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Responding to Trauma through Youth-Driven Urban Redevelopment

Image: A playground constructed on the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestine border wall.​

Source: Flickr, Roey Ahram

By Amanda Peña

Amanda Peña is a first generation Chicana social worker, therapist, and
educator from the Los Angeles region. She is currently working on her
second master's degree in City and Regional Planning in the Housing,
Community, and Economic Development concentration. Amanda is passionate about cultivating inclusivity and healing in the social and physical landscapes for children, teens, and families. Her other interests include traveling, running, hiking, cooking, reading, and trying
different coffee shops and breweries



Definitions [1]:


1. A physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening experience that stimulates a person’s neurobiological response for survival


2. Experienced as a single event, series of events, or set of circumstances that are either personal, historical, racial, or vicarious in nature


3. Can have lasting adverse effects on childhood brain development that is expressed well into adulthood, including

  • Difficulty regulating emotions and behavior

  • Poor academic and/or professional outcomes

  • Chronic pain and health challenges


Measured by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)

*Score of 3+ is considered high

TRAUMA IN YOUTH Statistics [2]:

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[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Trauma.   

[2] American Civil Liberties Union. School-to-Prison Pipeline.; Cooper, J. L. (2007). Facts About Trauma for Policymakers.; Morsy, L., & Rothstein, R. (2019). Toxic stress and children’s outcomes.; The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Effects.

[3] Barrett, E. (2021). Defining their right to the city: Perspectives from lower-income youth. Urban Affairs Review, 57(3), 709-730.



The need for intervention:

For more than 80% of children living in poverty, trauma exposure is among the most significant barriers to their academic achievement and upward mobility. The impact of traumatic stress on children’s brain development has long-lasting negative effects on their cognitive, mental, socioemotional, and physical wellbeing, which is associated with poorer academic, financial, and health outcomes in adulthood. As a result, many K-12 public schools in high-risk neighborhoods are implementing trauma-informed teaching practices and providing social supportive services to its students.


However, educators do not receive sufficient training or support to respond to student socioemotional needs and trauma-related behavioral challenges, burning out and leaving the profession as a result. Without trauma-responsive infrastructural support at the local, state, and national levels, school-based, trauma-responsive interventions will continue to be insufficient.


Given the important role of public schools on youth and community development, city planners can look to collaborate with K-12th grade educators and students to more directly address factors that perpetuate trauma and poverty in their communities. By inviting students to directly participate in development projects in their neighborhoods and encouraging civic leaders to value youth input and ideas, schools can become stronger anchors in high-risk communities and better support their students’ future academic, social, professional, and personal development.



Spatial outlaws:


Public spaces play an important role for youth in their transitional experience into adulthood. Places for communal gathering give youth the freedom to express themselves, build relationships, and find identity in their communities without external pressures. Without the financial means to pay for goods and services, youth are, in essence, spatially outlawed from private spaces or public land use. Ultimately, youth want safe, clean neighborhoods and structured spaces and activities that promote their physical, emotional, psychosocial development.


Believe that youth are:

  • Competent, agentic citizens

  • Experts on childhood and about their own lives

  • Active and important participants in our collective society


Youth need supportive adults who empower and facilitate their engagement in the public domain. When adults create spaces that value and require their ideas and perspectives, youth become essential change agents capable of directly impacting their environment.

Basketball Courts.jpg
Image: Public spaces, like these basketball courts in New York City, are often the only informal spaces youth can gather for free.

Source: Flickr, Roey Ahram


[4] Carroll, P., Witten, K., Asiasiga, L., and Lin, E. (2019). Children’s Engagement as Urban Researchers and Consultants in Aotearoa New Zealand: Can it increase children’s effective participation in urban planning? Children and Society, 33, 414-428.

[5] Bierbaum, A. and McKoy, D. (2007). Y-PLAN: Teaches Youth Why and How to Plan. Race, Poverty, and Environment, Fall.

[6] Ibid.

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About [5]:


Youth--Plan, Learn, Act Now (Y-PLAN) is a strategy created by the University of California, Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools to engage youth in the urban development process. In collaboration with public school administrators and teachers, Y-PLAN partners low-income young people of color with city planners and civic leaders to transform their local communities . Civic projects are place- and community-oriented, covering issues in transportation, public space, housing, schools, services, and amenities. Using a 5-step research methodology, students are academically supported and empowered to leverage city planners’ resources and technical skills to make real changes in their community. 

Y-PLAN Theory of Change:


Youth and civic agents partner together to gain access to one another’s knowledge and expertise for the creation of a just and joyful city. Through this collaborative process, youth develop college, career, and community readiness skills while civic leaders learn how to leverage their power and influence to implement and value youth voices.



In California

  •  Los Angeles

  •  Oakland

  • Richmond

  • Sacramento

  • San Francisco (Bay +Peninsula)


Other Projects
• Resilient by Design
• MTC Horizon
• New York City, NY
• Tohoku, Japan


Youth: After participating in Y-PLAN, students often report having a better understanding, and greater motivation for, pursuing post-secondary education and alternative career paths. The method of experiential learning allowed students to explore professional and technical careers they previously did not know existed, especially in public service.

Planners: By working closely with youth on Y-PLAN projects, planners and planning students gain more perspective about the kinds of barriers that inhibit public participation on community development plans and projects.

Civil Agents & Leaders: The Y-PLAN experience challenges adults in positions of power and influence to deeply consider the value of youth voices in decisions about their communities. They are encouraged to leverage their resources to implement student proposals or help students understand the constraints that make it difficult for their project to be implemented.



The Y-Plan Model:


Though the Y-PLAN model seems to have a successful record of engaging low-income youth of color in the planning process, the available scholarship does not discuss how these interventions specifically reduce students experience(s) of trauma in their communities. Additionally, information is not included about how the academic profiles of student participants compare to the rest of their school. This is critical for understanding the impact of the Y-PLAN intervention across different student populations, such as English Language Learners, Gifted and Talented, Special Education and 504-accommodated, and higher risk subgroups.


Research opportunities:


To better understand how Y-PLAN and similar collaborations can mitigate trauma exposure through urban design, more research is needed about the types of trauma student participants are exposed to, how projects understand trauma and center healing, and how implemented proposals improve the community’s sense of peace and safety over time. One might consider conducting a longitudinal study to measure the impact of this intervention on these considerations, as well as student participant academic and professional outcome.



[14] FCC, 740 F.3d 623, 408 U.S. App. D.C. 92, 2014 U.S., 59 Comm. Reg. (P & F) 975 (United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit January 15, 2014, Reissued).

[15] Advanced telecommunications incentives, 47 USCS § 1302 (Current through Public Law 117-79, approved December 23, 2021, with a gap of Public Law 117-58. Title 26 provisions are current through Public Law 117-79.).

[16] Federal Communications Commission FCC 21-25 before the ... (n.d.).

[17] Brodkin, Jon. “FCC overturns state laws that protect isps from local competition”. Ars Technica. February 26, 2015.

[18] FCC, 832 F.3d 597, 2016 U.S. 2016 FED App. 0189P (6th Cir.), 65 Comm. Reg. (P & F) 330 (United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth CircuitAugust 10, 2016, Filed).

“[The] freedom to congregate costs at least the price of a cup of coffee.” [3]
- EJ Barrett, Defining the Right to the City
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Planning for the Future, Working With Youth:


City planners and community developers bear incredible responsibility for shaping both the short-term and long-term experiences of life in any given neighborhood. As they attempt to reduce poverty and promote equity, planners should also consider the impact that trauma has on the cultural and social development in the community--especially for youth, who represent the future generations of residents. Given the unique vulnerability of youth, traumas inflicted by both adult and systemic actors heavily influence how they perceive and interact with their physical and social environments. 


By learning to listen to children’s and teenagers’ experiences, planners gain greater insight into the barriers inhibiting the sustainability of development projects at the grassroots level. Youth have immense creative potential and visions for their lives, families, and community that are typically anchored by feelings of hope and passion. Thus, community development plans should consistently seek to empower and include youth in ways that directly change and support their immediate environment. Through those collaborations, youth learn how to advocate for, and invest in, the health and wellness of their own communities for the benefit of themselves and others.

"How can city planners work
with youth to reduce the
experience of trauma in their
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