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Teens Help Plan the Future of their Communities


There is a growing trend in cities and counties across the state towards involving more than “the usual suspects” in determining how their community should develop through facilitated deliberative “visioning” or planning processes. Local leaders realize that by involving a broad cross section of residents in hashing out where and how the community should grow and change, they can collaboratively develop plans that align with the goals of the community. They also see that, while it may take longer to involve diverse residents in a planning process, it is more economical in the long run because the resulting plan will be much more likely to be successfully implemented in a timely fashion if it is supported by, rather than opposed by, the community.

Teens are typically not represented at all or are under-represented compared to older residents in local planning public engagement processes. But this is changing as local leaders see the value in getting a youth perspective, and in developing the civic participation and leadership skills of the future leaders of their community.

In San Carlos, the city organized a meeting where 60 youth learned about options being considered as the city updated its General Plan for how it would develop over the next 20 years, and then shared their input. The city also appointed a high school aged youth commissioner to be a full voting member of the small General Plan Advisory Committee. In small Crescent City, California’s most northern municipality, the city council recently decided to add a non-voting youth member to the city council in order to add a youth perspective to their decision-making process.

San Mateo County leaders organized a “Shared Vision 2025” process consisting of 10 public forums last year to get broad public input in plotting a course for future development. A community steering committee helped to frame the process and to advise leaders on how to reach out to all sectors and facets of the community. Organizers specifically targeted groups of people who were typically less likely to show up to public meetings, such as non-English speaking residents and teens. 125 teens from around the county gathered at a “Youth Town Hall” meeting. Participants worked in small groups to learn about and discuss options, and then voted on priorities as a large group. This town hall meeting was co-sponsored by the San Mateo County Youth Commission. Youth Commissioners helped to recruit their peers to participate, and served as neutral facilitators in order to make sure that all the youth in attendance had a chance to make their voice heard.

When involving young people (or anyone else) in government decision-making, it is important to give them the necessary background information in an understandable way so that they can offer informed and useful input. According to Mary McMillan, Deputy County Manager in San Mateo County, “Too often local government speaks in Governmentese, and this can be off-putting- so we try to talk in plain English.” She predicts this will be a challenge when asking youth and adults to weigh in on complex budgeting issues. The county draws on public engagement consultants and members of community organizations as well as county staff to develop accurate and understandable participant and outreach materials for their public meetings.

How is your city or county involving youth in planning for the community they will inherit? Share your story at


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