Teenaged participants in an urban-design program run by Territory, a nonprofit that teaches urban design and architecture to mostly young people of color. Credit: Courtesy of Territory

This story was co-published with the Bronzeville-based civic journalism lab City Bureau.

On a chilly Saturday morning in November, a dozen teens packed into a repurposed storefront in Austin, a neighborhood in the city’s far west side. The storefront sits across from a stretch of Chicago Avenue that is peppered with vacant lots—sparse teeth in an otherwise toothless grin of long-lost buildings. Inside, the walls were covered with sketches, drawings, and layers of colorful sticky notes. Jacara Walker, 17, flipped through pages of peace circle sketches designed by the teens gathered in the room.

“People of Chicago Avenue will need peace circles, because it’s a way for us to see and acknowledge each other’s differences and minimize violence,” Walker said.

In a peace circle, participants sit facing one another and take turns speaking. The process can be used to build community, but also to respond to wrongdoing by allowing people to speak and listen to each other’s perspectives. It’s a space designed for healing and consensus, and one that these teens hope to build on Chicago Avenue. 

In the storefront, the teens were still deciding on which peace circle iteration they liked the most. Some of their sketches included chairs that swiveled; others included tables with sun shades and umbrellas, or crescent-shaped tables to accommodate wheelchair users. Their choices, they were told, could be incorporated into Austin’s Chicago Avenue commercial corridor plan.

Walker and the other teenagers are part of a program run by Territory, a nonprofit that teaches urban design and architecture to mostly young people of color. Teens are rarely included in the design of their communities and are often discouraged from congregating outside. Territory wants to change that. The students in their program meet after school and on weekends to study and imagine their own urban interventions that can create safe and welcoming spaces for communities. 

In past years, Territory teens have helped build and install their designs along busy pedestrian thoroughfares, including an outdoor seating space in Albany Park. Students have also organized walking tours, created zines, and facilitated “conversation spaces” for outdoor gathering and story sharing. 

The peace circle in Austin is part of a project to revamp the 1.5-mile stretch of Chicago Avenue between Austin and Cicero that will be rebranded as the “Soul City Corridor.” The proposed upgrades include wider sidewalks, new lighting, and street furniture, which is where the peace circle comes into play. The revamp is part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $750 million Invest South/West initiative, which launched in 2019 to revitalize commercial corridors in ten community areas in Chicago’s south and west sides. If their plan is adopted, it would be the most prominent project to date for the young designers and could serve as a springboard for other urban planners to include youth voices.

Territory founder and executive director Helen Slade said her organization was invited by architect Lesley Roth, who is principal at the architecture firm Lamar Johnson Collaborative and a Territory board member, to be part of the firm’s proposal for the Austin corridor. In 2020, Territory teens participated in the city’s Western Avenue corridor study and both Slade and Roth realized the teens’ strengths in urban design. “It was sort of apparent that we had this set of teens who had the ability to organize and orchestrate projects,” Slade said. 

It wasn’t an easy sell to the city. 

“We had to have a conversation with CDOT about why it was important to include teens in the design process. And it was sort of like everyone was a little not sure whether, like, do we want to invest this extra money into the design process?” Slade said. But the conversation paid off. “I think that was part of what made our application more competitive.” 

Over the past year, the Territory teens have been organizing community information events for Austin residents, creating asset maps, and collecting data. After months of listening and analysis, Territory youth realized they were the leaders in a project that could benefit all Austin residents. Instead of following the adults, the teen designers turned to their own intuition and inspirations.

Their proposal for Chicago Avenue is titled “Sit/Stand/Strut” and includes three design and programming elements meant to uplift Austin youth. “Sit” emerged from studying peace circles as a method of creating safe spaces. 

Youth discuss design ideas at a Territory workshop. Credit: Courtesy of Territory

“Just acknowledging that a lot of people don’t feel safe in public spaces in Austin, especially teenagers—grounding our whole approach with that set us off on the right path,said Isobel Araujo, Territory program manager. 

“Stand” emerged from the teens’ entrepreneurship: they devised sheltered, outdoor pop-up markets for young people and community members to sell artwork, clothing, and other handmade goods. And “Strut” speaks to what Araujo called the teens’ “stylishness.” The students are designing a temporary, mobile catwalk that would take over the sidewalk for fashion shows.

“Self-expression is a huge thing in our Territory programs, so we talked about catwalks and fashion shows as another concept,” continued Araujo. “Out of that, we built the Sit/Stand/Strut concept, because all of these activities have to do with different pedestrian modalities.”

Araujo said adults are often reluctant to accept ideas presented by young folks, which tend toward wild, out-of-the box concepts and activities. “When you’re a teen, you’re not fully limited by the adult world yet; your ideas for public space can be super cool and crazy. And sometimes people aren’t ready for it,” she said. “A public peace circle is pretty crazy, but pretty cool.”

In March, the teens unveiled “Sit/Stand/Strut” to the community, said Slade, adding that the public peace circle was “positively received” by Austin residents. In coming months, they will prototype their ideas on different sites along Chicago Avenue. But the experience left the teens thinking about the broader vision for their community.

Miracle Felters, 18, envisions youth-welcoming businesses like a pizza spot and cafe, where young people would be welcome to eat and linger.

“Like a little dining place we can go in, with nice little lounge chairs; and we can come here and talk amongst ourselves, do our work,” she said. 

Theandrea Taylor, 16, chimed in with her vintage twist on that idea: “Places for us could be like an arcade cafe.”

They also want public development that invests in the neighborhood’s assets—“building on things that are not completely broken but just need a little push,” Taylor said. Students discussed revitalizing the neighborhood’s iconic Pink House, a historic mansion painted pink that has fallen into disrepair. Another idea: giving homeowners financial assistance to fix up homes, which would in turn attract new residents to the area. 

And their list kept growing. Some suggested the community needed more colors, such as painted facades and murals. It also needed beautified parks, with dog areas and trails. These changes should happen not just to improve the neighborhood aesthetics or activities, but to improve safety, they said.

“You don’t see [adults] outside. . . . They have to go to work. We be outside; we need to worry about our safety. There should be young people involved because we’re basically the future of Austin,” Taylor said. “As young kids, we see things that need to be improved in Austin. The people that’s already here is telling you, like, basically what’s old, and what needs to be rebuilt. We’re going to tell you what’s old, and what’s new that we neeed to rebuild on.”

Asserting their “right to the city”—a phrase used by scholars to describe a co-creation process to reclaim and transform urban spaces—is no small feat for youth. Children, especially teenagers, are relegated to a few sanctioned spaces like playgrounds, schools, and their homes. But public spaces for youth are sparse. In “The Routledge Handbook of Designing Public Spaces for Young People,” Juan Torres, a professor at the School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Montreal, says streetscapes are vital public spaces for all community members, and designing the right-of-way with children as collaborators can provide better access and safety for everyone, while also helping young people develop crucial skills like decision-making and leadership—and their sense of autonomy (cultivating the common view that children are “future stakeholders”) as well as a sense of community belonging.  

Territory’s long game is to infuse teen participation into normal city planning processes. “The big view is that if Territory keeps doing this, eventually, the youth voice is going to be a part of everything,” said Slade, the nonprofit’s co-founder and executive director. Rarely are teenagers present at community development meetings; they are not a naturally-occuring voice in planning processes. Incorporating space for those voices requires targeted outreach and patience, said Slade. Those are traits that adult residents and adult city planners are not known for.

“You have to move at the speed of teens,” she said. “And you have to move at the speed where teens feel trusted and heard. And that’s different from, ‘We want to get this community meeting done; we want to have your input, we want to move on.’”

City Bureau civic reporting fellows David Boykin and Camille Powell contributed to this report.

This story was produced by City Bureau, a Bronzeville-based civic journalism lab. For more information and to get involved, go to citybureau.org.

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