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Opinion piece in The West Australian - What should future Perth look like? Ask our young people

by Colin Pettit

There can be no meaningful discussion how we plan and brand our State’s capital city without considering the needs and views of the quarter of the population that is under 18.

This is their city, too — of the 610,000 children and young people living in Western Australia, three-quarters of them live in the metropolitan area.

Next week I am bringing together a group of young people in central Perth to workshop what they think would help make their local environment more inclusive for children. They will travel to the CBD from suburbs across the city, joined by a group of students from a neighbouring region.

Prior to the day, they will have prepared an assessment of their own local community — what amenities and services they can access easily, how they travel and how they feel within their neighbourhood. Making a child and youth-friendly city is not just about including a playground in a landscape plan. Our young people access services, such as schools and hospitals, use amenities such as cultural facilities, use our public transport system and are consumers in their own right.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics forecasts that the number of WA children and young people will increase by 63 per cent to more than one million by 2066.

It is important to consider how future urban planning, our built and natural environments, changing housing densities and employment patterns will be impacted by increases in population, particularly as most of the growth is expected to occur in the Perth metropolitan area.

Hearing the views of our youngest population goes beyond the role of Commissioner for Children and Young People. It is something that all decision-makers should be actively doing.

It is vital that community discussions like the “Brand Perth” debate currently gaining media attention involve our youngest citizens.

I have consulted with thousands of children and young people across WA on a range of issues relevant to their wellbeing. They consistently say that the environment in which they live has a significant impact on their day-to-day life.

In my first Speaking Out Survey in 2019, the responses from students in regional and remote areas of WA indicated that (while less of them felt there was plenty for them to do in the community compared with metropolitan peers) they often had a stronger connection to their community.

There appear to be many factors at play here for why our metropolitan young people do not feel as connected to their community — including perceptions of safety and the degree of independence they have. How we address this now, and plan to improve it as the population grows, needs to be closely considered.

There is a body of evidence that shows that the built environment where children grow up can have a significant lifelong influence on their wellbeing.

This evidence strongly suggests that children and young people who grow up in socially cohesive neighbourhoods and communities with good access to services, high quality natural environments and positive relationships with both adults and other children enjoy better life outcomes, including engagement at school, health, community life and employment opportunities.

WA children and young people have told me that the love and support of their family and friends, safe and secure housing, a good education, and access to recreational opportunities and other community facilities are very important to them. They are concerned about their environment, have views and ideas about how things can be improved and they want to be included in the design of public places and spaces, so they feel safe and welcome and can make a meaningful contribution to community life.

It should be remembered that when children and young people have a positive attachment to the places and spaces around them, they are also more likely to raise concerns and seek help if they don’t feel safe and supported within their community. In the discussions around the future use and urban design of our State capital, it is important that young people are heard and their views are respected and acted on.

What does the future look like for Perth? Ask the city’s future leaders.

Published in The West Australian on 27 May 2021 on page 62.