Spring of 2020, mid-COVID lockdown and Canadian youth were planted at their computers for remote learning. Stores were closed, sports on hold, families isolated in their homes, and friends unable to hang out. Most middle- and high-school students spent part of their days creating ways to be interpersonal. Students from a high school in Alberta found an ingenious way to interact: they circled their wagons. Imitating ancestors who moved West almost two centuries ago, the students drove to the empty high-school parking lot and backed up to form a circle with their trunks and hatches open. They sat individually in the back of their own vehicles. Facing one another, between three and five metres apart, they sat, talked, and played music; they were kids doing what kids do. They had a space to be. Administrators still working daily in the school gave a thumbs-up to their creative pupils. I asked one of the Grade 11 students to send me a short video. In it, I observed 12 cars backed into the wagon wheel: one kid per vehicle, all legs dangling from the back and each teen engaged. During the most terrifying global time in a century, there was hope and initiative displayed by the clever youth who figured out how to safely be together, and with the approval from the school leadership team who were glad to create a space for their students to be, and to be well. I was impressed by the good intent and action all around and pitched an idea to make a short film with them. I would interview each participant remotely and ask them to shoot some of their sessions. The youth were thrilled that I was inspired by their collaborative genius, and I began to organize the logistics.
The local police shut it down. With no explanations, one day they came to the parking lot and told the youth to cease and desist. Overruling the school administrators, law enforcement made sure that no wagons would circle.
Having a place “to be,” a public space, creates healthy and positive ways of being. An ad hoc social community emerges in public spaces, where senses are stimulated and the similarities and diversity of those involved are displayed (Mean & Tims, 2005). Wellness is associated with the benefits of public space, which is claimed equally by everyone. The space reinvents itself daily: inhabitants change, the ability to seek an area for body and mind is created and recreated. Public space is not only the product of a developer, city planner, school board, or museum, it is often an unofficial collaboration between those who determine the space is valuable.
Urban public space is often conceived in parks, yet many areas have ceased mapping out new parks. While some public urban spaces for warm weather have been introduced, with shared public gardening, exercise space, meditation paths, biking and roller blading trails, and skateboard ramps and tubes, little consideration or initiative has been established to create winter-friendly public spaces. Canadian youth are left out in the cold.
From child advancement to youth encumbrance
Public space is often unattainable for youth; indeed many towns and cities have no designated space for youth. The last pre-pandemic public space I saw was in a parking lot. Between 25 and 40 high-school kids were hanging out in small groups in front of a Cineplex at the south end of an enormous mall, an early spring day, they were enjoying the weather. As I parked, four police cars pulled up and ordered them to leave. Canadian malls are often a gathering spot for youth. Avoiding inclement weather, Canadian youth visit malls for restrooms, food facilities, and stores, they also contribute to the economy by shopping. Claiming crime instances and theft, many malls have instituted bans for under-18 shoppers unless they are accompanied by a parent. Yet according to a 2016 Government of Quebec report, while youth are accused of shoplifting and vandalism over three times more often than adults, they are less likely to shoplift and vandalize (Lowrie, 2018).
Public space is democratic – not corporately or politically democratic. It is a space where one can feel safe. A place that allows movement, sound, art, quiet, the ability to congregate, the ability for a group of people to make known something important to them. But public space creates a difference between children and youth regarding access. Public space for children, of course, is chaperoned, shepherded. Children are with a teacher or an adult of some sort: a babysitter, a youth, someone who’s helping facilitate their enjoyment of the space. They interact in a place where they can climb on toys, wade, walk; someone is there to ensure little children are safe and nurtured. Adults and caregivers support children to enjoy public space, to run, to feel, to experiment. How important that experimentation becomes. Successes can happen for children in public spaces. The first time a child walks, runs, throws a ball, or rides a bike speaks to enormous growth and success. Public space is special for children, allowing socialization, physical activity, environmental awareness, fresh air, and wellness.
For youth, it can be a different scenario. North American youth are often seen as a population to be feared. My work has focused on the notion that many adults just don’t like youth (Steinberg, 2018). According to many adults, they are a revolutionary group, nonconformists. Along with their clothing, music, art, their way, the fact that they are youth, they become something to fear. Youth are often not allowed to be in a public space without adult supervision. There are dramatic differences in parental attitudes between a baby’s space and the space for a youth to be. With new babies, an obsession with advanced and appropriate development ensues. We watch for babies to roll over at four months, sit up at six months, and walk at one year. Potty training tends to be a milestone, with parents and family applauding as they stand around the toilet. Talking is an enormous concern for parents; expectations for the first word, then sentences haunt most parental minds. From preschool through Grade 1, expectations and hope surround the development of a child. Tying shoes is a stressful hurdle and the first playdate and friendship is a celebration. Riding the first trike and then a two-wheeler become kidhood capstones. Parents wait for their young children to become self-sufficient, independent, and able to entertain themselves. Up until nine or ten, each success is heralded and compared to other children of the same age.
By the time a child is a tween, parents reverse course and fear their child’s independence. No longer do parents push for their progeny to make their own decisions, pick out the day’s clothing, be creative. Parental complaints often barrage teens: their hair is wrong, their clothing is inappropriate, and their language is appalling. North American parents go from finding success in children to finding failure in teens. The same parents who pushed their little ones to make decisions, talk, choose clothes, and ride bikes are now fearful of skateboarding, rollerblading, pink hair, and midriff tops. Such irony in our childrearing. Adding to the nixing comes suspicion, doubt, fear and distrust… for both the teen and the parents. I contend that most adults just don’t understand or like teens; consequently, the rules pile on, adult/youth discord and tumultuous years commence. Along with this discord comes the restriction of places where teens are free “to be” and an adult need to control and surveil youth. To have healthy youth, we must find ways to have healthy public spaces available throughout the year for teens to create communities, hang out, and dangle their legs. Social distancing isn’t the problem; finding a place to safely socially distance is. Safe, public spaces must become a priority for our Canadian youth.
In search of healthy public spaces for youth “to be”
Dislike and fear of youth is uncovered regarding where the youth are, where they hang out, and who they are with. With limited safe spaces to be, our youth seek refuge in social media, online gaming, and smartphone addiction, all resulting in loss of socialization, healthy spaces, and shared communities. Space for youth to gather is limited: cars, homes with oft-gone parents, basements, and barns can become evening spaces to act out, kick back, and engage in exactly the activities the parents are so worried about. Without healthy special alternatives for youth, safe places to be, our teens resort to whatever they can find.
I was recently on a committee with city planners, university professors, and architects. Our charge was to discuss ways to turn a downtown walking mall into a viable and energetic public space. The area is known to be a haven for runaway youth and people who sleep rough, somewhat itinerant in nature, and many citizens avoid the area. I suggested creating a public space to serve youth, both the vulnerable teens who populate the mall and after-school kids in general. I noted that little ones run free in public spaces and are urged to experiment and climb, yet youth are often stopped or given signals that “you can’t be here, this space isn’t for you.” The same public space changes depending on the age of the occupant. I proposed a public theatre space – one that would allow crevices and climbing spots to serve both little ones and teens in physical movement and exercise, with the space also being used for impromptu performances, slam poetry, and improvisational theatre. Using the notion of theatre as public space, participants could mould the area to suit their visions. Possibly this area could offer some sort of wall in the same area that could be designated to create changeable graffiti where youth organizations could sponsor a space for artistic expression in a city where graffiti is completely illegal and has a full-time quasi police force patrolling for it. A small bit of interest was generated, but most of the group was anxious to turn back to exploring pop-up stores, picnic tables, and museum space.
In search of public spaces for wellness
I once found a place in the Highlands of Scotland by following an old sign, “Stone Circle” written with crayon or old paint, it had an arrow pointing to the left. I remember driving up there, just another pretty road. It led me to an enormous meadow of soft, green green moss, in the moss was a stone circle – a sort of Stonehenge, but not really. It didn’t have a name. There was a sense of mystery that I loved. One could walk all over…. there were no ropes, no signs, no poster that told us where we could take a picture. It was just a free space where anyone could run and touch the stones, chase around, or sit, as I chose to, in the very middle of the middle. I was in a space that was private and public at the same time. Low mountains were all around me, magical mountains with moors and the pillow softness of the Earth in all directions.
I’m not a meditator but I was able to do my way of meditating while I was there. Years later, when I want to put myself in a space that gives me peace, I still think of that free, unencumbered public space: a stone circle with no one in charge, no rules or cameras… it was free to the universe, free to the rain, the snow, and the people who touched it. I want our youth to know that they can go to a space, be safe, breathe fresh air, and just be. They need that. They deserve that.
Photo: courtesy Shirley R. Steinberg
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Lowrie, M. (2018, May 2). Quebec shopping mall bans unaccompanied children and teens. The Canadian Press.
Means, M. & Tims, C. (2005). People make places: Growing the public life of cities. Demos.
Steinberg, S. R. (Ed). (2018). Activists Under 30: Global Youth, Social Justice & Good work. Brill/Sense Publishing.