Last night I was at a community consultation for the development of our community centre and associated park and leisure facilities on the development. It was just the initial meeting, marking the point where the council are finally getting serious about starting work. Initially, there were 20-or-so of us in the room brainstorming what the area already has to offer, and what it doesn’t, and using that as a springboard to finding out – from our personal networks in the locality – what might be appropriate to build. There were lots of points of disagreement between the people in the room, mostly over the positioning of the community building, but one point of universal agreement was that there was pretty much nothing for older children to do. By older children, we meant those between the ages of five and 18 – the only play facility being a small toddlers play park.
I have already posted about the effect that the car-based suburban design of residential areas combined with the tendency for us to engage in networked communities has on mothers and young children. What about older children and teenagers. Once again I agree with Ray Oldenburg in his analysis that they are the losers, as all of their safe, fun, and cheap third places, hideouts and opportunities for spur-of-the moment activities are designed out of the residential areas or are lost to over-organisation.
Oldenburg uses Levittown, Pennsylvania as his example – the first purpose-built suburb in the USA, built in the 1950s. This struck a chord with me as I have been there. My parents-in-law grew up there and my wife still has aunts and uncles and cousins who live there. The area represents the American dream and is replicated in some ways in new-build design in the UK. (The BBC has done a series of short features on Levittown as it is now 60 years old).
This is what Oldenburg has to say about it, based on research done in the 1950s:
Two of every three sixth-graders also liked the area, bit the overwhelming majority of teenagers felt that Levittown was ‘Endsville’… The adolescents were overlooked, and the sterility and oppressiveness of the place soon manifested itself in hostility towards adults and vandalism against adult property…
Like adolescents everywhere, Levittown youth desired the companionship of peers when the school day was over. Bit for them, at a time in life when the herd instinct in particularly strong, the yen for adventure great, and the desire to escape the boredom of the household is almost overwhelming, the kids were effectively told to stay put. They could watch television, take a nap, or do their homework. The few places at which adolescents could congregate included the development’s swimming pool, shopping centre, and bowling alley, but, for most, these were a long way off. In Levittown the problem of distance was compounded… The long, curved streets usually necessitated walking two miles for every one the crow flies…
The movies and bowling alleys cost too much money, and the only place in which the kids could be by themselves was at the swimming pool and then only when adults weren’t using it… The lack of public facilities resulted in a glut of parties given at homes, which, the teenagers reported, soon became boring…
Levittown was designed as though deliberately to frustrate it’s teenagers. At home, the bedrooms had enough space for sleeping and studying but were too small for entertaining friends… When dances were held [at the schools], the administration complained about scuffed floors and damage to fixtures. Shopping areas were designed for adult consumers and located far from the youngsters’ homes. The bowling alley was a later addition, and when it opened the teenagers came in such numbers as to upset the shopping centre’s merchants. Youth ultimately found their only hangouts at the luncheonettes that opened on the fringes of the development despite the efforts of the developer and local planning office to keep them away.
Though most parents finally realised that Levittown’s facilities were insufficient for older children and that some should be created, none were. The parents could not agree among themselves what might be appropriate or safe… (267-8)
In other words, the teenagers had nowhere where they could hang out together.
From my short visit there, I must add, it seemed like a pleasant place to live, but then I wasn’t thinking from the mind of a teenager at the time. (I was trying to remember all my then-girlfriend’s relative’s names!). But Oldenburg’s comments were not just limited to Levittown. He claims they it is a universal trait that suburban youth have far few places to hang out than they used to. In a town in Florida, he mourns the loss of a community building that was always open as a drop-in games hangout but which is now only open when there are registered groups offering organised activity. Now, he says, the youth building has given way to the Slimming World’s and yoga classes.
Last night at our meeting, the local crime prevention officer for the police commented that youth want somewhere to gather that feels safe, but that is a little away from houses and so is not totally overlooked. That is why so often they gather around shops where there is light and at least one shopkeeper to go to if something happens. It is no use creating something in a dark corner – they will probably not use it and/or may just get into trouble. They want to feel safe, but also independent, where they can hang about, hassle-free, with other teenagers where the luxury of being together doesn’t cost money and isn’t interrupted by organised activity. Youth drop-in groups are great, but are often limited to just one night a week. What about the other times?
It will be interesting to see what is built and offered for them. The key is to ask them and engage them in the decision process. That was the plan last night, but sadly, none could be persuaded to come along.