.

Talent attraction and retention are buzzwords that we’re hearing all around the world right now. Communities are shifting their mindsets as they’ve come to realize that young people pick places before they pick jobs.  They pick amenities over low property taxes.  They pick walkability and quality public transportation over a confluence of interstate highways. I, for one, think that the focus on college students in the talent conversation has been too strong.  Here in my home town of Grand Forks, North Dakota and throughout the state, we’ve seen our youth begin to feel connected to their communities at a much younger age. 

During a recent visit, our governor hosted a discussion with community leaders which brought the student body presidents of two local high schools to the table.  During the conversation, the group began to talk about community amenities for youth that may entice them to stay here beyond their high school years.  One of the students spoke up and said, “I’m sick of living in a community where I have to drive a car to do almost everything.” 

I was taken aback for a couple of reasons.  For one, when I was in high school here, driving was the only life we knew.  I had no idea what walkability was, and the thought of being in a mixed-use neighborhood filled with a variety of amenities and things to do didn’t even begin to enter my mind at that age.  Second, I was struck by the simple fact that we just haven’t given young people the ability to help us plan our city. 

During that roundtable discussion, our Governor continued to ask the students questions about what mattered to them, while those of us that were considered “community leaders” sat back and watched their dialogue.  That moment served as an eye-opener for me, and I’ve begun to think more critically about how we can better engage our youth and what value they can add to community initiatives. 

So why is it important to involve young people?  What value do they add?  Here are a few things that I’ve found:

1.  Kids see the big picture.

How many ideas have you had that you thought were great, but you never discussed them with others because you figure they would be impossible to implement?  I know in my case, there are too many to count.  When the basis for project or program development begins with a discussion about a lack of funding or political will, the merits of the idea get buried in a cloud of hopelessness.  Kids don’t think that way, and because of that, we can have a conversation on the value of an initiative without the doom and gloom hanging over us.  If a project is worthwhile and adds value, we’ll figure out how to make it happen, or at least be able to have a discussion about why the project would add value so we can think of other ways to implement that value on future projects. 

Architect Mitchell Borgen works with kids at a local elementary school to talk about planning. (Source: Jonathan Holth)

Architect Mitchell Borgen works with kids at a local elementary school to talk about planning. (Source: Jonathan Holth)

2.  Young people change the tone of our conversations.

I’ve been struck by how much more positive the discussions can be with youth participating. I think most people would agree that civil discourse is becoming a lost art these days. I’ve found that adults communicate better with each other when there are kids present.  We’re not as quick to question each other’s motives, we use better language, and we think about what we say before we say it.  These extra precautions surrounding our dialogue seem to add a level of politeness and positivity that isn’t typically present with only adults in the room.

3.  We need to hear their perspectives.

It should be obvious but, if we want to keep youth in our communities and we’re competing globally for talent, we have to ask talented youth what they want in their communities.  Just because they’re not signing up to sit on the local Planning and Zoning Commission (although I would welcome that), it doesn’t mean they can’t add significant value to the business and planning side of our cities.  I’m only about 5% successful in guessing what my kids would eat for dinner each night.  What would make me think that I know exactly what they’ll want in a neighborhood in five years?

My company has recently taken some trips to local elementary schools to talk to kids about architecture and planning. It’s easy to think about what we’re teaching the kids during these visits, but I think the more important takeaways are what we’re learning from them.  Those lessons will make us better planners and architects.  During our LEGO-based activities, the children collaborate and work together — skills that one can’t learn early enough today and which we could all stand to get better at.

Next time your town is faced with a challenge or considering an idea that will help the community grow stronger, get your youth involved.  And not in a “Hey, let us know your thoughts and we’ll take it from there” way.  Put high school students on your board of directors.  Give them a vote and a voice. Make them project chairs and guide them when they need help. 

The quicker and more heavily involved they are, the more invested they’ll be in staying in the community and making a difference.  And down the road, when they’re committed citizens in your city, they’ll help foot that bill too. 

(Top photo source: Alexis Brown)


Jonathan Holth is the Community Development Manager for JLG Architects, an architecture and planning firm with twelve offices throughout the Midwest. He is an entrepreneur, and is the co-owner of three restaurants in ND, in addition to working as a consultant focused on Main Street issues, downtown planning, and nonprofit sustainability. He is a long-time Strong Towns member and advocate. Holth is a born and raised North Dakotan, and lives in Grand Forks, ND with his wife and three daughters.