Voting via the Internet has been touted as a way to engate young voters in the 18-24 demographic, whose turnout in the 2011 federal election was just 38.8 per cent. Photograph by: Tim Fraser

This article was published originally on The Vancouver Sun on October 26, 2015.

Opinion: Generation U — Young Urban Thinkers

What role do youth play in city building?



It is often said young people don’t vote, don’t engage, and are more focused on their iPhones than their community. But two weeks ago, Canadian youth were part of a rising tide of voters who came together to change the course of our country. Young people not only turned out in droves at the polls, but also volunteered en masse to canvas, petition and campaign. Online, my Facebook newsfeed was inundated with election-related posts urging people to get involved.

I believe something special is happening across the country. This surge of youth participation during the recent election is the tip of the iceberg of a profound shift among young people as they find their place as leaders, influencers and engaged citizens. It has been a long time coming.

Across Canada, youth activism and engagement around urban and global issues is blossoming — proving the old story of “disengaged youth” is simply not true. In Montreal and Calgary, urban thinkers and doers like Alan Chen from the McGill Spaces Project and Winnie Huang from Calgary’s C3 are transforming and animating underutilized public spaces. Meanwhile, here at home, city builders like Timme Zhao have jumped into the role of advocate as they lobby to make Vancouver schools more socially inclusive by driving the VSB to increase its number of gender-inclusive bathrooms. Others students are taking their involvement to a global level. Veronika Bylicki recently represented Vancouver at the international Youthful Cities Summit this year and is now working to build a more youth-friendly Vancouver.

For me, the importance of getting involved in the community started when I was in Grade 10. That year, my class learned about climate change. I was as overwhelmed as I was outraged. How could the world be in such peril and yet so little was being done to fix the situation? That year, my friends and I channeled this frustration into action. Together we organized a massive urban sustainability conference and invited peers and planners to co-create a vision of their ideal, future cities. As youth, we were no longer willing to sit on the sidelines nor were we content to be groomed as the “leaders of tomorrow”. We had become leaders of today. But how we would lead and the role we would play next to other generations remains an important question.


Architect Stanley King, creator of the Co-Design engagement process, knew that the way of designing cities for youth was to design cities with youth, writes Tesicca Truong.

I believe that in order to create the deep, transformative change that we need, we need to create a culture of intergenerational collaboration. Stanley King, a former architect and creator of the Co-Design engagement process has long been a pioneer in this field. In the 1970s, when redeveloping a parking lot at the heart of downtown, he first asked high school students how they would reimagine this space. It was the youth that dared to dream of this place as a vibrant community gathering hub with an ice rink under glass domes. Vancourites now enjoy Robson Square as a legacy of their shared work which respects the ideas and passion of youth with the expertise of architects and urban planners. King knew best that the way of designing cities for youth was to design cities with youth.

These days this vision of collaborative urban design and leadership which engages and incorporates youth is starting to experience a bit of a Renaissance. The idea of designing “8-80 cities” where urban spaces are designed for the needs of people aged eight to eighty are no longer thought of as radical. Viva Vancouver and Car Free Days, parking spaces transformed into parklets and public pianos are all pieces of this emergent pop-up urban culture.

At SFU Public Square, we are convening the We the City Community Summit, a series of events about the power we have to shape our cities. This year, we are inviting high school students to show real leadership and vision at our ReThink Food event. There they’ll be tasked with tackling the sustainability challenges in their school food systems. Meanwhile, during our student designed Campus to City conference faculty, students and community partners from across the country will explore the role that our post-secondary institutions and students can play as city builders. There’s a great deal to be excited about as one generation of leaders overlaps with the next. In fact, I believe that’s where we’ll find the creative energy to transform our cities in new ways that past generations might never have imagined.

Photograph by: Dale Northey

Tesicca Truong is a student of the world, a community builder, and the winner of the City of Vancouver’s 2015 Greenest City Youth Award of Excellence.