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In June, in the presence of Montreal representatives in Guadalajara, the city of San Antonio, Texas, officially inaugurated its new North American Friendship Garden. A thriving green space to celebrate cross-border sustainability efforts, it includes, among other features, a large “insect hotel” to support pollinating insects. The structure, beautifully designed by a local artist, quickly became one of the most fashionable elements of the new space.
So did the cohort that created it: a group of teenagers working with the mayor’s office.
The teenagers were members of San Antonio’s Youth Engagement Council for Climate Initiatives, a mechanism to integrate youth voices into municipal climate action strategies. Created last year to help execute the city’s climate action and adaptation plan, the youth council has already had significant impacts that are visible across the city.
The insect hotel is just one example. Initiated by the Youth Council’s Biodiversity Subgroup, the chunky, cylindrical, terra cotta structure is filled with non-toxic organic materials that Youth Council members helped collect from their backyards. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators can enter through a series of large diamond-shaped holes in the sides of the structure and take advantage of the dark, cool areas to rest or feed their young. The same group made related policy recommendations to City Council that San Antonio’s green spaces include protecting pollinator habitat.
Another cohort of the youth council worked with the city’s transit agency on a pilot program to add rooftop gardens to bus shelters. The low-maintenance rooftop gardens, designed in collaboration with graduate students from the University of Texas at the Austin School of Architecture, increase habitat for local pollinators and help cool the city by mitigating the urban heat island effect. Laura Fuller, Head of Communications and Design at EcoRisean Austin-based nonprofit that supported the creation of youth climate councils that advise mayors in San Antonio, Austin and Houston, says the city now plans to replicate the pilot project, creating more green bus stops across the city “thanks to the ideas and action of a handful of local high school students.”
For what youth councils contribute to city climate action plans, they get at least as much in return, providing young people with the opportunity to influence policy and hold leaders accountable for their action (or inaction). ) on climate. They also teach practical skills and open up new career opportunities for a future generation of climate leaders. “The impact of these programs on students has been incredible,” says Fuller.
Youth councils tap into the energy – and anxiety – that makes young people especially inclined to take climate change seriously. In a recent global survey of people aged 16 to 25, nearly 60% of respondents say they are very or extremely concerned about climate change. The vast majority think climate action should be America’s absolute political prioritya sense of urgency that translated into political action, as young people go vote and run for office on climate platforms in ever-increasing numbers.
“We inherit the state of the environment from past generations and we will pass the environment on to future generations,” says 23-year-old climate activist Mark Haver. Haver became involved in climate justice work after witnessing the destructive impact of climate change in his hometown of Ellicott City, Maryland, which was hit by record flooding in 2016 and 2018, destroying the city’s downtown. Today, Haver is president of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Youth Policy Advisory Council.
Elsewhere, youth council members are motivated by similar first-hand experiences. Texas cities are already bearing the brunt of climate change in sweltering heat waves, deadly cold snaps and flash flood — events that are becoming increasingly frequent and serious. Young people from frontline communities have come forward to serve on local youth councils because the majority believe that it is still possible to prevent the worst long-term effects of climate change if serious measures are taken.
In Tempe, Arizona, where extreme heat warnings have become commonplace during the long summer months, two youth climate councils recently launched created cooling plans and projects for a more heat resistant city.
“We have high school kids, college kids…who want Tempe to be a great, enjoyable place for decades to come,” says Braden Kay, City of Tempe’s Director of Sustainability and Resilience and the driving force behind the creation of the new youth. climate advice there. He says the youth councils are “about the city that accompanies these actions”.
While the Tempe Climate Councils have just inaugurated their first cohorts, the groups have already organized a community tree planting day in conjunction with the City of Tempe Urban Forester. Youth council members also proposed installing new shaded bus stops and community gardens, similar to initiatives in San Antonio.
According to EcoRise, results like these are possible when youth councils have access to sufficient funding and resources. In Tempe, for example, youth councils have access to policy experts, city administrators, climate scientists, racial justice experts and local Indigenous practitioners. Funding for the Tempe program is provided by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“I think what’s really exciting to me, and what’s come out of our work, is that we’re spending those resources and using those assets to provide youth councils with a menu of options and support structures on way to get the job done,” says Kay. Haver agrees, adding that partnerships with subject matter experts and other young climate leaders have also been key to his council’s greatest successes.
As global temperatures continue to rise, empowering young people and fostering relationships between the current generation and the next generation of climate experts, activists and decision-makers are more critical than ever. “Being able to bring young people to the decision-making table and have our voices heard in a very legitimate and credible way really elevates this intergenerational partnership for environmental justice,” says Haver.