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Lancaster Gives Teens a Voice in Local Government

The City of Lancaster won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

As a family-oriented community, the City of Lancaster offers a wide variety of opportunities for children, from Head Start programs and preschools to after-school enrichment centers and thriving sports and arts programs. However, teenagers -- a significant segment of any community -- were getting lost in the shuffle of community programs.

 

A number of Lancaster city departments are working together to alleviate this problem. Lancaster is one of the fastest growing cities in California, and this growth has exerted tremendous pressure on its infrastructure in recent years. In 2005, the city made long-range planning a priority. Part of this effort focused on involving teens in local government, providing them with the opportunity to become more engaged in the community and giving them a voice in the policy-making process to help shape their city’s future.

Creating Opportunities for Participation

In 2006 and 2007, Lancaster’s long-range planning included a review of its General Plan and Parks, Recreation and Arts Master Plan. The city also created guiding principles for a revitalization project to transform the downtown area. Lancaster then launched a branding campaign to provide an identity for the city. Because these endeavors would have a profound effect on Lancaster for decades to come, the city sought the input of residents of all ages. To give teens a voice in these processes, the city developed youth workshops, focus groups and design sessions.

The Planning Department hosted a visioning workshop called "It’s Your Neighborhood: Have a Voice in Its Future" to help incorporate the younger generation’s opinions into the General Plan. Through a variety of exercises and discussions, staff collected information from participating teens, including the city’s youth commissioners, and used it as part of the General Plan process.

The Downtown Revitalization Project provided an ideal opportunity for the city and its teen residents to participate in a mutually beneficial exchange. One of the project’s goals was to create a downtown area that would appeal to teens and young adults as well as older residents. Planners and staff wanted young people to perceive downtown as a fun place to gather, shop and dine. With this in mind, several city departments, including planning, housing, economic development and parks, recreation and arts, collaborated with the private consulting firm that spearheaded the revitalization project to create a process through which teens could articulate their vision for the area.

To make this happen, the Parks, Recreation and Arts Department transformed its annual Youth in Government program, which is typically used as a forum to teach students about local government and expose them to city leaders and staff. Instead, in 2007, project consultants met with Lancaster students and shared information with them about the downtown project, including its expected effects and how students’ input would be used. The teens learned the basics of this type of project, including important aspects such as mixed-use buildings and a pedestrian-friendly area. They also viewed a variety of images of other cities’ downtown areas.

Armed with this knowledge, the teens created their own visions of downtown Lancaster. This project gave participants a taste of what city planning is like and provided useful information to city planners on what appeals to this age group. Many of their ideas were incorporated into the General Plan. Teens affirmed that they would like to participate year-round in the program and learn additional aspects of leadership. They also expressed an interest in helping plan the events at the future teen center, showing a desire to take on a more active role in their community.

The brand development process constituted another important component of the city’s improvement efforts. This project created a slogan and identity that visitors, outside citizens and residents would connect with Lancaster. The city’s redevelopment agency launched this effort with the help of an outside consulting firm, which conducted extensive research to get a better understanding of how residents perceive the community. The consultants introduced the concept and process of creating a brand to the Youth in Government program and youth commission. The redevelopment agency director led participants through a series of candid questions to reveal how teens feel about Lancaster.

Participants echoed the thoughts of those involved in the downtown revitalization visioning workshop; they would like to
see more teen-focused activities and additional opportunities for civic involvement. Ninety percent stated that they would take more interest in city functions and activities if they knew what was available. They also affirmed that the Internet is the best avenue for communicating with youth. As a result, Lancaster launched a MySpace page for youth at www.myspace.com/lancasterca.

Lancaster ’s effort to connect with its teen citizens is proving effective. Surveys indicate that 98 percent of youth participants better understand local government and how to practice good citizenship. As one teen said, "I enjoyed participating by giving my opinion on a project, listening and believing that I could make a difference in the city."

Contact: Nicole Allen, interim communications manager, City of Lancaster; phone: (661) 723-6054; e-mail: nallen@cityoflancasterca.org.