By Gabrielle H. Lyon, PhD
Research shows that low-income youth, students of color, and English language learners have fewer civic education opportunities than their white and more affluent peers. This gap in civic opportunity results in underrepresentation in political processes, less participation in voting and volunteering, and a profound absence of disenfranchised voices in life-affecting policy decisions. This is a threat to our democratic process.
One opportunity to address this gap is to increase public schools' access to urban planning. Effective urban planning requires the kinds of meaningful, authentic experiences at the heart of democratic participation. When young people discuss current events, identify and work on local issues, consider experiences that are different from theirs, interact with role models, write to elected officials, and engage with community and government agencies, they learn to care about the well-being of others and realize that they have the ability to effect change. In short, planning fosters the development of civic identity.
Planning was once integral to engaging youth in our democratic society. An example of this is the 1911 Wacker's Manual of the Plan of Chicago, written by Walter D. Moody to promote the 1909 Plan for Chicago. It became required reading for eighth graders in Chicago Public Schools for more than two decades. It called upon young people to understand the building blocks of the city and steward their city to greatness through their "united civic efforts."
In the post-World War II era, public schools offered as many as three courses in civics, democracy, and government and many large cities included exposure to planning for students and their teachers. Today students are usually offered just one civics course, government — most often in 12th grade when many poor and minority students have already dropped out.
Chicago continues to be a city of plans, but since Wacker's Manual, there has not been a system-wide commitment to help young people understand their role as city stewards. In school nationwide, the role of planning has diminished, but there has never been a more urgent time — or powerful opportunity — for urban planning in public education.
We need to bring the youth-centered, city-sized ambitions of Wacker's Manual into the 21st century. That is why, in honor of its 50th anniversary, the Chicago Architecture Foundation is launching a three-year urban planning and civic education initiative called "Meet Your City." At the heart of the effort is a graphic novel called No Small Plans, which follows the neighborhood adventures of teens in Chicago's past, present, and future. Between each chapter, neighborhood maps and illustrated "interludes" bring Daniel Burnham and the art and science of urban planning to life.
No Small Plans supports Illinois civic education requirements and aligns with sixth and 10th grade learning standards. CAF is working in close partnership with Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Public Library to distribute 30,000 copies of the novel and facilitate workshops that explore important questions: Who is the city for? Why do neighborhoods change? What makes a good neighborhood? Who decides? What is my role and responsibility?
Guiding young people to observe the conditions around them and ask critical questions is transformative. Only through intentional engagement will our youth be equipped to design the cities they want, need, and deserve. If urban planners are involved, it might not only make cities more livable, but it might also make our communities — and our democracy — more representative. It's time to make no small plans with America's youth.