On a sunny Wednesday morning, the main room of the Alumni House on the UC Berkeley Campus was filled with nervous and excited chatter and the rustle of unfolding posters. Students in careful makeup and pressed button-down shirts, some from schools as far as an hour away, rehearsed the presentations they had been working on all semester: proposals to address climate change and sea level rise in their neighborhoods.
They were there at the invitation of Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act Now!), a UC Berkeley education initiative that has worked to involve young people from all backgrounds in urban planning in their own communities for the past two decades. This time, Y-PLAN had partnered with Resilient By Design, a yearlong design challenge featuring 10 teams of landscape architects, engineers, and ecologists seeking to address sea level rise around the Bay Area. The goal here was to spark the same conversations for young people that the challenge was inspiring among adults — namely, the best ways to address the region’s most pressing issues brought on by climate change. At the event, the culmination of months of work, students selected from among the program’s 800 participants presented to representatives from city government around the Bay, people with real power to implement new approaches to problems in the students’ neighborhoods.
“The people on those design teams don’t look like you; they don’t come from backgrounds like yours,” RBD Managing Director Amanda Brown-Stevens told the assembled crowd. “That’s a problem: it’s a problem for the solutions they come up with and for the leaders who are listening to the solutions.” She was referring to the fact that Y-PLAN works largely with kids from the most difficult neighborhoods in the Bay Area — places like West Oakland, Bayview, or East Palo Alto, which are historically disadvantaged, purposely polluted, and often neglected.
Yet the Bay Area is also home to some of the country’s most over-the-top opulence. And the designers participating in RBD, who won their slots from among 50 competing teams from all over world, were more likely to be familiar with that world than the one the Y-PLAN students knew. At Alumni House, it was clear that youth voices had an important part to play here: emphasizing to both the designers and staff of RBD and the government representatives gathered to hear the presentations that resilient environmental design can't just be about sea level rise and climate change but also must fold in elements addressing issues like community health, wellness, and security.
Young people’s perspectives are essential for understanding “that resilience is so much about the existing socioeconomic inequities that are part of the community.”
Brown-Stevens first encountered Y-PLAN 15 years ago while working for an Oakland City Councilmember, and getting the program involved with RBD seemed to her like a “natural fit.” When she approached Deb McKoy, the Executive Director of Y-PLAN, McKoy saw the potential for a powerful coalition right away. Young people’s perspectives are essential for understanding “that resilience is so much about the existing socioeconomic inequities that are part of the community,” McKoy said. For some Y-PLAN students that means thinking about ways to fight unemployment; for others violence or poverty: some 85 percent of program participants are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Y-PLAN’s programming is predicated on the idea that these projects aren’t just an exercise because kids’ voices are essential in urban planning because they’re intimately familiar with what their communities need. The finished proposals at Alumni House reflected that knowledge: a low-emission mobile clinic for mental health in Richmond; stilt houses to protect against sea level rise and alleviate housing pressures in East Palo Alto, which sits below sea level; a family-friendly park by the Bay in Oakland, with solar panels for generating energy and plenty of space for recreation. “Oakland doesn’t have a lot to offer for all age groups,” 11th grader Lauren Roberts, who helped design the park, said. “If something like this existed, I’d go there instead of to the mall.”
That thoughtful pairing of social and environmental needs is at the heart of Oakland Sustainability Manager Dan Hamilton’s priorities, as well. He does more than just oversee the city’s efforts around climate change and greenhouse gas reduction: part of his job description is using those initiatives as opportunities to help address historic environmental and climate injustices. “The population of Oakland has received very different levels of service from their government over time,” he said. “Climate change offers a valuable tool for helping to address some of those inequities”—like West Oakland, where three highways, a wastewater treatment plant, and the country’s fifth largest port were all built in a historically black neighborhood.
“Your proposals are not just about sea level rise but about integrated access to food, transportation, and affordable housing.”
For Hamilton, Y-PLAN represents a way to hear directly from communities outside the narrow cross section of people who often come to public meetings. And the summit offered more confirmation of what, for him, was already a firmly held belief: that listening to kids’ perspectives is essential in this context because their imaginations have yet to be hampered by preconceived notions of how the world works. That’s important, he said, because he has a lot of ideas about how a resilient Oakland could look, but they are less important than the ideas of people who live there. Planting trees is one way to try to make a place more walkable, for example, “but maybe it’s actually about gun violence, and regardless they’re not going to walk on those streets until we work on security,” he said. “So we can say, ‘Okay, what would the climate-focused version of that look like?’”
After a long day at Alumni House, full of presentations and feedback, UC Berkeley Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Charisma Acey gave a few closing remarks. “Your proposals are not just about sea level rise but about integrated access to food, transportation, and affordable housing,” she said, addressing the students with pride. “Never let anyone tell you, ‘It’s good you’re talking about social justice, but we’re talking about sustainability.’ No: that fight is at the center of sustainability.”