To what extent, and in what ways, is the enjoyment of public space compromised in contemporary society for young people? Essay

Childhood is a socio-cultural construction categorised as distinct from adulthood and then divided into competing positive and negative representations; children and youths respectively. Ambiguity surrounds children as active participants in constructing and contesting everyday life, yet also requiring parental and state guidance due to the experience and competence of adults. Public space is often restricted by the privatisation of consumption and prevailing notions of a moral order.From the street to shopping malls, these are normatively assumed as adult space where CCTV and social surveillance condemns noisy, destructive or non-consumption behaviour. Parks and playgrounds are often associated with young people but research on their own perspectives conveys more dynamic use of public space to (re)create collective and individual identities (Valentine, 1997). The media has often fuelled ‘moral panics’ about youth crime and the need to constrain their spatial mobility.

Curfews in the USA and NZ (Collins and Kearns, 2000), and the UK (Atkinson, 2003) are extremely controversial methods to control youth movement.This is evident since young people can potentially be constructed as either equal citizens in society who should be consulted in political decisions (Matthews et al, 1999), or demonised as the ‘other’ who are feared and monitored by police and local government. Fear of crime is linked to a multiple layer of meanings attached to places and this affects how youths are negatively labelled and their own interpretations of public space are often ignored. This paper aims to explore the various ways of understanding young people’s use of space.Access to public space is compromised, but to an extent, there are many ways of resisting structural constraints on socio-spatial mobility in contemporary society. Research has importantly adopted a qualitative approach to convey the understanding of young people’s place in society and their agency in public space (Dwyer, 1999; Valentine, 2000; Nayak, 2003). Young people are actively resisting the dominant ‘adultist’ ideologies of childhood and constantly (re)construct identities through consumption spaces, school playgrounds and the street.This demonstrates resistance to marginalisation in society and positively reacting to their commonality of experience as different from adults.

In contrast, political structures such as education and government still conceive young people as subordinate and subject to curfews, anti-social behaviour orders and general fear and disapproval of a ‘yob culture’ in both urban and rural spaces (Kraak and Kenway, 2002). Young people’s perspectives and use of public spaceThere are various competing images of childhood which tend to place children in a category of incompetent, immature and vulnerable ‘angels’, and young people as violent, aggressive and irresponsible ‘devils’. This can have significant consequences on the restraint or subtle manipulation of an age-distinctive group in public spaces. Before the age of 11, in a number of studies, parental understandings of young people suggest that, contingent on individual traits, they generally lack competence and require boundaries to their spatial movement (Valentine, 1997).However, interviews with young people imply their perceptions of risk and safety are more dynamic and complex than adults assume based on the over-simplified adult-child dichotomy. Like adults, young people are actively constructing their self and social identities in a variety of contexts including school, the street and parks. Even the school lunch break can demonstrate the importance of understanding the micro-geographies of peer interaction.

Narratives of identity are constructed and contested in these public places where “they resist adult social practices by creating their own at school and in the street” (Valentine, 2000: 57). During school lunch breaks, young people interact and develop their own individuality at the same time as striving to conform and avoid exclusion. In analysing the use of playground space, where teacher authoritarian surveillance is limited, Valentine (2000) conveys the importance of understanding how young people need access to public space as much as adults.Notably a ‘spatial marking of gender’ was witnessed as young men would be expected to display physical strength and staying power such as, drinking or smoking in the playing fields. In contrast, young females would use the toilet space away from ‘the adult gaze’ to express femininity and maturity. Children are consciously aware of their surroundings and instead of marginalisation in society, should be acknowledged for their ability to make rational choices.Literature that shows the skills and diverse range of young people’s lives has the scope to emphasise that, like adults they are competent in assessing and developing mental maps of safe and unsafe areas. Harden (2000) has demonstrated that “children’s perceptions of risk are complex and contingent on many different but interrelated factors involving space, time, behaviour and people” (45).

Hence, during the transition to adulthood, access to public space is an equally, if not more valuable sphere for children and young people than for adults.This is because it is one of the few spaces they can interact freely and learn about their physical environment and social world. The growing literature on young people’s perceptions is necessary to highlight their own anxieties and concerns about public space in contrast to assuming they primarily need protection or restriction. Nayak (2003) interviewed 12-15 years olds to show the potential of a more inclusive and holistic approach to crime and community safety. Her respondents showed a rich knowledge of their neighbourhoods and particular areas where crime and/or drugs were prevalent.

Since the “bodies of children are frequently the locus upon which adults’ fears and anxieties are projected” (Nayak, 2003: 305), it is essential to illustrate the value of pediocularity in its ability to move towards a more inclusive society. If young people were better portrayed as individuals with equal citizenship rights in the media and by politicians, then contribution of their views on their own local communities would be invaluable. Agency- enjoyment of public spaceAn aspect of childhood often ignored in the adult world is that far from being a structural process constrained by adults through education and socialisation, “children and young people find and make space beyond the surveillance of the adult world where they produce and improvise their relationships in forms of play, in the process creating local cultures of childhood” (Cook, 2003: 148). Through consumption practices, including the cinema, bowling alleys or fashion and food retail outlets, young people are agents in their own lives.

These physical consumption spaces are significantly used to spread youth consumer cultures that constantly generate themes and expressions of independence, difference or resisting of authority. This is a positive mechanism that enables a particular social group, normatively described as ‘dangerous’ or ‘non-conforming’, to assert their own identity politics in public space. Consumption spaces (although created by adults) can be understood as ‘seeing through children’s eyes’, that is, what young people want and marketing aims to give them their own feelings of autonomy in an otherwise adult world.This is how young people can resist or ignore pressures in adult hegemonic spaces and re-create their stages in childhood by constructing a collective identity based on what they desire.

The literature on consumer practices is used to demonstrate that, to a certain extent young people have embraced the adult commodification of childhood. Spaces such as entertainment complexes or skateboard parks, are essential for teenagers to continue to enjoy their freedom of public space and resist dominant ideologies of them all as troublesome or juvenile delinquents.Matthews et al. (1999) stress that “children face multiple realities and their experiences of space and place are contingent upon numerous dimensions such as, gender, class, ethnicity and location” (143). Thus, a further aspect of young people striving to resist adult dominant ideologies can be seen in Dwyer’s (1999) study of young Muslim women in two schools. Here, gender and ethnicity were significant identity traits that affected how young people chose to negotiate public space.

Interviews revealed that visible displays of one’s religion using ‘the hijab’, enabled Muslim teenagers to construct their own identities. Interpreting the local landscapes (school, the street, home), meant they either resisted or conformed to how both peers and wider society would stigmatise or encourage individual choice. Of significance is that like adults, young people are constantly moving in and out of public spaces where ‘the adult gaze’ is constant.However, Muslim female teenagers can express their individuality and resist conforming to social ‘norms’ as much as any group of young people who can and do so everyday. Why young people should to be accepted more in public space From the preceding argument it should be more clear now why giving young people a voice in contemporary society would be a valuable contribution to the adult socio-spatial world.

Additionally, it is vital that young people actively use public space and negotiate everyday interactions with their peers, teachers and parents.These occur in consumption spaces, the local neighbourhood and at school, which through personal and collective interpretations of the landscape and the range of people in it can contribute to the active construction of the dynamic stages in childhood. This is achieved through both explicit and subconscious resistance to adult assumptions and categorisation of children and young people. In general, it is assumed they are not yet adults and thus, ‘not deserving’ of full citizen rights.

However, public spaces are important to young people both materially and symbolically. They are a ‘third space’ away from familial control where “teenagers can actively construct their own identities on the street, and assert a sense of difference from adults” (Nayak, 2003: 311). Research on the agency of children and young people is essential to counteract prevailing adult hegemony and misrepresentation of childhood as a distinct life stage for ‘human becomings’, which is then used to justify restriction and control of their spatial mobility.Matthews et al.

(1999) significantly contribute to the academic literature by ignoring the negative stereotyping of young people and concentrating on the European variations in young people’s participation and representation in local and national politics. By drawing attention to the UNCRC (UN Convention on the Human Rights of the Child) and young people’s involvement in groups such as, Amnesty Youth International (1988: 1300 members to 1995: 15000), there is clearly potential in the near future for young people’s views to be taken seriously.This is necessary since young people seen in the majority of public spaces is often not well received and both legislation and the media is affecting young people’s autonomy. By dramatically redistributing power in society to include young people on issues from urban design of public spaces to government spending on crime prevention, perhaps contemporary society will not automatically assume that all young people are now out of control and deliberately creating a ‘yob culture’.Young people are far from a homogenous group yet their values, opinions and needs are often suffocated by adult decisions such as, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders or Neighbourhood Renewal Projects targeting deprived areas. A small but key programme to be launched is the Young Voices in Regeneration (a national partnership programme) which is essential for young people to be “involved in shaping their own communities and learning to accept communal responsibilities” (Matthews, 3/9/01).This is one way the enjoyment of public space for young people could be turned around by including them in the urban design of their neighbourhoods. How young people are actually perceived and controlled Despite growing literature on children and young people’s competence, individuality and significance of public space for the active construction of collective identities; the media, political parties and education system continue to exclude young people from the adult socio-spatial world.

Their access to public space is restricted often due to uncertainty defining ‘childhood’, such that laws assume all under 16s cannot negotiate sexuality, but at the age of 10 they can be held criminally responsible in the UK. This ambiguity is further recognised in Harden’s (2000) report that “school’s authority ensures they are taught varying risks at a certain age, mainly high school” (50). Regardless of young people’s cognitive abilities, the school system assumes childhood is a linear process and by controlling access to knowledge by age, they can expect young people to adopt and embrace their subordinate position in society.A headteacher emphasises the implicit restrictions imposed on young people during lunch times by stating that to “avoid children going offsite, schools had to re-produce the attractions of the local neighbourhood on-site” (Valentine, 2003: 260). Clearly, school is a place for young people to be subjected to adult authority and if seen in public spaces at a particular time, their freedom is compromised. School is a place to protect young people from the ‘dangerous’ outside world and train them to become adults , but in public spaces, their physical presence is often feared and young people become ‘devils’.

A growing fear of youth crime and violence is evident from rural locations in Australia to urban areas in Scotland and across America. Kraak and Kenway (2002) discovered that young people’s behaviour can be even more stigmatised in a ‘rural idyll’ where the peace and traditional values of older residents and local authorities frequently clashed with “uncivil behaviour such as yelling, spitting, swearing and dropping rubbish” (150). The local and national media often portray young people as “social pollution or unwelcome occupants” in public spaces.However, it is often ignored that they are in fact too young for the pub and too old for the playground, which limits their choice of ‘third spaces’ (Kraak and Kenway, 2002). Adults however, continue to impose spatial and temporal boundaries, from legal curfews prevalent in the USA to more general social surveillance generated by media-fuelled ‘moral panics’. The media is one of, if not the most powerful tools in shaping contemporary society’s values, ideologies and inclusionary/ exclusionary processes.

Collins and Kearns (2001) claim we now live in “an era during which it is widely believed that young people are increasingly lawless and disrespectful towards adults” (395). A recent Official Report into the Youth Justice System states that 1. 25m of all young people had committed a criminal offence in the last 12 months, which certainly adds to the fear of youths in society (The Guardian, 5/1/04). This has resulted in public space for nearly all young people now being monitored and restricted by adults despite compromising the freedom and necessary independence of those innocent of illegal activities.

Moral panics’ can develop rapidly and public outrage about youth culture has effectively resulted in the US preoccupation with ‘teenophobia’ and 146 legal curfews operating in 200 of its largest cities (Collins and Kearns, 2001: 391). Curfews are controversial since they are responding to youth crime figures but essentially deny the right to freedom of association under the UNCRC. Nevertheless, curfews were tested in Scotland in 1997-8 under the Hamilton Child Safety Initiative aimed at protecting children’s safety and to remove potential juvenile criminals from the street at night.After several evaluations of its success, the liberal rights of young people were upheld. Furthermore, “chief police officers have produced suggestions that children need to be seen more as equal partners and that alienation may ensue if curfews were replicated” across the UK (Atkinson, 2003: 1839).

On the contrary, New Labour since 2001 gave local authorities and police the power to apply for curfew orders and this was taken up by Wigton, Cumbria for 2 weeks during the Easter Holidays this year (The Guardian, 2/4/04).In addition to the media; curfews; generational morality assumptions; and the school system; CCTV is a significant component of contemporary society that can compromise the enjoyment of public space for young people. Cities across the UK now have sophisticated surveillance control rooms watching nearly all public spaces. This is why so often young people ‘loitering’ in shopping malls or on streets at night drinking, are often moved on, especially if skateboarding or playing football in quiet ‘adult spaces’.

Nayak’s study (2003) found that young people were in fact keenly aware that their collective presence outside of school or the home meant they were all finding themselves construed as troublesome youths (310). This is in spite of the interviewees reporting their own safety as a reason for staying in groups, than any motive to cause anti-social behaviour. Overall, this reflects the controversial debate about both CCTV and curfews as “new repressions in space and movement to defend luxury lifestyles” or a utilitarian decision to reduce crime and violence in the name of the ‘public good’ (Collins and Kearn, 2001: 402). ConclusionAdvertising of aspirational global youth cultures (individuality and choices) and media sensationalism (‘the lost generation’) often recreate ambiguities for young people in their own understanding of contemporary society. On the one hand, young people are the next generation of consumers and ‘our future’, but an opposite image often portrays youths as a deviant and wild group to be feared and controlled. This dualism is emphasised by Kruger (1990, in Valentine, 2003) suggesting that narratives of individualisation at an increasingly young age has meant the categories of child/youth are now dissolving into adulthood (259).Young people are often searching for places to develop their social identities but as groups or ‘gangs’ on the street, the police, shopkeepers, office security guards and parents each to varying degrees continue to restrict their spatial mobility.

Overall, there are clearly contradictions about who is a threat to society; ‘dangerous’ youths against the ‘responsible adults’ or ‘untrustworthy’ adults against ‘confused’ young people? The geographies of childhood are clearly ambiguous, contested and actively re-negotiated by adults, the state and institutional systems, and young people themselves.An understanding of how the enjoyment of public space is compromised in contemporary society needs to be assessed within both an agency and structural framework. Childhood is no longer a simple trajectory but one riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions that cannot be explained without seeing it through young people’s eyes first, as was the purpose of the first half of this paper. The second half demonstrates how young people continue to be constrained by adult spatial hegemony.From the school playground to the main high street, teenager’s spatial and temporal movement is constantly monitored by numerous strategies including CCTV technology, social ‘norms’ and ‘the adult gaze’, strict policing and government legislation allowing curfews.

In conclusion, there is an ambiguity existing between the positive attributes of young people’s individual and collective identities and negotiations in the a globalised socio-economic world; and the negative features of youths who continue to be “commonly recognised as the targets of adults’ anxieties” (Kraak and Kenway, 2002: 145).


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