Over the last several months, youth from Dane Hess’s Glendale Middle School classroom have been thinking about their community, what matters most to them, and how this applies to the reimagining of the now abandoned Seven Peaks Water Park. Although, to truly be transformative requires more than ideas. It requires partnership with people who are also willing to challenge and reinvent how city planning decisions have traditionally been made.
This rich collaboration with Dane, Glendale Middle Students, SLC Public Lands, Design Workshop and Claudia Loayza (Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, City Planning, University of Utah) is a demonstration of what it means to work in a way that co-creates with and center the voices of youth, instead of dismissing them. Through a variety of asset-mapping, creative writing and model-building activities, youth generated an imaginative, insightful and affirming vision of what they want to see in the evolution of the former water park, as well as what matters in their lives and the community generally.
Below are reflections from Dane and Claudia, highlighting why this experience has been so valuable, along with photos and some ideas of participating youth.
This project was a perfect example of a community-engaged partnership. Jarred Martinez used his community connections to enhance our experience in the classroom by linking with Claudia Loayza and her expertise. Her unique perspectives and knowledge amplified our project and shaped how we perceived it. Students felt empowered by this process and I imagine their confidence growing in being able to shape their built environments moving forward. They will also have more skills to be able to influence their local officials in their decision-making.
I have always been interested in how communities define a “sense of place” and, as a Master’s student in City Planning and in my current role with the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, I have observed that we constantly go to distant and traditional sources of power to shape our built environments. Whether that is our city councils, planning commissions or boards, they may not always capture the “ground truth” experience of navigating community spaces.
Including the youth voice is incredibly valuable in the placemaking process because decisions and policies made today will directly affect them as they inherit the future. I’m of the mindset that youth aren’t just emerging leaders, but they are current leaders, in need of avenues, projects, and passions to channel their energy.
I was inspired, touched, and intrigued by the ideas they presented. They were encouraged to let their stories, memories, and passions guide their designs as well as think through how to build access for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or background. Things like community farms, orchards, go-kart tracks, farmer market spaces, nature libraries, and street art are just a fraction of the ideas that students presented. Engaging a group of middle school youth provided a snapshot of what they valued in terms of a park space, but it also went beyond that. I learned what that they valued in a gathering, learning, and healing space. These amenities suggested broader, high impact ideas and environments where students could see themselves thriving.
From my experience with these students and in my growing knowledge as an aspiring city planner and engagement advocate, the key to a transformative practice is to foster safe, brave, and authentic spaces that focus on connecting with people rather than collecting ideas. We tend to rush through the planning process to reach an outcome or meet a deadline, when instead, we should be going slow and at the pace of community trust. This requires a mindset shift and the willingness to invest time, resources, and emotional capacity into creating engagement mechanisms that cater to multiple creatives processes and include those who may not have what some may deem “formal organization or influence”, but bring human-centered ideas and collective memories that the entire community can resonate with.
Learn more about Claudia’s placemaking work and the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs’ special project, “Multicultural Placemaking & Mapping Community Belonging | Many Stories, One Utah”.