Spotlight: Creative community engagement with young people

With children and young people often overlooked by typical built environment consultation processes, the GLA has called for more creative and flexible engagement work with them. Future of London talked to Seth and Akil Scafe-Smith from RESOLVE Collective about their creative approach to youth engagement and the need for more resilient communities post-Covid. As a 2015 project intern, Seth helped create FoL’s Speaker Diversity Network, and both brothers joined our July 2020 roundtable, Making Equality the New Normal.

Is London child-friendly?

The 2019 climate strikes led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and school children from around the globe forced the world to sit up and listen to what young people have to say – and highlighted just how powerful their voices can be. But while young people might be actively shaping our broad-brush response to the climate emergency, they often go unheard in debates and consultations about the built environment.

Cover of Making London Child-Friendly Policy document
Making London more child-friendly is one of the GLA’s current priorities.

In Making London Child-Friendly, part of the Mayor’s Good Growth by Design programme, the GLA has called for more meaningful engagement with children and young people on how the city is shaped, acknowledging that “they are often under-represented and overlooked in typical built environment consultation processes” (p. 55).

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the disruption caused by Covid-19 and are at risk of being left behind in terms of education and employment opportunities. As we move towards economic recovery amid calls for ‘back to better’ rather than ‘back to normal’, it’s important for the built environment sector to take advantage of this opportunity and meaningfully engage with young people.

Taking a creative approach to youth engagement

In order to fully engage, Making London Child-Friendly has called for the built environment sector to start using “different creative and flexible methods” (p. 56). Creativity and flexibility are central to interdisciplinary design collective RESOLVE’s approach to community engagement, particularly in its work with young people.

Combining architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges, RESOLVE works with youth and other groups under-represented in society to engage them in the design process. Projects range from working with art galleries on installations and public events to collaborating with architects and local authorities to place community engagement in the masterplanning process. And their work has revealed the intimate, and often deeply emotional, knowledge that young people have of their local areas.

In 2019, S1 Artspace in Sheffield invited them to transform the gallery into a ‘living archive’ that explored people’s emotional responses to the city. To learn more about the area, RESOLVE designed an emotional mapping exercise as one of the kick-off activities. While older people contributed to the maps by adding specific memories of certain places, the young people who took part focused more on telling stories about their city and neighbourhoods.

“Taking a narrative-driven approach to urban challenges was a really powerful way of understanding the context,” says Seth Scafe-Smith, RESOLVE’s Programme Director. “It was so effective that we’ve done it with several other groups of younger people since – from teenagers to university students.”

Children and adults climb on installlation in a gallery
The opening of The Garage, RESOLVE’s ‘living archive’, at S1 Artspace in Sheffield. Source: RESOLVE Collective.

Being flexible

And it’s not just young adults that can offer useful insights into urban issues. Last year RESOLVE worked with Absolutely Cultured on the Model City project in Hull. This involved getting groups of six-year-olds from three schools to investigate how cities work and what they might be like in future. They ran day-long workshops and created a syllabus so children could explore and reimagine the city, particularly Hull city centre as many of the children weren’t familiar with it.

“Working with groups this young was interesting,” says Akil Scafe-Smith, RESOLVE’s Head of Design. “They were using their imagination in unbridled ways and coming up with fantastic ideas. But, being six, they would also get overexcited and hungry, and suddenly want to be with their friends, so we had to read the class, adapting the workshop based on the mood of the class.”

This project highlighted that it’s often the flexibility of the facilitator, as opposed to the thoroughness of the method, that results in successful youth engagement. “You can have as thorough a plan as you like but if you can’t read the room, you won’t be able to engage people,” adds Akil.

Man talks to excited group of children
Working with young children on the Model City project in Hull. Source: RESOLVE Collective.

Allowing time for experimentation

For RESOLVE, community engagement delivers the best results when you allow a lot of time and space for it. “We approach community engagement in an explorative, investigative way,” explains Seth. “That means we spend a lot of time at the beginning learning about who we’re working with, where we’re working and how the engagement process might be able to effect change.”

In 2017, Brixton Design Trail invited RESOLVE to take over an abandoned shop in a passageway near Brixton Railway Station. RESOLVE transformed it into a temporary platform for local artists and entrepreneurs and worked with a range of organisations to stage a series of events exploring questions of ‘value’ in today’s urban markets. “Really interesting insights emerged from the Passageway project because Brixton Design Trail gave us the time and space to let the project grow and develop,” says Seth.

Community engagement is an opportunity for local authorities to re-think some of the spaces in their boroughs and the ways in which people, especially young people, might engage with spaces such as town centres. But because attention has only recently shifted towards communities who’ve not necessarily benefitted from the regeneration process, councils often approach engagement with a certain urgency.  “Expecting answers and results early on can make the whole engagement process feel rather meaningless,” adds Seth.

Nevertheless, RESOLVE remain optimistic. “Engaging with young people is becoming more popular – and necessary – within the built environment sector”, says Seth. “People who work within the sector are starting to look at the built environment in a more holistic way, from a sociological and an anthropological point of view, rather than just planning outcomes.”

Empty shop unit filled with cardboard box art installation
The Passageway project: RESOLVE transformed an abandoned retail unit in Brixton into a temporary platform for local artists and entrepreneurs. Source: RESOLVE Collective.

Youth engagement during lockdown

Engaging with young people during lockdown has been challenging. The partners RESOLVE often work with, such as schools and youth groups, haven’t had the capacity to work with them on community engagement. And the constantly shifting guidance has made it difficult to design engagement programmes: for example, an activity they’re designing for Open City that was based on early lockdown guidance encouraging people to stay home will now have to change to reflect the recent relaxation of the rules.

Online engagement brings limitations. Over the last few months they’ve been working on the Purley Way masterplan for LB Croydon, which has involved putting together an online platform to gather qualitative data like memories and stories. The platform has been a great success – except with young people.

Young people might be more tech savvy but that doesn’t mean that doing community consultations online will necessarily reach a younger audience. “It’s an issue of dissemination and channels,” says Akil. “Older people are still far more likely to engage with a consultation exercise organised by the council, whether it’s online or face to face.” So RESOLVE has approached a Croydon-based games company to see how they might be able to work together to ‘gamify’ aspects of the platform or run some of the activities as a competition.

As London moves towards recovery, RESOLVE is shifting its focus from engagement to community resilience, thinking about the sort of platforms that people will need in order to organise and share knowledge. “Young people are going to suffer particularly badly from the economic downturn – so they should be key to how we formulate our response,” says Seth.

What both Seth and Akil would like to see is not just a focus on boosting the economy and making sure that young people benefit, but a complete re-think of the economic model itself and our approach to both growth and sustainability. “Isn’t this the crux of what we should be talking to young people about?” asks Akil.

A London that works well for children and young people will be a London that works well for all of us.
Joanne McCartney, AM, Deputy Mayor for Education & Childcare, &
 Jules Pipe, Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration & Skills

For related topics, watch our Community Engagement in a Covid-19 world webinar here or listen to our City Bites podcast with council, agency and community group voices here. If you have a new initiative or idea for a Spotlight, get in touch with Sophie Nellis