An important part of a planner’s job is engaging all members of the community in the planning decisions that affect them. However, the ultimate beneficiaries of these decisions, the youth of our community, are often not involved in these discussions. Thus, I was honored by the opportunity to participate in Student U Durham’s annual Career Day for Summer Academy students, rising 6th through rising 10th grade Durham Public School students. Student U Durham is a college access organization for Durham Public School students, committed to the vision that all students are destined to succeed. The organization provides direct services during out of school time in the summer and after-school, ensuring that their students develop the academic skills and personal well-being needed to succeed in college.

Student U Durham is also an important organization to me personally – I taught rising 7th graders in their Summer Academy in 2013 and 2014. Since my summers at Student U, I have committed myself and my work to improving quality of life and securing financial security for all families through community development and strategic planning.

My Career Day presentation started with a question: What is your favorite place? Students provided a range of responses - their room, their Grandma’s house, and the local mall, to list a few. I asked the students to elaborate on what made that place special to them. Interestingly, their reasons had the same underlying message. Their favorite places are where they feel comfortable and safe, where they can be with their friends and family, and where they can reach a variety of activities.

We set out to design “Main Street” using these ideas. I prompted the students to consider what made a place important to them, how being in that place made them feel, and how we could infuse those feelings into our design.


The students designed “Main Street” pictured above. They wanted it to be pedestrian, bike and car friendly with a greenway that provided access to nature.  They collectively agreed that this place needed places for people to socialize, places to shop, and places to live. These concepts took the form of a multi-use streetscape, complete with two different venues to socialize and gather as a community, a coffee shop and a barbershop, as well as ground floor retail and second floor apartments.

In some ways, Student U Summer Academy curricula is not unlike other summer school programs designed to prepare students for the upcoming school year and retain information from the previous school year. However, it is unique in its commitment to teaching individual and social awareness and by providing students with the tools and skills to be active citizens in their communities.

These students are encouraged to challenge the status quo, thoughtfully engage with the world around them, and build consensus with their peers. These students and their peers are certainly prepared to engage in future planning conversations, perhaps as activated citizens of the community, motivated business-owners, elected officials, or planning professionals.