Uncovering JAPA

Building a Participation Ladder With Youth

Can planners find meaningful ways to engage youth, often excluded from the planning process or limited in their engagement? What would youth bring to planning if their participation was elevated?

In “Including Youth in the Ladder of Citizen Participation," in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 3), authors Nisha D. Botchwey, Nick Johnson, L. Kate O’Connell, and Anna J. Kim analyze youth planning programs to explore how planners can enhance the voices of youth in decision making. 

There is a need for adults to advocate for youth to be involved, to explain why youth’s ideas should be taken seriously, and to implement strategies that come out of the engagement.

Drawing on Arnstein’s famous ladder of participation, the authors identify new rungs that are appropriate for youth participation.

“Studies have also shown that lower income youth participate less than higher income youth do in formal politics but engage prolifically through nontraditional planning mechanisms,” the authors write. 

Nontraditional methods can include organizing and artistic expression because of an inability to access the formal political process.

This is crucial because while nontraditional planning methods may have some impact, do those efforts have the effect necessary to achieve the youth's aspirations? Is this the best way to serve this population? Youth could provide ideas that could be translated to begin planning the future for themselves now.

Three Youth Programs

The authors analyzed three youth planning programs:

From studying the three programs, the authors were able to identify three new rungs to add to Arnstein’s ladder of participation to focus on youth.

The new rungs — Consent, Advocacy, and Incorporation — operate in between Placation and Partnership on Arnstein’s ladder of participation.

These rungs make it possible for youth to advise and develop plans with adults who are responsible for facilitating critical discussions and carrying youth ideas to the decision makers.

A revised ladder, indicating a forked structure between programs that grant participation to youth versus programs where youth seek participation. From “Including Youth in the Ladder of Citizen Participation," JAPA Vol 85, No 3.

A revised ladder of participation, indicating a forked structure between programs that grant participation to youth versus programs where youth seek participation. From “Including Youth in the Ladder of Citizen Participation," JAPA Vol. 85, No. 3.

If planners more fully engaged youth, and elevated the voices of youth on the ladder, planners could access new streams of ideas and information.

It is true that not all ideas developed by youth are practical, but this is also true for adults. Youth should not be dismissed simply because they may lack knowledge about processes and systems. This is what actually makes their ideas valuable. Youth will be able to think outside of the box and not be burdened with understanding limitations.

There are many possibilities for youth. If planners valued their input and tried to implement their ideas, we could start to plan with the future planners of our society now.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image: Students at Oakland's Skyline High School participate in a Y-PLAN charrette. Photo by Michael Halberstadt, Silicon Valley Stock.


About the Author
Laier-Rayshon Smith is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

April 9, 2020

By Laier-Rayshon Smith