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How can the built environment attract new young architects?

Birmingham City Council’s Young Persons Design Council is one way to engage young people in design, planning and development.

30 May 2024

Andrew Fuller heads up design-related teams within Birmingham City Council’s Planning and Development Team. He had often asked why the city’s planning dialogue was limited almost exclusively to older generations, even though Birmingham lays claim to being Europe’s youngest city where 40% of the population are under 25. The voice of the next generation was limited as far as planning and the wider built environment was concerned.

That question led to a discussion with RIBA West Midlands about how to engage this cohort more successfully, and soon the Birmingham Young Person's Design Council was born.

Now, after a successful year, the council is seen as an exemplar project that inspires pre-A Level children and introduces them to different elements of the built environment, from architecture and planning through to developer level.

The Young Person's Design Council works with young people in the city, understand where they are coming from, and how they want Birmingham to change. (Photo: Birmingham City Council)

What happens on visits to built environment practices and companies?

“We thought we should have the ability to work with young people in the city, understand where they are coming from and how they want to see Birmingham change in the future,” Andrew says.

The new city council-RIBA alliance set about asking a group of 11 to 17-year olds to come along to a series of open days. This group was from all parts of the city and a range of backgrounds. Organised with the support of the council’s youth services and Youth City Board.

The first outing was to Howells Architects, where the group was introduced to master planning and some of the concepts of urban design. They were also encouraged to give their views on the city’s best-known landmarks, and were then tasked to work in teams to ‘build’ their own structures. However, in this case supply chain materials were spaghetti and marshmallows.

The travelling forum has visited sites of interest and local firms and organisations that city planners have a working relationship with. At each host organisation, a different topic has been explored, such as repurposing historic buildings at Cordia Homes, new development in historic areas with developer Oval Estates, and collaborations with artists at Eastside Projects.

The group will next meet at the University of Birmingham, where discussions will focus on safety and women in the built environment.

Read more about RIBA's Engagement Overlay to the Plan of Work.

A flexible approach to outcomes

Andrew says a decision was taken at the outset that the program should not be tied to particular outcomes. While it is taking place under the banner of RIBA, it has not been presented as a recruitment drive for young architects and urban designers, though several forum members have announced this is now something they’d like to explore since taking part.

Although the initiative is more exploratory and is expected to have a fluid agenda moving forward, it works both ways. Andrew says hearing the views of young people on the development issues facing Birmingham, and tapping into their passion and creativity, has been genuinely rewarding for the professionals involved.

What has impressed him most is just how capable the young attendees are in quizzing built environment professionals about their design decisions. Especially now they realise that they have a voice and that the professionals really want to hear from them, and how passionate that tends to make them.

One of the high points for the group over this first year was when five of them were invited to RIBA West Midlands Awards ceremony. One young member of the council was subsequently invited to join the judging panel – surely the youngest person to ever sit on a RIBA Awards panel.

Events to come include a visit to London this summer to meet Metropolitan Workshop and a tour of the emerging area redevelopment Elephant Park, hosted by developer Lendlease, who is also the developer of Birmingham’s Smithfield.

The design council’s first year will end with a presentation by its young attendees to elected members in Birmingham’s council chamber on what they would like to see happening in the city. Andrew says this will give them exposure to the political side of the built environment.

Two teenagers discuss design and the built environment during one of the council's away days. (Photo: Birmingham City Council)

What's next for the Young Person's Design Council?

The make-up of the council is not fixed - attendees are encouraged to invite other interested young people to come along to discussions and visits. In fact, Fuller hopes that some members of this year’s group will stay on to help steer the council’s future direction, because the whole idea is that young people are given the opportunity to help shape the city.

Going forward, the agenda could include sustainability, safety, conservation and preserving design landmarks or strategic planning for the bigger picture. It should be up to them.

Andrew also wonders whether he and this team have hit upon a model that could be rolled out in different parts of the country. He has no doubt that other cities have young people who would like their voices to be heard, and who might have their own passions awakened.

Thanks to Andrew Fuller, City Design Manager, Birmingham City Council.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Business, clients and services.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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