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How Important is Youth Civic Engagement in a City?

Toronto is ranked the #1 Youthful City of 2014 out of twenty-five of the world's largest cities. Decode, a firm that analyzes young person consumer behavior and interests, conceptualized YouthfulCities.

YouthfulCities is an initiative to, eventually, determine the top 100 cities for youth. It has compared five cities from each region – USA & Canada, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia – from a youth perspective. YouthfulCities scored 80 indicators and weighed each category to determine the overall ranking. As the age of youth varies by region, generally ages 15-24 in Europe and North America and ages 15-34 elsewhere, YouthfulCities defined youth as 15-29 years old.

YouthfulCities Rankings 2014

YouthfulCities envisions being the go-to resource for all things youthful and urban. Youth add vibrancy, innovation, tech-savviness, and connectness to cities, thus cities need to attract and retain them. Urban planners can learn from YouthfulCities' data to improve cities; businesses can learn to tailor their business to the youthful demographic; and youth can compare their city to others in which they might want to live, work, and play. 

Seeing Toronto at the top of the list is exciting; however, I was somewhat surprised, especially given the title of the report: Better Cities Built by Youth.

Toronto's Youth are active in the city as entrepreneurs, event organizers, and artists, but civic engagement is poor. Voter turnout for people aged 18-29 is lower than all other age groups. How can we help build the city if we're not politically engaged?

"We need civic engagement in order to carve out the city and future," said Alan Broadbent, founder of the Maytree Foundation, to the audience at the inaugural YouthfulCities Canadian launch. "It's your world and you have to figure out how to live in it." But even at this event, where you'd expect a younger crowd, most of the audience was over thirty.

Fittingly, Toronto ranked 23rd in Civic Engagement. Berlin (2nd overall) was 24th. In fact, in the top 13, New York City (3rd overall) is the only city in a developed country at 8th. Mexico, Lima, and Sao Paolo are the top three most engaged.

Panel at the YouthfulCities Canadian Launch, Toronto

The research was undertaken with care, but the category weightings leave me wondering whether North American values unintentionally underlie the results, as Decode is based in Toronto. John McDermott of the Financial Times notes in his analysis of the rankings that the youth surveyed in these rankings is not a representative sample. Despite reaching out to youth at the World Urban Forum, some bias in what should concern youth might remain, such as an established strong economy seeming more important than civic engagement, arts and culture.

Western cities were largely built by older generations. As planners, designers, and engineers, we may want to better the city for youth and future generations, but resistance to change is high and political sway matters. Without civic engagement to alter the current situation, the aspects of cities that have been highly weighed in this ranking – affordability, public transit, safety, diversity and acceptance, and environmental sustainability – will experience limited improvement.

Although Toronto tops the list as the most youthful city, the "win" in years to come will be an improvement in civic engagement.

What surprises you in the YouthfulCities rankings? Do you think the relative weightings are correct or should be reordered?

Credits: Photograph by Lindsay Vanstone. Data and graphic linked to sources.