Urban Futures: Youth Participation in the Baltics and the Balkans

Citizen participation in urban planning is a quite new concept to begin with. And, even if implemented, cities often neglect to extend the concept to those, whose lives will be most affected by a city’s development: Youth.

Be it the student protests of the 1960s, climate marches in cities around the wold, or urban night rides – young people always have been a source of the important changes that are taking place in urban areas. Nevertheless, despite their importance, this group is still a long way from being heard by national and local governments alike.

Who You Gonna Ask?

“What are future cities going to look like? What improvements are needed in the city you live in?” If anyone asked you these questions – who would be the person asking? A friend interested in urbanism, a city architect, or a newspaper? And – who are you, who is the person being asked his question? A teenager? Or rather a tax-paying adult?

Chances are that it is your local government that is asking you, and that you are an adult, tax-paying, and voting constituent. Conversations of this kind are more and more common, especially since they have become a modern urban practise in public development, often grounded in legal regulations.

Urban Rights

Public space is a matter of urban rights, and it directly reflects how inclusive a city is. The design of public space – that is street design, lighting, etc. – is a factor in welcoming citizens and specific groups, and is usually important to the most vulnerable: Women, children, and elders. When neglecting public space, we risk neglecting the people who use and need it the most. This is especially true for youth, who rely on public spaces to be safe, accessible, and affordable. It is on the streets where real, hands-on social cohesion starts – or is killed.

Local municipalities, acting independently and being locally focused, are good platforms to address these issues. They have to efficiently develop mechanisms to empower young people to become their local community leaders and change-makers.

Nevertheless, such participatory approaches in urban development are rather a new trend and its effective range is still quite limited if we look at the actual process: The first group that city planners approach is the tax-paying workforce, and only then anyone else. Children and young people are left invisible.

This has to change, and there are two important actions that city planners need to focus on in order to involve youth in urban planning: engaging youth in public space projects (asking them the questions) and empowering them to be local change-makers (letting them ask the questions). Two examples – one local one from Riga and one regional one from Eastern Europe – can be used to highlight why and how this should be done.

Ask and Listen

It is important to make the first step and ask questions to someone who hasn’t been included in the conversation before. But truly amazing things happen when we listen. The procedures and responsibilities of local governance – Which department do you have to address? To whom do you turn for advice? – are hard enough to understand even for adults, let alone for young people. But in order to listen, public sector workers need to be physically and socially available to young people.

Creative problem solving is a skill that young adults possess in abundance, but that remains as a largely unused potential. Urban planners could and must take advantage of this potential. In 2018, the Riga Culture, Sport and Education Department proclaimed youth a priority. An example of listening, they co-organised the youth forum “Youth for the Neighbourhood growth” together with the Riga Student Council.

Students, teachers, and municipality specialists came together and sat at one table. Their goals were to discuss urban planning and governance, to find ways for young people to be heard in discussing current issues in the neighbourhood, and to find solutions to these problems with and by young people. The forum was held in Zolitude, a soviet-era district in Riga with around 20,000 residents that is separated from adjacent neighbourhoods geographically and socially.

The participants of the forum discussed problems regarding environment, security, traffic, education, and integration. Students were able to ask practical questions on how to implement waste recycling in their schools or in their neighbourhoods, whom to write to and inquire about waste bin installation, or bring up any problem and learn whose responsibility in local government this would be. And in doing so, the gap between the local government as an inaccessible institution and youth’s willingness for action was closed, even if by a small step.

Enable and Act

Nevertheless, sitting around a table alone will not create real, youth-led change. Trying to hack into an administrative system which is neither flexible nor inclusive can cause a sense of despair, especially since young people often do not have necessary skills and knowledge to do so. It is essential that the city become a facilitator and enabler of young people.

This is also important in order to work against distrust in local government and politicians, which is a common issue especially in Baltic and Balkan countries. Living conditions here used to be rather tough until very recently, and the consequences of 20th-century politics can be still felt clearly in social and urban fabric.

In 2018, the programme “Urban Steps for Resilient Future” was implemented. It targets youth in Eastern Europe with the goal of empowering youth to actively engage in their urban communities, gain the skills and knowledge needed for participation. In a week-long training, young people from 16 different countries learned about alternative urbanisation, urban commons, activism, and inclusion as well as hands-on skills like project management.

The newly learnt skills were then applied with impressive results, as young people dived into improving their cities, for example by advocating for trams (Tbilisi), putting bus timetables (Tirana), and putting light installations (Tirana).

Find the Middle Ground

Facilitating young people to take an active role in municipal politics contributes to the good of urban communities. But the process depends very much on how well youth and city officials can work together – and they have very different working methods. Public governance tends to be heavy and bureaucratic – which is an important reason young people are not part of their planning processes.

To what extent can local governments adjust to the flexible and agile habits of young activist? On the other hand, wouldn’t formalising informal methods, relationships, and approaches mean risking losing the uniqueness of these processes? Maybe the answer is somewhere in between – and young people participating in local governance could very well succeed in finding this middle ground.

Justine Pantelejeva

Chief Expert in Strategic Planning at City Development Department | Riga City Council
Justine Pantelejeva is a Strategic Planner in Riga's City Council, overseeing the strategic development of City Strategy 2030 and Development Program 2020. Justine has a background in biology and spatial planning. In her spare time, she is an urban activist, doing work both in Riga, Latvia, and internationally. Her priorities are youth empowerment, alternative urbanization, and local activism.
Justine Pantelejeva

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