A local authority Play Sufficiency Assessment in North Wales, using quantitative and qualitative mixed research methods, established a general intolerance towards teenagers spending time in the public realm and that a greater range of provision for them was required (1). These findings aligned with my research that explored the multiple factors affecting young people’s access to, and provision for them within public space in the UK . I decided to take a deeper dive in to play sufficiency as part of my Masters by Research to understand why the teenagers felt they had insufficient opportunities to play. This included participating in student led tours and town mapping exercises and undertaking a co-creation project with young people to create a space to meet their needs during 2015 and 2016. First though, some context:
Teenagers’ needs and why we should care
Research shows teenagers are often demonised, which can result in their mundane, everyday activities being described as anti-social behaviour . The renowned urbanist and city life observer, Jane Jacobs described young people’s outdoor pursuits as those of “loitering with others, sizing people up, talking, pushing, shoving and horseplay. Adolescents are always criticised for this kind of loitering, but they can hardly grow up without it”. She proposed that to support this “incidental play”, places should be interesting and “immediately convenient” for young people . These places include our streets, public spaces, towns and retail centres.
Lacking in funds and seeking greater independence away from home, young people are reliant on public space as a free (of cost) place to hang out with peers. However, a consumer culture can disenfranchise those without capital, as is often the case for young people. Consequently, young people may not be seen as legitimate users of town and city spaces where the primary concern is economic. As a consequence, they are often designed out of spaces, ostracised to designated or peripheral spaces and generally expected to be elsewhere . Defensive architecture and prohibitive signage are used to curtail activities such as skating or sitting. These circumstances can lead to a sense of alienation and placelessness, which can inhibit identity formation and socialization [6, 7]. Peer influence and developing a sense of belonging are critical issues for teens, as teenage brains “register the impact of social exclusion more acutely” than adults .
Figure 1: Young people interviewed at Manchester’s Cathedral Square identified the square was a destination for them due to its easy accessibility and, for some, an escape from their local neighbourhoods, which were perceived as places of tension due to conflicting social dynamics. The youth engaged in the play sufficiency assessment and practice-based research noted similar preferences.
Owing to a lack of commitment by signatory governments to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the UN Committee published General Comment 17 on Article 31 rights in 2013. It raised concern that children (including teenagers) were not being duly considered in matters relating to their rights and appropriate provision within the built environment and reinforced the needs of teenagers stating:
“As children grow older, their needs and wants evolve from settings that afford play opportunities to places offering opportunities to socialise, be with peers or be alone. They will also explore progressively more opportunities involving risk-taking and challenge. These experiences are developmentally necessary for adolescents, and contribute to their discovery of identity and belonging” .
Building social ties, developing identity away from the adult gaze and developing attachment to place fosters independence and resilience. Public spaces afford young people free (of cost), accessible space for self and cultural expression, exploration, and the opportunity to be ‘public’ and ‘private’ – engaging in public life as well as being able to retreat from it .
Our public spaces should support teenagers’ sense of belonging and their healthy development by providing for their social activities and the ways in which they play. Provision that can support this includes:
- Stages and pavilions to provide the opportunities to perform – dance, create shows and play music, as well as space to retreat.
- Structures that support physically challenging forms of play, climbing, acrobatics, physical fitness and activities such as parkour.
- Multiple seating options so teenagers can hang out with friends, jostle, talk and cajole.
- Different topographies to support activities like skating and parkour and, for younger teenagers, imaginative play.
- Swings, see saws and play equipment to suit their age, and ones that are large enough to share, like basket and snake swings. Also see Figure 3.
- Space for and permission to play informal sports and games, such as chessboards.
These common aspects of youth play also hold appeal to other ages. Designing for youth as a primary concern can have broader benefits for the wider community .
Figure 3: Iraqi designed swings at Superkilen urban park in Copenhagen.
Young people’s play sufficiency
To establish why one particular town’s young people reported an insufficiency of opportunities for play, student led site tours and place and play mapping were undertaken with primary and secondary students. These methods were used to assess, for example, perceived safe and unsafe places and provision that appealed to different ages. I will focus here on the findings of the work undertaken with the year nine students (those aged 13 and 14).
In this small town of approximately 4,300 people, the issues related to fear of adults and teenagers’ lack of permission to spend time in some spaces dominated the findings. The students noted both their and their parent’s concerns about some local characters that they should be wary of. The town centre consisted of six to eight shops and a small square (now a car park) was a contested space, but a place where they wanted to spend time. The students recounted that the local shopkeepers had historically used sonic devices to discourage them from hanging out outside their shops. Some of the girls were not allowed to spend time by the shops as their parents felt it would negatively affect their daughter’s reputation.
Figure 4: town square with shops in the background
The town was divided by a moderately busy road. This appeared to have created divisions among the community and reduced social ties. This aligns with Donald Appleyard’s influential study, replicated by the University of the West of England’s, that illustrates the impact of traffic in reducing social relations and a sense of belonging .
One park had a designated play area that was highly valued, but certain groups said they would generally only use it if they were alone (girls for example), that it was too childish, or that it was sometimes dominated by older teens or young adults. Evident here, was the tension over the use of limited resources, and how school relational dynamics often extend beyond school boundaries. Having said this, the group felt that a simple addition of lights would encourage them to spend more time at the playspace and at the adjacent multi-use games area (MUGA). The MUGA had been closed for two years and, despite repeated requests to the local town council, it had not reopened, further diminishing the opportunities to play. Its location next to a bowling club was suggested to have been a contributing factor to the closure of the MUGA due to the users of the bowling club making complaints about the noise the teenagers made when playing there.
Figure 5: Girls using the play area during the Play Sufficiency assessment.
There was another park on the peripheries of the town (see Figure 6), a short distance from the town centre, that included a small amphitheatre, woodland and river. This was perceived as a ‘no go zone’ by the students due to a fear of adults, the park being overgrown and poorly maintained in terms of litter, the presence of used drug needles and dog faeces. The students felt that having limited entry and exit points at the park also made them fearful of spending time in the park.
The young people wanted the local youth club to be open for longer, and somewhere to spend time during the colder months. They also expressed their desire for playwork (staffed play) provision after school. Extra-curricular scheduled activities, while mostly enjoyed by the students, were often reported as reducing the time for socialising with friends.
The research shows that, although there were sites to play and hang out, the students’ play was impeded by both perceived and real dangers. The small amount of play equipment meant this needed to be shared, but there was a reluctance to do so because of social tensions.
The student-led community walks garnered much interest among the town’s residents and a number of conversations developed. One conversation included discussion of a ‘scary’ house and ‘scary’ man with the neighbour of the ‘scary man’! He attempted to dispel the myth with small insights as to why the students’ perceptions were incorrect. A longitudinal study analysing to what extent increasing school students’ engagement with community members can increase social ties, their sense of safety and diminish their fear of adults would be an interesting line of enquiry.
Co-creation and experimentation to support the rights of teenagers
Myrna Breitbart, professor of geography and urban studies, writes that Colin Ward perceived the city as a place for experimentation “where the repurposing of space could illustrate the inadequacies of present social policy, ignite a desire for something different, and revive the spatial and social imaginary” . Having established a lack of tolerance towards teenagers’ play and an insufficiency of safe, accessible spaces for them, the local authority’s play development team and I decided to use the city (or town in this case) as a place for experimentation. We wanted to highlight the lack of spatial justice and focus on children’s right to play and participate, and for their best interests to be of primary concern in all policies related to our built environments. ‘Co-creating a temporary space to the support the rights of young people’ – a practice-based research project, also sought to illustrate young people’s capacity to provide local knowledge of benefit to councils, transform a space to meet their needs, and empower them by increasing their confidence to engage with professional practitioners.
Figure 7: This image shows the site selected by the project participants to situate what became, a playful structure or pavilion. The council offices are pictured on the right.
Nineteen young people participated in a series of artist-led workshops supported by a playworker and a youth worker. The young people chose to situate the project in the main town square because it was easily accessible and to emphasise their frustration to the community about being historically moved on from it . The location also afforded them some degree of privacy, with trees surrounding the site, and safety due to its proximity to the council offices.
Psychological and social issues were a pervasive and consistent focus of the young people’s discussions. They spoke of their need to be in a group to avoid being verbally harangued and of their fears that anything they created would be vandalised. They perceived the town centre as offering them little and lacking in life, with drug users often dominating the spaces they wanted to spend time in. Yet, interestingly, the town centre remained the locus for the group’s activities.
The group’s initial needs were quite simple – somewhere to sit, hang out, shelter and preferably with access to toilets. Apart from the toilets these requirements were reflected in the final design, which included a raised platform with different levels to afford seating and a corrugated roof to provide shelter, see Figure 8. Tyres were adapted with brightly coloured rope to provide flexible seating options. Children and adults used the tyres for playful activities both on and away from the site (see Figure 9), but during the six-week installation all were returned. The structure, supported by scaffolding, increased the affordances to play by providing opportunities to climb, swing and hang out. Observations undertaken during the installation showed that the pavilion-like structure was used by those of different ages, increasing the affordances to play for the wider community.
Figure 8: The Platform provided shelter fulfilling one of the design requirements requested by the project participants.
The artists involved, Simon and Tom Bloor, observed how the project participants were a tight-knit community, as well as the group’s desire to be accepted as part of the community. This became the inspiration for the name for the pavilion: ‘The Platform for the Magical Recovery of Community’ (aka The Platform).
During the project evaluation the young people made valuable suggestions to make the town centre more vibrant to attract more people to it. These included requests for performance space that all ages could utilise, again illustrating their desire to be part of the community not ostracized from it. They also wanted access to free Wi-Fi and for other teenagers to be given the same opportunity to co-create a space in the town. The temporary nature of the project appealed to the group and they were keen for The Platform to be re-used in various locations around the town. Although young people’s and the wider community’s affordances were increased, the group felt that their actions and ability to spend time on The Platform were constrained by the presence of other people who they perceived to be under the influence of drugs.
The participants readily took ownership of the structure, indicating it held value for them. Despite generalised opinion, the tyres were not permanently removed and ‘The Platform’ wasn’t vandalised. This suggests that developing projects, where the intent is made known to the community and that are ‘embedded in the local’ may increase levels of ownership and respect for the project .
Figure 9: The Platform provided a centrally located, easily accessible place to play and socialise.
Understanding how young people use and want to use space is critical
The Play Sufficiency Assessment and the co-creation project amplified entrenched psychological issues creating barriers to play. They illustrate young people’s capacity to analyse place and provide local knowledge of benefit to councils, such as, identifying which assets need to be better maintained and where social services and design interventions need to be directed. They show that meeting the rights of young people is not just about provision, it’s about societal change – by perceiving teenage play positively rather than negatively and recognising that young people want to be welcomed in our public places, not ostracised from them.
Putting young people’s rights first and increasing their opportunities to socialize and play can have an additional upside by increasing the play affordances for other ages. I would argue that fulfilling youth needs enriches our towns, cities and public spaces. To support this, I would like to use an example:
Figure 10: Dancers at Moriarty Walk.
Moriarty Walk, aka Dancer’s Lane, adjacent to the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Sydney has become a place for young people’s informal dance. Prior to the redevelopment of the ICC and surrounding public space, community consultation established that young dancers were significant users of the existing space. Understanding their needs resulted in a permissive attitude towards their activities taking place in the redesigned public space. Over time, the dancers’ activities have further been supported by the addition of reflective material to practice their dance routines. The general ambiance around the site is playful, and activities such as skateboarding, rollerblading and just hanging out are prevalent. This space is a destination for youth and adds vibrancy to the city, watching youth activities also holds appeal to other city users. Using a UK example, the adoption of the Undercroft at the Southbank Centre by skaters, BMXers, and graffiti artists holds significant cultural value beyond the skating community and is protected under the UK’s Localism Act. These sites fulfil young people’s right to self-expression, to play, to inhabit and shape space, and contribute to the fulfillment of their right to the city.
Figure 11: Dancers at Moriarty Walk.
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All photos excluding Figure 7 © Claire Edwards