Shaping the city of your dreams

7 June 2022

In the city of their dreams, citizens feel they belong and live freely without discrimination. Democracy is getting stronger, adding young people’s voices and climate and social justice. Citizens enjoy universal accessibility and inclusive public services for all. The city combines economic and technological development with sustainable growth. 

On the other hand, the city citizens’ fear comprises the opposite — social and geographical segregation, right-wing extremism and citizens dealing with the detrimental effects of climate change. The city’s essence is lost to massive corporations and excessive urbanisation. The purchasing power is low, and quality professional opportunities are hard to find. 

What type of city are decision-makers handing over to the next generations? Who are committed to a better future? 

When the mentors become mentees  

To work towards an inclusive future city, “it’s imperative to gather all different perspectives from society like younger people, who are excluded from the processes, to raise the voice and find solutions,” says Tchadarou Abdoul, a young citizen from Hannover. 

However, “the voice of youth is often underestimated and too quickly dismissed as childish folly,” points Anna Horstmann from Angers. “It’s one thing for young people to speak out, but it’s another for adults to listen.” 

The truth is young citizens have much to say about the city of their dreams, but they lack channels to make themselves heard. Due to their proximity, local administrations are the most suitable for setting up dialogues between youth and decision-makers.  

“Cities’ role is to take care of its citizens,” says Velma Pohjonen from Espoo. “That’s why we have schools and hospitals. Cities take care of the youth by ensuring them a future.”

Eurocities and its members are committed to bridging the gap between policymakers and the youth through the Future Mentors Programme. Thanks to a reverse mentoring methodology, the youngsters above and other participants from different European cities shared ideas and concerns with their city leaders about urban environment and the challenges of their generation. 

Indeed, Eurocities have a unique opportunity to bring together municipalities, young citizens, and leaders in Europe to dream, act and lead together. Starting tomorrow, the future of cities will be discussed at the Eurocities Annual Conference, where a spokesperson for the Future Mentors Programme will present their recommendations.

Tchadarou Abdoul from Hannover 

Tchadarou and the other mentors from the German city -Francisca Janknecht, Moritz Rüter and Svenja Wermter-, held several meetings with the mayor Belit Onay. “We were working together to set a better future,” Tchadarou states. 

Mentors Moritz Rüter, Tchadarou Abdoul, Svenja Wermter and Francisca Janknecht with the mayor of Hannover Belit Onay

The student highlights the mayor’s interest, the optimism and the common ground of understanding they all seemed to share towards the city of their dreams.  

“I noted that, even if we in Hannover already have good practices and initiatives, young people had still a lot of expectations regarding youth participation,” the mayor Belit Onay says. “Young people wish to be empowered and actively contribute to their city’s development with concrete solutions. They know best the needs and expectations of their generation,” he adds. 

Active contribution starts with youth participation and political engagement. But how to reach out to the youth and catch their interest? 

To lower the threshold of young involvement, the team of mentors suggested using their most-visited channels: digital platforms. The youngsters introduced both a city-wide app as an interface with all municipal services and an online form to gather proposals from those with exciting ideas for Hannover. 

For example, much can be progressed regarding sustainability, participants say. According to Tchadarou, public transport is “pretty good in Hannover, but it should be made affordable” for all.

Moreover, sustainability was addressed as a much broader topic by discussing food. The mentors proposed integrating more sustainable food options into students’ menus, such as vegetarian diets or other nutritional alternatives. 

Anna Horstmann from Angers 

Before Anna met Benoit Pilet, Deputy Mayor for International Affairs in Angers, she developed a questionnaire to maximise the number of youngsters’ opinions, expectations, questions, fears and ideas to be covered in the dialogues. 

The results were compared with Pilet’s fears, visions and dreams. “The commitment of many young people today is outstanding, compared with the awareness of my generation at the same age, especially on climate change,” highlights the deputy mayor Benoit Pilet. He adds that having youth’s support is very encouraging given “the enormous effort that lies ahead.” 

“What emerged from the [first] conversation was that it takes courage and risks to make a change,” Anna explains. “High aspirations are good, but there should also be a touch of realism when putting the desired changes into practice.” 

After that meeting, the mentor worked with a group of youngsters from an underprivileged neighbourhood. All together gathered the main points to discuss with the mayor and, given the high motivation and interest in the local politics, six boys between 18 and 22 years old joined her for the second session. 

Discussion session with Benoit Pilet, Deputy Mayor for International Affairs in Angers

“We discussed the city becoming car-free, citizen energy and sustainability as a focus in schools,” she explains. More concretely, they proposed expanding public transport and improving the riding system by securing Angers’ cycling paths and extending the municipal service of free bikes for adults to younger groups. 

Regarding citizen energy, the mentors called for identifying roofs to install solar panels and discussed how to subsidise it. By using solar energy, residents can become self-sufficient and even sell the remnant to public services such as e-buses.

Adapting to environmentally friendly methods may require setting up an ecological mindset at an early age. In that sense, mentors also suggested including related content at primary school as well as a subject on sustainable development at higher educational levels.

Jose Mendes from Guimarães 

The mentors to Adelina Pinto, vice-Mayor of Guimarães, came up with a similar suggestion.

José Mendes, one of the mentors, explains they want to “implement a non-evaluation subject of politics, finances and environment debates in high schools so that young adults are up to date on worldwide matters.” 

A flipchart with the mentors’ ideas. Photo by Guimaraes City Council

The mentors (Alice Abreu, Catarina Leite, Joana Freitas, Luis Pliteiro and José) maintain that, after having the knowledge, youngsters could vote online from schools when talking about initiatives that will affect them. Sustainability is certainly one of those.

“Most cities tend to prioritise building large domestic habitation and business-related buildings, such as chain supermarkets,” says José. “Despite being reasonable for development, most of these structures destroy the landscape and natural habitats.” 

To avoid those outcomes, protect cultural patrimony and preserve Guimarães’ identity, the mentors suggested the implementation of public building enterprises and the reuse of abandoned buildings.

Ideally, this could be implemented along with policies that limit the waterproofing of soils and incentivise green habitation and home and vegetable gardens, mentors add. They also proposed the creation of more green spaces, such as urban orchards, that are environmentally friendly and can help to eradicate hunger.

The interest of the mentors in Guimarães’ concerns amazed vice-mayor Adelina Pinto, who underlines “the willingness to present solutions, and the way they analyse our challenges and give simple and uncomplicated solutions!”

The mentors in a brainstorming session. Photo by Guimaraes City Council

Indeed, youngsters went the extra mile in pinpointing efficient resolutions. For instance, they suggested ideas to monitor the domestic waste recycling effectiveness, such as awareness campaigns, including rewards and benefits to those who achieve pre-set goals. 

The truth is that Guimarães counts already on participation at early ages, whether in school, associative or social contexts. “We develop activities that promote the involvement of children and young people,” says the vice-mayor. “For example, we have a Participatory Budget in schools and a Young Eco-Parliament which listens to young people. We also have a collaborative laboratory, ProChild, with a single axis for children’s participation,” Pinto adds.

Aleksandra Sroka from Poznan 

“The Future Mentors Programme gives young people the opportunity of being heard. The voice of adolescents is always useful for the authorities. That’s why it is so important to participate,” says Aleksandra Sroka, one of the mentors from Poznan. 

Mayor of Poznan Jacek Jaśkowiak gave mentors Stanislaw Bialka, Bartosz Bilski, Tomasz Poprawski, and Aleksandra Sroka a hoodie with the slogan of the city ‘Free Poznań City’

Jacek Jaśkowiak, mayor of Poznan, agrees with his mentor. “One of the basic rules of city management [is] if you want to change the city effectively for the sake of its inhabitants, you first have to find out what [youth] want,” he says. The mayor emphasises the invaluable first-hand knowledge of this initiative, adding that “young people are as important citizens as their parents or grandparents.”

Jaśkowiak met with Stanislaw Bialka, Bartosz Bilski, Tomasz Poprawski, and Aleksandra, who are all members of Poznań Youth City Council.

The group identified up to 15 fields of action as a start point toward the city of their dreams. A noteworthy imperative topic was poor access to mental health professionals since the number of young patients does not stop increasing. As a systemic problem, the city engagement can be limited, but Aleksandra suggested the involvement of the new student ombudsman. 

The ombudsman is a figure created by the Poznań Youth City Council to protect students’ rights. This young person will also instruct the educational community on students’ law since rights knowledge was found insufficient in Poland. 

According to the mayor of Poznan, the youth “looks at global events in a broader context.” For example, they are aware of “the gravity of climate change, and they know the fight against it should be a priority.” That’s why the concept of a sustainable city could not be missed in their second session.

For the mentors, sustainability includes green areas within the city, biodiversity preservation, and the fight against climate change, without forgetting “schools and issues connected with education, sports infrastructure and institutional grants,” Aleksandra concludes. 

Second mentoring session. Photo by mentors programme Poznan

Velma Pohjonen from Espoo  

Sustainability “should be taken seriously,” says Velma Pohjonen, who met the Mayor of Espoo Jukka Mäkelä. “If every city does its part, we can get pretty far,” she adds. 

Certainly, sustainability is one of the top concerns for all mentors. The ones from Espoo have a strong opinion on the matter. “We, youth and children, are the ones that will have to live this crisis the longest,” Velma remarks. “Additionally, we’re vulnerable since we cannot make the decisions, but we’ll have to live with them.” 

According to the student, Espoo can be proud of its sustainable system based on its excellent recycling procedure, extensive green areas, and good public transport. However, each city might face a variety of challenges that make them save energy differently, she says.  

“We must warm our houses during the cold and long winter,” Velma adds. “In Madrid, they may not have such a great recycling system, but they probably don’t have to warm their houses that much and the footprint is lower,” she explains. 

Velma calls for leaders to listen to the scientists when warning about the horrendous effects of climate change. “We know that we must stop using fossil fuels and take care of our nature. We must make easier use the public transport or a bike rather than cars. We know all this. Now we need to be brave in making the changes.” 

To be continued 

For Velma, the message from the youth is this is a severe crisis put off for many decades. “This is affecting our future, which scares us the most,” she concludes.  

To continue to work on the city of the future, the mentors of Hannover handed over a list of concrete proposals to the mayor based on the two sessions. They also suggested a meeting with Onay in one year as a follow-up.

Tchadarou, Anna, José and Aleksandra are travelling to Espoo. Tchadarou is excited to exchange ideas with other mentors in person and network with other cities. “We can shape a better world together,” he says. “Some problems are global, so you cannot work on your own to solve them.” 

The programme will wrap up with extra sessions where mentors will get to know fellow participants from other European cities and exchange challenges, ideas and remarks of their discussions with the local representatives. The youngsters will participate in group discussions on the city of the future and work together on concrete recommendations to include the European youth on the local level. 

José expects to hear from other mentors ideas to implement back home. “We must absorb everything we can to move forward into a sustainable evolution where the new world has fewer grey and more green cities,” he says. 

“For me, taking part in this project was unique. When do you ever have the opportunity to talk to a local politician in person and at eye level?” adds Anna from Angers. “I learned that it only takes a few creative minds with innovative ideas to initiate change.” 

Political discussions should incorporate young participation that helps prevent global threats’ harmful effects. The mentors’ programme comes as an opportunity for youth inclusion in local decision-making, where they can bring fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and claims.  

“We should remember in a few years how important it is for us to be listened to and make it easier for future generations to be heard and taken seriously,” Anna adds. 

We have already started with the local level.