Looking out of our office windows you can enjoy the sights and sounds of a busy working canal with a flight of locks taking boaters through the middle of Birmingham.
I’ve noticed that the locks have recently come to serve as a training course for budding free runners, practising their leaps and testing their nerve above the murky water. Watching them – and watching the way other people react to their slightly madcap manoeuvres – reinforces a few truths about being young. Being outdoors is important (young people want to be outdoors more according to recent research commissioned by Keep Britain Tidy), as is being in a group.
Learning to take risks is part of growing up but it’s reassuring to do this in full view of the wider community, where young people feel connected and safe - there’s a reason why shopping centres are a favourite place to congregate. Lastly, if there are no purpose built facilities available, young people are experts at repurposing their local environment, whether it’s skateboarders commandeering the town hall steps or footballers putting down jumpers for goalposts.
We’re at a point in time where there is growing emphasis on understanding how, as a society, we connect with the spaces and places around us, not least because many of them are under threat. Locality’s Save our Spaces campaign highlights the loss of publicly owned facilities – from swimming pools to parks – while the Government’s 25 year plan for the natural environment points to a raft of measures aimed at reconnecting people with nature as a means of generating greater collective action on issues from biodiversity to plastic pollution.
These questions are coming to a head in the debate about how we look after our parks and green spaces - places that serve as outdoor community centres, free health spas and part of the essential ecosystem that sustains our quality of life. Whilst we know the many benefits parks and green spaces can bring – reducing pressure on the NHS, helping communities integrate and mitigating environmental issues from air quality to flooding – we’re struggling to resource their upkeep given reducing council budgets, and are becoming increasingly reliant on a volunteer workforce. If ever there was a place and time to unlock the creativity and energy of young people it is here and now.
Spaces to go and spaces to grow
But why should young people care about the patch of grass at the end of their road? It’s a question we asked our young ambassadors and their response was clear and compelling. Young people want to play an active part in their local community, and the local environment is an obvious and accessible place to start. This isn’t necessarily some newfound civic responsibility on the part of 'generation sensible' but a reflection of the desire young people have to make a practical difference to global problems (Blue Planet and all) coupled with an understanding that better use of our shared open spaces can help address the personal challenges many of them are facing – particularly increased mental health problems and feelings of loneliness.
#InclusiveSpaces is a campaign generated by young people which aims both to highlight the fact that young people have a view on how their local environment should be designed and managed but also to encourage their peers to commit to practical action in their community.
Our experience of working with young people over nearly four decades has taught us that they are passionate and inventive but also pragmatic and realistic. Consultations seldom result in fanciful requests for the local park to become Alton Towers or the site of a major festival, but instead show that young people want some basic infrastructure that will help them socialise and express themselves - somewhere to sit (and stay dry), someone to cut the grass so they can kick a ball about and for playgrounds or skateparks to be near paths, roads and houses so that they feel safe. If we get the basics right then young people will be much more likely to engage in constructive debate about how places are used, maintained and developed.
If we’re going to capitalise on this commitment then the first step has to be recognising that the decisions being made about our local services and facilities need to be informed by the views of young people. The second step is working to ensure young people see the discussion as relevant and that it is led by institutions and organisations that are 'young people friendly'. This has to move beyond the tokenism of providing a seat for a young person at a 'grown up table' and instead harness youth work skills to encourage and equip young people to initiate the debate on their terms and to gain the immediate feedback and results those growing up in the social media age expect.
As our local free-runners demonstrate, exploring the local environment in their own way can help young people express themselves, forge friendships and build their sense of identity. For too many young people, however, formal parks are seen as places where they’re an unwelcome presence - the preserve of toddlers or pensioners. At the same time we’ve become nervous as a society of allowing our young people the right to roam in wilder natural environments.
If we’re going to make our parks and green spaces fit for the future then we’re going to have to embrace some risk-taking and rule-breaking.
Post by Graham Duxbury
CEO of Groundwork