Forum Explores Youth-Friendly Cities

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The 2018 Urban Studies Forum gives youth a voice in the shaping of our public spaces.

This year’s Urban Studies Forum, “Creating Youth-Friendly Cities,” begins with a panel made up of youth. “It’s a conversation that will be steered and guided by the youth voice,” said Matt Kelley, an associate professor of urban studies at UW Tacoma.

For the past nine years, the Urban Studies Program has hosted forums focused on a variety of subjects, from employment and housing to immigrant labor. “The goal of the forum is to take a lot of what we do in the classrooms and our research and make it accessible to the broader community,” Kelley said. “It is intended to be a door to allow the community to participate in some of the things we do at the university.”

The idea for this year’s forum, held on Feb. 16, came from Kelley’s research on youth in urban areas. “It aligns quite well with my work with youth in the South Sound and with Tacoma Public Schools,” Kelley said.

UW Tacoma Associate Professor Matt Kelley facilitates a workshop at Tacoma's Lincoln High School in 2016. Students will map their neighborhoods, providing information that may otherwise elude city planners and designers.

Youth offer a particularly meaningful perspective in regards to urban livability. Yet, according to Kelley, their viewpoints are often left out when it comes to designing and planning the cities in which they live. “Youth are almost never part of the conversation, but they use, see, perceive and experience our cities and neighborhoods differently than adults and other people do,” Kelley said. “Asking youth about their experiences of their neighborhoods or working with them to think about their perceptions of public spaces is a really interesting way to inform the initiatives we might fund using public money down the road.”

The student panelists opening the forum come from local high schools. That was intentional. “I wanted to signal to the audience—and to anyone paying attention—that this is very much about the youth voice,” Kelley said. “This event is not designed to talk about youth or to youth, but to listen to youth and think about their perspectives.” The students participating are also members of Youth Leading Change, a youth leadership development collaboration between regional schools and Safe Streets, the Tacoma-based neighborhood improvement organization.

After gaining insight from youth, the second half of the event features keynote speaker Stuart C. Aitken, a professor and June Burnett Chair of Geography from San Diego State University. From there, a second panel consisting of community leaders addresses the ways in which public institutions and local organizations can construct youth-friendly cities. “We haven’t sent questions to the panelists or prepped them,” Kelley said. “That second panel will be an opportunity for professionals and practitioners to reflect on what we learn from the youth early on.”

Aspects of urban living, such as educational opportunities and neighborhood safety, have immense influence on the development and lives of adolescents. According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 25% percent of Pierce County’s population is age 18 or younger. With such a large youth demographic, urban areas must make space for their younger residents to be heard. “Your city needs to be livable for everyone no matter how loud their voice is,” Kelley said. “This forum is a great opportunity to put on the radar the notion that when we’re making decisions about how to invest the very finite amount set of resources back into our communities, that it’s worth talking to and thinking about youth.”

Written by: 
Danni Derrickson / February 14, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or