What I hear at the doors:
“You used to be able to bike down these streets, but now the cars whip through here way too fast.”
“My son lives in Bozeman and I can’t get him to move back.”
“My friend/sister/old roommate won’t live in a city without THIS or THAT.”
“Billings leadership is such an [age] [gender] club.” (You can fill in the blanks.)
“Why is public transport basically nonexistent? Can you do something about that?”
One of the first initiatives I’d love to set into motion come January is establishing a Youth Advisory Committee. This would look like a group of students pulled from the various high schools to liaise with local government. Ideally they’d be elected by their class and would snag internship credit for the work. Youth “councils” like this aren’t a new idea—they’re cropping up other places in the country—and while the role is strictly an advisory one, it’s a relatively simple (and free) way to improve the diversity of voices being heard.
It also helps address another important problem: the continuum of representation. So many decisions are made with an abstract concept of youth in mind—parks and police officers at the top of the list. But rarely do those under-18 get to weigh in on how those resources should be spent. For example—for the first time in, like, 37 years, Billings is on track to develop a new major park. Coulson Park is an incredibly exciting opportunity to reconnect Yellowstone River to the city, and to provide new outdoor infrastructure that doesn’t currently exist. Do we want an amphitheater, a boat ramp, or a new playground? What about a ropes course? Places to kayak and cross-country ski? How would you prioritize these things?
And more importantly, which will help us combat one of the biggest problems facing Billings: our aging population? I say this with all the love in the world for Billings, but our city is not struggling to attract retirees. We’re struggling to attract those under 40. Kids who graduate high school here are statistically unlikely ever to return. Why? Why when we’re Montana’s economic powerhouse? Why, when we have a poppin’ music scene, good schools, and old neighborhoods full of trees and parks?
Why is exactly the question.
Last night I attended the weekly council work session where the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee gave an incredible presentation on why Billings needs to be more bike-friendly, and how we can go about doing it. Some of the solutions cost money, but are comparatively simple: bike boulevards, small traffic obstructions in intersections to stop cars from tearing through certain neighborhood streets. A slide came up connecting the marathon loop around Billings and even though I’m not a runner, I began taking furious notes because I know that THIS is the type of ambitious project that will attract people in my age group.
Almost everyone agrees that more bike lanes in the city would be “nice.” But where this falls on the priority scale is dependent upon perspective, experience—and yes, age. The question being asked during this presentation wasn’t really, “Can we have this much money?” (Sadly no, since the city’s operating a deficit budget.) But rather, “Where does this rank in our priorities?” It’s the same question that’s going to be posed again and again as Coulson Park comes into fruition.
If we want our kids to feel invested in our city, we need a clearer path for them to have an actual say in what that investment looks like. Imagine, for instance, if each high school had a rep on a Youth Advisory Committee. Their job would be to meet once a month with their peers & counterparts from various schools to aggregate issues facing Billings youth. They might present to the council once a year, or on an as-needed basis as issues come up. This could even be expanded on down, to draw more kids into civic engagement: junior high councils report to the high schoolers, elementary students to the junior highers etc. Hook ’em early on the civic life, I say.
The questions as to why Billings has the reputation it does, why our kids (and I use this term in the collective sense, myself being one such Billings kid) are leaving, and what we should do about it, are most easily answered by the people not part of the aging population. Just as I know that for most people in my age bracket, a boat ramp at Coulson Park would be a much lower priority than an amphitheater for any number of environmental reasons, and also this practical one:
I’m 35 and I don’t know anyone with a boat.
But I do know at least 15 people off the top of my head who would use an amphitheater as early as tomorrow. To be clear, I’m not saying that “the youth” have no voice right now—there are of course avenues for public comment and involvement, but looking up board meetings on the city’s website can be well, daunting. It’s not easy, especially for not-yet-voters. My argument is rather that I think we can do better; much better.
Some will counter that this isn’t necessary. And it’s true, we don’t have to reach out and ask the future what it wants. We can keep doing what we’ve always done. But as I say at the doors, about a third of the buildings downtown are vacant, there’s no affordable housing, and it’s been that way since I was a kid. That’s a long time for a city. If individual businesses and local developers were going to solve many of the systemic, chronic problems in the city core, it would have happened by now. We can keep waiting, we can keep hodge-podging our way forward. We don’t have to listen to or believe the priorities of the future: “How much could bike lanes really matter?”
But we can’t then be shocked when they continue to pick up stakes and move elsewhere.