Making space for teenagers in the mix

by Mike Bulthuis

Mike BulthuisBefore the uncertain journey that brought me to my dissertation question, I had mostly been thinking about questions related to how the city is experienced by ‘at risk’ youth, particularly a street-involved population.

However, a number of factors led me to begin thinking more about how well cities create, or exist as, spaces inclusive of all youth. Shifting away from the urban core, I began to work with a youth-serving community organization seeking to enhance the participation of, and options for, adolescents in a growing and generally affluent Ottawa suburb.

Rooted in geography, my dissertation project evolved into a consideration of the everyday spatial practices of adolescents in an Ottawa suburb. I’ve been investigating the places and spaces within their everyday geographies that enable for them feelings of well-being, or restoration. How do they draw upon space as a potential resource in their healthy development? Core to the project has been working with teenagers, and rooted in the new social studies of children and childhood, learning of their practices and experiences in constructing and responding to their urban environments. More on this in a subsequent post.

However, in response to calls by some within geography for continued attention to the urban fabric and structures within which youth lives are constituted, I draw here on a component of the project focused on adult imaginations of the suburb. In interviews, I wanted to learn from community leaders, parents, program leaders, teachers and coaches of their impressions of this suburb as a place lived and experienced by adolescents. Though focused on youth, these conversations with adults raise a number of questions pertaining to who is involved, and who benefits, in the construction of this suburban environment.

Certain themes are not surprising. Many adults shared stories of moving to this suburb for its housing affordability, and for the potential of being a participant, from the ground-up, to this new community’s evolution. Though some questioned the adequacy of youth-focused programs to meet varied youth interests, more praised the many sports initiatives and cited rich potential in areas of arts, culture and education. Some, however, also pointed to the significant costs of participation in these programs; while this suburb may be affluent overall, thousands of households live on incomes below average. Yet program organizers (including from the public, non-profit and private sectors), citing community affluence, explain that subsidy programs are often not advertised, instead requiring parents and youth to self-identify. Whether those who are struggling will choose to self-identify in an environment where affluence is assumed, is unclear.

Apart from recreational or skills-building opportunities, some adults also suggested that individual supports for youth health and well-being may be less available. Some pointed to a social policy paradigm where resources are increasingly targeted to geographic areas where needs are most concentrated, asking how vulnerable households – those residing in less socioeconomically marginalized communities – may fare. What of some challenges less co-related to income, like mental health?

Street YouthPrograms and structured supports, like those noted above, are commonly cited by adults when considering whether this suburb, or others, are youth-friendly. Thoughts of the community’s design, however, also entered into conversations. Adults referred, for example, to lengthy planning-related timelines, resulting in community infrastructure (e.g., recreational infrastructure, community facilities) sometimes developed years after a new residential neighbourhood had been established. Even then, transportation to and from an adolescent’s activity may prohibit their independent travel to and from, instead requiring rides provided by parents. While most adults raise few issues with these family responsibilities, some also spoke of parental fatigue – of working full-time and balancing self-care with home and other responsibilities. Interestingly, some adults note how this desire to register children and transport them to a variety of programs may in part arise from felt pressure by other parents within this same family-oriented environment, with all wanting to ensure the positive youth opportunities afforded to other children are also available to their own. This is about the kids, but within these concerns come subtle questions by some of whether, in the end, adolescents face heightened expectations and pressure to do all and be all.

And what do teenagers seek? No doubt, many opportunities like those noted above. When these are available, such opportunities are ones wherein stimulation, space to explore, or even restoration may be found; such ideas were shared by many youth with whom I worked.

What is surprising, however, is the minimal attention directed to engaging and listening to youth, in part regarding their own pathways, but more particularly, regarding their ideas for the community and its offerings. While several adults acknowledged their own uncertainties about what youth are looking for vis-à-vis neighbourhood opportunities or design, few youth are specifically asked. Youth may be dependent on transit; are they involved in route planning? Youth may wish to travel independently to or from school; are they considered in school sitings and travel planning? Youth may enjoy local entertainment options, like movie theatres; are these located in places with easy access? Youth may seek open and accessible (free) places to gather; are these available? In seeking to enable youth to grow into independence, how are youth involved as co-creators of the city – its form, its rhythms, its social relations?

No doubt, issues of cost, risk and liability are on the minds of many adults. However, if we are to take the view of young people as agentic – as capable and knowledgeable in shaping and understanding everyday worlds – how might we acknowledge this in the planning of the suburb and its offerings? How might we understand, as Vanderstede (2011) suggests, the “teenage space network,” so as to ensure the city as lived by teenagers is one that works for them?

Recently, in one neighbourhood located within this Ottawa suburb, a park play structure was deliberately compromised, creating the real possibility of injury to any child who would later play on it. The incident has brought the neighbourhood together, into a discussion of problematic youth behaviour in parks; could we imagine involving youth in that discussion? What might be some of the barriers (institutional, attitudinal, or otherwise) towards involving youth more fully — both in planning and responding to such crises?

In the late 1980s, teenagers in this community mobilized to have their municipality develop a youth drop-in centre. In media coverage of a demonstration related to this push, with youth citing issues of loneliness, drug abuse and family strife present within the community, one 16-year old linked the development of the centre with the likelihood of lower break-ins and vandalism, noting instructively, “we want a drop-in centre so we can encourage them [other young people] to participate.” This young man believed it would be appropriate for young people to help young people – to be available in such a setting to engage one another. Drop-in centres may or may not be what is sought by youth today. However, we may not know if development of their everyday worlds occurs in their absence.

So, what are teenagers saying? How are they experiencing this place? Stay tuned.

Mike Bulthuis is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at the University of Ottawa with interests in the social geographies of youth, and more broadly, in everyday life across diverse urban neighbourhoods. He returned to graduate studies after working for several years in the public and non-profit sectors on a range of urban policy questions. Outside of work and school, he occasionally gets his hands dirty in community, and always hopes that collectively we raise the bar towards cities for all.

Vanderstede, Wouter (2011) “‘Chilling’ and ‘hopping’ in the ‘teenage space network’: explorations in teenagers’ geographies in the city of Mechelen” Children’s Geographies, 9 (2), pp. 167-184