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March 22, 2024

Why we Need to Engage Youth in the Urban Planning Process

Youth voices have historically been left out of the urban planning conversation. It’s not a domain most kids are exposed to until university or college, at the earliest, and youth voices are rarely central in the planning consultation of major city-building projects. To us, this doesn’t make any sense – it’s the youth of today that will inherit the future of projects being planned right now. Take the Downsview Airport Lands project, for example. It’s one of the most exciting and largest-scale urban development projects not just in the city but on the continent: reimagining an airport into a 370-acre mixed-use community, full of green spaces, new homes, and spaces for innovators and creators. These are the kinds of places that today’s teens will be calling home in a couple decades from now. Shouldn’t they have a say in what their future communities look like?

2024-ND-March15-9859-(2).jpgYouth deserve to be part of the planning conversation – and even more so, we need youth voices to be part of the conversation, hearing their perspective on what’s important to them, and learning how we can respond to the challenges of the future. That’s how we create better projects and better cities. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Urban Minds is one of the few non-profits in the country dedicated to creating meaningful ways for youth to shape equitable and sustainable cities, with the annual 1UP Conference one of the key vehicles for this mission. This year, Urban Minds and Northcrest Developments teamed up for the 1UP Conference Design Jam, giving high school students the opportunity to see the Downsview Airport Lands first-hand, and to come up with ideas for how to best reimagine and program the site.

Creating better spaces for everyone
The theme of this year’s 1UP conference is Thrive: Planning The Year-Round City, which represents an important dialogue between youth and city builders about how spaces might bring joy, wellbeing and happiness to everyone, all year round. Too often, spaces in Toronto sit idle. With land becoming increasingly more scarce and expensive, we need to think outside the box for how to activate spaces in a way that benefits the community – and who better to come up with creative, outside the box ideas than youth?

Up at Downsview, Northcrest has already been experimenting with a concept known as ‘Meanwhile Use' – activating the site and inviting the community in for events ranging from DJ skate nights (featuring up-and-coming DJs from local high schools), to arts & crafts programming for kids, to mini-golf on an artistically designed course, and even the opportunity for families to bike, roll and dance on the 2.1 kilometre-long runway.

The Downsview Airport Lands offer such a unique opportunity.  How often do you have the chance to turn an airport runway into something new and exciting?

The importance of hands-on learning and idea generation
Youth should be seen as active co-creators in the planning process. There’s no reason  the planning process can’t be fun, engaging  and  hands-on. Bringing students to exciting project sites like the Downsview Airport Lands, involving them in hands-on learning where they can brainstorm ideas, prototype solutions, and present directly to developers like Northcrest – that’s how we make the planning process exciting and   fun, and inspire the next generation of urban planners (of which there is notable shortage of).
Where do we go from here?
The future of Toronto is there for the shaping. Empowering youth voices in the planning process is for the betterment of the city and everyone involved. So how can you be a part of this positive change?
  • Get involved in youth-focused planning and development organizations
  • Identify opportunities throughout the planning process where you can engage youth directly. Ask yourself: what is the earliest opportunity to bring them in as co-creators?
  • Host youth-oriented events and activations on site


We can build the kind of thriving spaces we all want. But we can’t leave youth out of the conversation – shaping the future for tomorrow relies on listening to the youth of today.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Ryan Lo & Alana Mercury

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