Growing Up Boulder! Interview with Director Mara Mintzer

2019-08-01

Urban planner Mara Mintzer, Director of Growing up Boulder (GUB) at the University of Colorado, will participate as an inspirational speaker in the workshop Listen to the Kids! at Uppsala Health Summit in October. Starting in 2014, Growing up Boulder worked with local students on the plans for a re-design of the Civic Area, a public space in downtown Boulder.

Can you summarize the main lessons you learned from the Civic Area project?

Growing up Boulder
Photo: Jade Cody 

One thing that stands out to me is how consistent children of all different ages are for specific desires. In every single project I have worked with, from preschoolers through high school, children are always requesting interaction with water. In Boulder [Colorado, USA], we have a few of those options, but not nearly as many as I think could benefit our young people. We included this in the Civic Area project, so there is an excellent water play piece there. Another thing that always comes up is nature; there is an overwhelming desire for children to interact with nature, and for older kids, it sometimes is the sense of peace and serenity that comes with being in a natural setting.

Was there something you thought from the beginning would be important when it comes to involving children and young people that turned out not to be the case?

I did not realize that it was going to be explicitly getting their voices, initially, I thought it was more about them and for them as opposed to with them, and I am so glad it is with them. It is the most fascinating work I have done. I love it to the point that it drives my 11-year-old crazy because no matter where I go now, I am trying to get young people's voices! I see it everywhere now, how it is this untapped resource that we have in our young people, and many of them want to be sharing their ideas and their voices, and we're just not doing it often enough. I had run lots of programs before for children and families, but I hadn't done it as much with them.

It is crucial to involve children, but there is also a hesitancy to begin to include children and listen to them. Do you recognize that, and if so, why do you think it is the case?

I think this happens for a few different reasons. One reason is that we have not done it before, most of us, and so it is a fear of doing something new and unknown. I think there is also this fear of, "what if they have these ridiculous ideas, and what are we going to tell them?" However, the reality is that if you give children and young people structure they are much more reasonable than you think. You hear their ideas and say, "Well, okay, these are fascinating ideas. Here is what I hear from what you are describing that might be possible.” I think the problem is, and this happens with adult citizens too, we either take the ideas and leave, so nobody knows what happens to them, and then they get disappointed because their design does not show up in the end product. However, if you come back and you have these meeting points where you're working together, then you avoid that frustration, and everyone learns from each other.

With the Civic Area, we got about 20 of the kids from the third-grade class to come back. They were in sixth grade at this point and got them to give their feedback one final time when it was constructed. One hundred per cent of the kids said they were grateful to have been able to help shape the project. It was significant to them, and if you give them that opportunity and then keep staying in contact to say, "This is what's happening with your ideas," it is very powerful.

What would your advice be to somebody who would be interested in starting to involve children in the planning process? This is something you and your co-authors address very well in your book Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices for Planning Sustainable Communities.

My advice would be to start with a small project. The first part is assuming that kids are experts on their own experience and then move forward to capture that, which you can do by them drawing something and labelling it. After that, you can ask them to describe their experience, and then you share a little bit of what your goals are and what you're thinking, which they can integrate into their thinking. Moving forward, they can do a little research, but they have already captured their ideas before you could influence them. As the last step, they can synthesize their ideas with what they have learned, and then share it out again.

My co-author, Louise Chawla, wrote that we are always learning when we do this. You have to take a deep breath and dive in because, sometimes, it works better than other times, but you do not know until you start doing it. You have to try doing it, and come in with really an open mind.

I think it is a good practice in general to have the humility to be open to listening. If the children do come up with all sorts of crazy wild ideas, take a step back, leave, finish that day, but then think about, “What are the underlying themes? What are those young people trying to tell me?” If there's a lot of sky diving in their pictures or parachuting, which we've had before, or jumping off the high dive, we know that's not going to be possible in a park, but what I hear them saying is they want some thrill-seeking or risk-taking activities. So what would be possible in your setting that involves healthy risk-taking? You can then build that in and show that you have heard the children; skydiving may not be allowed, but here are some other alternatives that could be possible.

You are joining us for Uppsala Health Summit. What are your expectations and hopes for the Summit?

I am excited to learn from other people in the trenches that are doing similar work. I love hearing other people's challenges and how they have overcome them because I am sure we have some of the same ones. It can be frustrating, too. I think because there are not that many people doing this sort of work, it can feel isolating from time to time. The fact that we can come together with people from all over the world and learn from each other is exciting to me.