Living in neighborhoods where our health and safety aren’t at risk is an incredible privilege. Urban planning is an essential part of ensuring this is possible, combining various disciplines like architecture, engineering, public health, and economics to meet the needs of our communities. Urban planners give us opportunities to breathe clean air, and access nutritious and affordable grocery stores. They help cities thrive, striving to create an equitable future for every resident.
At the Mission Society, we’ve found that it’s vitally important to introduce these ideas to our students. Many of them come from under-resourced areas that have had to endure unjust practices – such as the building of disruptive highways through Black and brown communities and disproportionate COVID-19 exposure due to forced, crowded living conditions. This inequity and the knowledge that students have the power to make change were the catalysts for our Youth Urban Leadership Program.
For the past four years, students have completed innovative projects, identifying and addressing urban planning issues in their own neighborhoods. Led by NYC Parks Department senior planner and APA Diversity Committee volunteer Nate Heffron, the young urban planners have carried out research, engaged with community members and stakeholders, and prepared in-depth presentations memorializing their hard work.
This year, students are coming up with solutions for excess litter in East Harlem, designing a prototype for a larger waste container. The anticipated result is that more litter will be kept off the streets, which will create living conditions that are physically and mentally healthier for residents. Through the project, our participants had opportunities to meet urban planning professionals, many of whom come from similar backgrounds, to help them better envision being involved in the field. They also developed soft skills such as project management, time management, good communication, and teamwork. Finally, students are financially compensated for their efforts, demonstrating the value of their voices and visions for the future.
The Youth Urban Leadership Program has been instrumental in inspiring young people, showing them their unlimited potential, and giving them an understanding that they can make invaluable change in their cities. We watch our students grow, year after year, gaining confidence as they network, share their findings, and cultivate a new-found passion for urban planning and architecture. We can't wait to see how the program continues to evolve well into the future.
Thank you to the educators and staff at ELLIS Preparatory Academy, our partners at the American Planning Association, and every individual who has mentored our students through the fellowship. We are so grateful for your time and support, and for making this invaluable opportunity possible.