Standing on Their Own: The Parallel Rights of Young People to Participate in Planning Processes and Defend Those Rights

Author:Dawn Jourdan
Position:Assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida
Time Magazine recently featured an art icle abou t how
the decisions made by women during their pregnancies
could shape the rest of a child’s life .1 These de cisions
may lead to long-term issues like diab etes, obesity, and depen-
dency issues, among others.2 At the heart of the article is the
notion that paren ts, particular ly mothers, have a duty to take
good care of themselves and their deve loping fetuses to ensure
that their chances for improved health are increased. This duty
to make decisions that protect the health and well being of chil-
dren continues long after birth. Some of the most important deci-
sions pare nts make include where and ho w much to work and
where to live so that children will be safe and be able to attend
quality schools. Parents make these decisions for their children.
They do not usually consult them about these issues because it
is commonly held that such decisions are the parent or parents’
responsibility alone. Howe ver, the failure to consult children,
particularly about issues that affect their daily lives, may result
in long-term ha rm to the child as he or she matur es, as well
as negat ively affecting the well-being o f future genera tions to
which children are closely tied. A prime example of important
decisions from which youth are often excluded is where a family
will reside.
Over the last sixty years, many families in the United States
have sought to flee to suburbs for access to better lives.3 There is
evidence that such moves enhance quality of life; the schools are
of better quality and the children, for the most part, are safer in
these suburban communities.4 And y et, strong evidence shows
that the decision to suburbanize has contributed to a number of
endemic problems that affect the lives of children, including
childhood obesity and social alienation.5 The lack of walkabil-
ity in suburban areas has c ontributed to a decli ne in the physi-
cal health of U.S. ch ildren.6 Eviden ce also demonstrates that
the suburb an lifestyle has resulted in the creation of a genera-
tion of young people who are “alienated from community” and
“disengaged from democracy.”7 Youth continue to express an
unparalleled level of political indifference.8 According to Robert
Putman, today’s youth are less interested in community issues or
political causes than previous generations.9 This lack of interest
should be considered at least as troubling as the rise in juvenile
diabetes and obesity rates.
Policymake rs are starting to take thes e issues very seri-
ously; for ins tance, cities have begun to adopt child-friendly
policies.10 A t their core, all of these policies seek to “save the
children” or “defend their rights,” both admirable goals.11 Yet,
these policies fail because policymakers commonly assume that
they know what is best for children.12 Many of these efforts do
not recognize that children and youth possess their own level of
competency about what is in their best interest.13 Some scholars
and youth advocates believe that cities will not truly be child-
friendly until they view youth as competent citizens with goo d
ideas ab out community form and invite them to plan for their
own current and future well-being.14
This article seeks to connect a host of interdisciplinary theo-
ries p ertaining to sustainability, yout h participation, and legal
standing. The centerp iece of this article is a case study of an
intergenerational planning activity that occurred at the McDan-
iel Glenn public housing complex in Atlanta, Georgia between
2002 and 2003. The article then describes the threshold require-
ments for citizens, in this case children, who seek to challenge
the decisions of policymakers who ignore their rights as spec i-
fied by law. Finally, the author explores the ethical implications
associated with granting the right of court access to young peo-
ple in the context of participation in governance.
In her book, In Fairness to Future Gene rations, Edith
Brown Weiss defines the concept of intergenerational equity:
We, as a species, hold the n atural and cultural envi-
ronment of our planet in common, both with other
members of the present generation and with other gen-
erations, past and future. At any given time, each gen-
eration is both a custodia n or trustee o f the planet f or
future gene rations and a beneficiary of its fruits. This
imposes obligations upon us to care for the planet and
gives us certain rights to use it.15
These obligations include the duty to pass the earth on in the
condition upon which the generation received it and also the duty
to repair any damage caused by previous generations.16 Accord-
ing to the author, humans should behave in this manner because
of “the realization that is essential to the health and well-being
of even the present generation to know that our species . . . will
by Dawn Jourdan*
* Dawn Jourdan is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the
University of Florida. She holds a joint appointment with the Levin College of
Law. Dr. Jourdan t eaches courses i n: land use law, affordable housing, and
growth management . Dr. Jourd an researches and advocates for th e develop-
ment of planning processes that are child-friendly.
FALL 2010 42
exist beyond our own lifetime.”17 Beyond altruism, Weiss sug-
gests that intergenerationa l equity should be pursued on the
basis of ecocentrism.18 This philosophy embraces the notion that
the environment has inherent value. From this perspective, inter-
generational equity is important because “the human community
is, in the end, only part of a much larger natural system . . . .”19
The ques tion which drive s the notion of intergenerationa l
equity—i.e., why we should care about future generations—may
have an answ er in biology.20 Based on Darwinist principles,
the present generation is concer ned about future generations
because individual s are genetically pre disposed to do anythi ng
necessary to produce as many offspring as possible.21 The level
of care humans exert toward others v aries a ccording to our
genetic relationships.22
Urban planne rs ar e am ongst the ranks of professionals
stressing the need for sustainable development practices for the
sake of th e preserv ation of intergenera tional int erests. S ome
planners and policymaker s take on a patern alistic perspectiv e
and use th eir train ing to plan for fut ure gener ations, in clud-
ing chil dren who have not yet obtained legal rights to part ici-
pate.23 Simultaneously, others have embraced the opportunity to
encourage chil dren to participate in planning processes so that
they may represent their interests and, perhaps, those of future
generations to come.24 While the primary goal is the same, i.e.
intergenerational equity, the end result may be different. History
has demonstrated that when communities plan for children, they
plan wi th the fundam ental goal of keeping child ren safe from
harm.25 In the urban context, planning for the safety of children
has le d to the development of gated suburban-style neigh bor-
hoods and the development of school campuses outside the
neighborhood boundaries.26 Arguably, these suburban features
enhance the safety of children because children l iving in these
environment s lack the freedom t o independe ntly explo re the
natural and built environment. Nevertheless, neither the style of
land development, nor the isolation experienced by youth is sus-
tainable.27 A great deal of planning scholarship substantiates the
lack of social and environmental sustainability of suburban land
development patterns.28 The sol ution to the probl ems associ-
ated with urban sprawl lies partly in identifying and constructing
more sensitive forms of development. This type of development
is more likely to emerge from planning processes which involve
children and youth in the planning process, helping to prepar e
them to be lifetime stewards of the environment.
The 2005 American Institute of Certified Planners (“AICP”)
Code of Ethics and Professional Cond uct g overns planning
practice in the United States.29 That Code mandates: “Planners
shall give people the oppor tunity to have a meaningful impact
on the development of plans and programs that may affect
them. Participation should be broad enough to i nclude those
who lack formal organization or influence.”30 This sect ion of
the Code seeks to be inclusive o f disenfranchised groups who
have not always found the planning process to be welcoming,
which include the poor, the homeless, the disabled, and others.
Some sch olars claim that young people are entitled to partici-
pate because of their lack of influence on policymaking.31 While
there has always been an assumption in both planning and legal
practice that t he needs of children are best represented by their
adult counterpart s, plan ning di scourse, in par ticular, reveals
those areas where those n eeds do not a lign. Parents’ decision s
about where to live and planning decisions concerning where to
encourage development often limit the mobility of children and
their ability to walk to school, the park, friends’ hou ses, or the
grocery sto re, if any o f these non-residentia l facilities are per-
mitted in the suburban neighborhood.32 Generally, adults appear
to be happy raising their children in suburban residential areas.33
However, it is questionable whether the youth consid er these
desirable places to live.34
While some might contend that children and yout h do not
have the knowledge or maturity to answer this question, others
have sought to gain insight from the youth perspective for more
than forty years. Urban designer Kevin Lynch began to explore
the role of the child’s exp erience of the built and natural envi-
ronment in the 1970s.35 Lynch organized teams of researchers in
Argentina, Australia, Mexico, and Poland “to help document the
human costs and benefits o f economic development , by show-
ing how the child’s us e and perception of the resulting micro-
environment affects his life.”36 Based on these efforts, Lync h
impressed upon the plannin g and design community that chil-
dren, even at very young ages, have a great deal of knowledge
about the planned and unplanned areas of their built and natural
environments.37 Lynch advocated for the inclusion of the child
in the planning process,38 reflecting a departure from paternalis-
tic planning practices prior to the 1970s.
Lynch’s ideas were not fully embraced by the planning com-
munities in the 1970s.39 Recently, sustainability advocates have
revived Lynch’s call for youth participation.40 The principles of
sustainable development require that environmental, social, and
economic goals meet the needs of the present generation without
compromising the necessities of future generations.41
The concern for children’s rights within the sust ainable
development movement parallels de velopments made in s ub-
stantiating the legal rights of children worldwide. International
legal scho lars have been advocating for the rights of the child
since the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration of
the Rights of the Child in 1924.42 Subsequently, childr en were
given the right “to special care and assistance,” as a part of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights.43 The subject matter of
Lynch’s study corresponded with the United Nation’s declara-
tion of 1979 as the In ternational Year of the Child.44 The year
of the child led to the Conven tion of the Rights of the Child
(“CRC”) , w hich became effectiv e i n 1 990.45 Among other
important factors, the CRC identifies the well-being of children
as an indicator of sustainable development practices, which the
1990 World Summit for Children’s Plan for Action,46 the 1992
Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit’s Rio Declaration,47 and Agenda
21 action plan more fully develop.48 The Children’s Rights
and Ha bitat Declaration, which UNICEF presented at the UN
Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul in 1996, further
identifie d th is c onnection between child ren a nd s ustainable
development: “Children have a special interest in the creation of
sustainable human settlements that will support long and fulfill-
ing lives for themselves and future generations.”49 The Declara-
tion continue d, “[Children] require opportunities to participate
and contribute to a sustainable urban future.”50 Policymakers are
beginning to consider ways to bring children’s issues to the fore-
front.51 Some are even attempting to find ways to include them
in more traditional participatory processes.
The American Planning As sociation c atalogues m any of
these youth based planning activities in an on -line periodical
entitled ResourcesZine.52 These activities range from those that
are educational in nature to the actual involvement of young
people in decision-making processes.53 Research on these activ-
ities has provided the planning profession with invaluable infor-
mation about play patterns;54 access to local environments;55
preferred land use patterns;5 6 and empowermen t.57 Likewise ,
this research reveals that young people embrace the opportunity
to participate and are typically empowered by such efforts.58
The d egree to w hich planners consult children as partic i-
pants in the planning process is of utmost importance. While it
is commonly assumed that planners should invite citizens to par-
ticipate at the highest level of participation,59 the same level of
participation may not be required for obtaining invaluable youth
perspectives or ef fectuating empow erment.60 Plann ers should
design a program to maximize the ability of a child t o have a
choice to participate at the highest level of his or her abilit y.61
Decisions regarding the degree of youth participation should be
context dependent.62
The most empowering form of participation in the planning
process occurs when citizens initiate and control the process.63
This level of participation i s not a ppropriate for all decis ions
requiring community consultation. Citizen controlled and initi-
ated participat ion is effective when the citizenry has identified
an issue of great importance to them that they choose to cham-
pion rather than delegating directly to policymakers for solution.
Those who see k to create opportunities for youth to participate
in decision-making do not commonly advocate this type of par-
ticipation. However, given the right issue and a willing planner
to facilitate such processes, such activities may provide a unique
opportunity for a better understanding o f complex issue s with
intergenerational underpinnings while empowering participants.
The effo rts of the intergenerational pla nning committee at the
McDaniel Glenn public housing community in Atlanta, Georgia
provide a prime example of this type of participation.64
In 2003, the Atlanta Housing Au thority (“AHA”) initiated
efforts to o btain a HOPE VI65 grant for the rev italization of
the Mc Daniel Glenn public housing community.66 Li ke many
other public housing communities, McDaniel Glenn had become
a haven for concentra ted poverty a nd the social ills that often
accompany such disinvestment.67 As required by law, the AHA
commenced a series of public mee tings to garner resident sup-
port for a grant that, if received, would result in the displacement
of the residents as a result of the demolition of the public housing
complex.68 Attendance at the first meeting was high and included
residents of all ages, including community youth—even though
they had not been of ficially invited.69 When officials from the
AHA asked the audience what was wrong with their communi-
ties, hands across the room shot into the air, including the waiv-
ing hands of children who did not understand that their voices
are not often solicited as a part of such processes.70 While their
parents tried to hush them, the AHA official charged with orga-
nizing the participation process for the HOPE VI grant applica-
tion saw an invaluable opportunity to learn from and empowe r
children by allowing them to participate in the process.71 Sub-
sequently, the AHA fo rmed two separ ate committees: one for
youth and one for adults.72 These committees ran parallel to one
another.73 There were no original plans to merge them.74 How-
ever, du ring the proces s, the AHA official charged with orga-
nizing the participants came to value the insights shared by the
youth participants whose ages ranged fro m eight to eighteen.75
He arranged an event where the youth were allowed to present
their findings to their adult counterparts who greeted the ideas of
the young with great enthusiasm.76
As the application process progressed, the you th planning
group ceased to exist as an independent entity, but was not for-
mally disb anded.77 However, th e youth remained interested in
what was h appening with the developme nt of the HOPE VI
grant app lication and many of them began attending meetings
for the adult planning group.78 The y were never discou raged
from participating.79 They attended with regularity and many of
their ideas were embraced in t he final grant application , which
was funded by the United States Dep artment of Housing and
Urban De velopment in 20 04.80 The youth who participat ed in
this effort were proud of their work and empowered by the pro-
cess.81 They uniformly agreed that they would participate again
if invited to do so.82
This account provides good evidence that, if welcomed and
educated, yo uth can provide invaluable insights abo ut ways in
which de velopment activities might enhance their present and
future lives. However, unless properly educated about the poli-
tics associated with the planning process, young people may
become frustrated or disappointed by the outcomes of such plan-
ning activities. As planners and policy makers well know, even
the best plans are sometimes way-laid by politics. It is also pos-
sible tha t even when they are ado pted, these plans will not be
implemented as originally intended.
As a dults, we have come to underst and the nature of the
political process. We are less surprised when our input is not
included in final policy dec isions. When we are disappointed
by the outcomes of such processes, we are vested, by law, with
a number of rights to challeng e decisions made and those who
make them. We can elect other representatives when policymak-
ers do not listen to our ideas. We can run for office. We can
use the legal system to challenge policies that infringe upon our
rights. With very rare exception, young people, even those who
have parti cipated in plannin g processes, do not have t he same
rights. They must r ely on adult s to champion their challe nges
because the law, particularly land use and environmental regula-
tions, have not given them loci st anding to challenge decisions
FALL 2010 44
that may infringe upon their rights as well as the rights of future
The legal rights of child ren hav e evolve d as a res ult of
intern ational efforts to shed light on th eir un ique plight. A
divide co ntinues to exist within legal discourse about w hether
a c hild is a holde r of r ights tha t may have his or her wishes
represen ted in the legal process or is a legal entity requiring
guardianship to represent wh at is in his or her best i nterests.83
One perspectiv e proposes that the right to be hea rd and to have
some say in what happ ens to a per son is among the most fun-
damental of ri ghts.84 This perspective ho lds that the right to be
heard does not mean giving the child ultimate deci sion-making
power, but simply acknow ledging the importance of the child’s
Despite such arguments, the court system has been reluctant
to involve children in proceedings that directly affect them, like
parental placement.86 Instead, guardians are appointed to advo-
cate not necessarily for what the child wants but for that which
adults, including attorneys and judges, have deemed to be in the
child’s “bes t interests.”87 They act as parent s patriae, roughly
translated as “ wise, affectionate, and careful parent[s].”88 Even
the Supreme Court has ruled that children have diminished
rights under the Constitution and that such rights do not mature
until yo ung people reac h the age of majority.89 Advocates for
a more child-centered approach to legal representation call for
a shift in thinking, which presumes that children are capable in
helping attorneys prepare to represent the ir rights.90 The child-
centered approach to legal advocacy provides a necessary link to
the right of youth to participate in planning processes. As previ-
ously stated, even if youth are allowed to partici pate in pl an-
ning processes, these rights are permanently limited if courts are
unwilling to allow young participants legal standing to challenge
decisions made with respect to the adoption and implementation
of the plans they help craft.
The right of citizens to bring suits against local governments
to enforce decisions made as a part of the planning process var-
ies across jurisdictions and States. In Florida, for example, the
State mandates comprehensive planning activities.91 These plans
can only be modified after a formal public hear ing process.92
If dec isions regarding the implement ation or m odifications of
the plans do not reflect the public’s will, courts will likely void
these d ecisions on the grounds that they ar e inconsistent with
the comprehensive plan. The costs of ignoring these plans can
be high, as recently demonstrated in Pinecre st Lakes, Inc. v .
Shidel. There, the trial court in Florida invalidated an action of a
county planning commission, which permitted development that
was inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, and the Distri ct
Court of Appeals affirmed.93 The Court granted a remedy to the
citizen group consisting of the demol ition of a newly erected,
multi-mi llion dollar multi-fami ly ho using development that
was permitted without a zoning change, despite the fact that the
city had zoned the area for single-family development.94 While
these res ults are not commonplace, this case demonstrates the
importance of following the due process requirements attached
to the planning process.
To be able to challenge planning decisions un der the law
of th e United States, petitioners must have standing to do so.
Standing is a threshold that a litigant must c ross before pro-
ceeding with his or her legal claim.95 Many environmental laws
specify the requiremen ts for standing, which vary considerably
by regula tion. Consider, for example, the Endangered Specie s
Act (“ESA”).96 As drafted, the ESA gives “any person” the right
to enforce the law “on his own behalf.”97 However, in Lujan v.
Defenders of Wildlife, the United States Supreme Court limited
this right.98 The Court interpreted the ESA’s standing provision
to require that plaintiffs suffer an “actu al” injury.99 The Court
said that all ESA plaintiffs must meet an “irreducible constitu-
tional minimum of standing.”100 The constitutional minimum of
standing include s proof of an “injury in fact.”101 Generally, an
injury in fact occurs when the injury is “concrete and particu-
larized” and “actual or imminen t.”102 This may pro ve to be an
insurmountable obstacle for future generations, as their interests
are considered legally speculative.103 The second requirement of
standing is a causal link between the injury and the “challenged
action of the defe ndant.”104 Finally, to prevail on the i ssue of
standing, a plaintiff m ust show that his or her injury ca n be
“redressed by a favorable decision” of the courts.105
In Lujan, the Supreme Co urt ruled that the Defenders of
Wildlife ha d failed to satisfy the injury in fact requ irement.106
Even though two members of the organization had provided affi-
davits regarding past travels to Sri L anka and Egypt, the Court
held that their future plans to return were speculative at best and
therefore insuf ficient to amount to an actual and particularized
injury.107 The Court went further in limiting the “any person”
language o f the ESA to require that plaintiffs be current users
of affected areas with future plans to return.108 Under this inter-
pretation, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for children
and future generations to garner access to the courts to challenge
laws and decisions made based on these laws as a result of stand-
ing requirements that do not embra ce the principles of inter-
generational equity. The Lujan ruling dis criminates against the
“poor, the physically impaired, the young, and the unborn.”109
The implications of the Lujan decision are vastly important
to discussions regarding children’s rights and, more specifically,
their right to participate in planning processes. While it might be
possible for parents with chil dren to challenge decisions made
by po licymakers that fail to protect endang ered species if the
family has been to visit the place inhabite d by the specie s and
they intend to return, it would be difficult for a child who is not
yet able to travel on her own to challenge actions that may, in the
future, impact her ability to observe and enjoy these animals in
the future. The issue becomes much more difficult to raise in the
instance of future generations that h ave not yet been born who
may lose the opportunity to enjoy the species if someone is not
allowed to go to court on their behalf. In Oposa v. Factoran, the
Supreme Court of the Philippines offered a model for standin g
that allows young people to defend their rights as well as future
generations of those similarly situated.110
In Oposa, the Ph ilippine Supreme Court r ecognized the
right of intergenerational standing.111 The plaintiffs sought an
order from the court directing the Secretary of Environment and
Natural Resources to desis t from processing any new timber
licensing agreements.112 The class of youths, along with their
parents and the Philippine Environmental Network (an environ-
mental non-governmental organization), challenged the action s
of the government that had al lowed timber companies to har-
vest protected forests.113 The class also included the interests of
unborn generations to enjoy the nation’s tropical rain forests at
some point in the future.114 Collectively, the petitioners claimed
that they were “entitled to the full benefit, use, and enjoyment of
the natural resource treasure that is the country’s virgin tropical
rainforests.”115 W hile standing was not an issue con sidered by
the lower court, the Supreme Court considered the right of the
class to bring suit.116 The Court held:
We find no difficulty in ruling that they can, for them-
selves, for others of th eir generation, and for the suc-
ceeding generations, file a class suit. Their personality
to sue in behalf of the succeeding generations can only
be b ased on the concept of interg enerational respo n-
sibility insofar as the right to a balanced a nd health-
ful eco logy is conce rned. Such a right, as hereinafter
expounde d, co nsiders the “rhythm and harmony of
Upon final review of this issue, the Court ruled that because
the yout h had an obligation to preserve the env ironment, they
were entitled to bring suit to preserve their rights, as well as the
rights of future generati ons to protect this invaluable environ-
mental resou rce.118 The Supreme Court remanded the case for
In the end, this case did little to r educe the effects of tim-
bering prac tices in t he Ph ilippines.120 Howev er, t he Op osa
decisio n has attracted a great deal of inter national attention,
in part, because of the difficulty that most young plaintiff s
or those repres enting intergene rational intere sts e xperience
in meeting the thr esholds established for standing to sue. 121
The Oposa d ecision i n 1993 reflected the i ncreasing discus-
sion about inte rgenerational rights to susta inable use of natural
resources on th e international level. Intern ational treaties, such
as the Conve ntion on the International Trade in Endan gered
Species of Wild Faun a and Flora, the Amazonian Co-operat ion
Treaty, and the Climate Change Convention, among others,
have all embraced the rights of future genera tions to a health y
envir onment .122 While these rig hts exist, questio ns r emain
regarding who is the appr opriate person to defend these ri ghts
before the courts. Yo ung people are capable, with representa-
tion b y those who are skill ed in the representation of minors,
and ar e the best positioned t o bring thes e claims on behalf of
themselves an d future generations.
Those who are critical of efforts to involve youth in plan-
ning processes often raise conce rns t hat yo ung pe ople m ay
be harmed by their participation, in part, because they are not
mature enough to understand the politics of decision-making.
The same issue is relevant when we discuss the rights of young
people to bring suit against policymakers that violate the very
regulations they have helped to draft. There is little doubt that,
in the absence of special efforts to educate young people about
these processes, disappoin tment may occur. Of greater concern
is that encounters with such processes, particularly those that do
not empower the participants, may have a negative effect on the
youth’s long-term willingness to participate in issues pertaining
to governance.
The planning community does a great disservice to young
people in inviting them into a planning process without giving
them the right to seek to compel policymakers to adopt the plans
of which they were a vital part of making. Imagine that the adults
and youths who participated on the planning committee for the
redevelopment of the public housing project in Atlanta had been
actively engaged in participation and assured by the public hous-
ing authority and the project’s fu ture developer that the design
they helped create would be built. This group has an expectation
that what they have helped to envision will come to fruition. If
their efforts are discarded, should they not have a right to chal-
lenge such decisions? If they should, then which of the members
should have the right to sue? Clearly, adults who have met the
standing requirements under United States law may sue. Why
not extend the same rights to the young people who showed the
same level of interest and commitment in the planning process?
After a ll, their li ves are as prone to disruption by the ensuing
redevelopment activity as the older members of the community.
Young people’s injuries are very real and should be represented,
not as a part of their parents’ claims for injury, but as a result of
the injuries they would personally suffer.
Access to justice by youth must accompany their right to
participate in community planning decisions.123 Without the
simultaneous grant of both rights, the right to participate in deci-
sion-making is a mere invitation for discussion of possibilities,
not realities. By giving participants in planning processes access
to the justice system to enforce these rights, we reinforce the value
of the process itself and ensure that plans and policies are imple-
mented and enforced in the manner envisioned by all drafters.
This certainly should include the young who are empowered to
speak for themselves and future generations of similarly situated
children. In the absence of the recognition of both the right to par-
ticipate and to sue when policies are not adhered to, the rights
associated with intergenerational equity may be sacrificed with
little regard to the needs and desires of future generations.
Endnotes: Standing on Their Own on page 68