The Concrete Plant Park

Photo courtesy of Karyn Williams, Design Trust Director of Programs.

The Design Trust Equitable Public Space Fellowship Program, established in 2016, supports the next generation of urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and planners in contributing to complex public space challenges in our global city. Kimberly Mota is one of Design Trust's 2020-21 Equitable Public Space Fellows.

In my professional and personal experiences with youth, I have seen how not only their presence but their voices and perspectives can be marginalized in many forums.  A few years ago on a breezy spring evening, my coworker and I were walking with our youth on the West Side of Manhattan after they won first place in a competition for young entrepreneurs. Excited and eager to celebrate, we decided to visit the High Line -- a public park elevated above NYC streets that none of the youth had ever visited before. We soon reached a corner that extended off into rows of seating and a transparent billboard that framed a view of the chaos below us. This is the perfect place for a celebratory group photo, I thought. The sounds of laughter which echoed through stories of the nerve-wracking competition were interrupted by the sounds of walkie-talkies. Two cops proceeded into the semi-secluded area and halted when they saw my coworker and me- adults. They apologized only to us, turned, and left in the same direction they had come from. “Yeah, this happens a lot”, one of the youth members replied. 

Reminiscing on my days as a teen, I grew up in a very strict household. The only time I had to hang out was the 40 minutes of free time between school dismissal and catching my train back to Queens. With very limited options on where we could go, many of us gravitated towards the McDonald’s around the corner. We knew almost immediately that our presence was not welcome when we made our way to the upstairs seating area through tables of adults rolling their eyes and angrily staring at us. Eventually, security no longer allowed us, teens, to go upstairs without showing proof of purchase-- shutting us out of a space we typically gathered.

As part of the Equitable Public Space Fellowship, I was given the opportunity to conduct my own independent research project. I knew instantly that the issue of youth exclusion in design practices was an issue I wanted to delve deeper into. Policy and design-driven exclusion have a long history of shaping our public spaces. Many revitalization projects have focused on removing undesired users-- a category that teens constantly fall under. Youth have historically been excluded from utilizing public spaces how they want, in addition to being left out of design discussions and decision making. They are often pushed out of public spaces by their adult counterparts through exclusionary anti-loitering policies, curfew ordinances, anti-skateboarding sentiments, and over-policing of adolescent heavy gathering spaces. Because this age group does not yet have full control over their access to private spaces, public spaces then become a very important part of their development, mental health, and self-identity. This is where Youth Move: A Right to the City, was born. Youth Move is a research project which will culminate in a collective of youth, who will co-create a Zine on youth inclusionary creative placemaking strategies and proposals while also highlighting youth-led design. 

In order to continue to have these conversations, I thought to go back to where most of us spent our teen years -- high school. In January 2021, I (virtually) visited a sophomore architecture class from The High School of Art and Design. I conducted an anonymous survey on youths' experience navigating and accessing different types of spaces. The responses received tell a very clear story of how ageism in society - specifically when related to teenagers and the intersections between race, class, and gender - are intertwined with their experiences with the built environment and how spaces are shaped. 

One of the questions asked in the survey was for youth to describe what some of the assumptions adults make in regards to teenagers were. 

Some assumptions that adults have about teenagers is that they can't be trusted or that they don't know what they are talking about. I haven't been discriminated against, however, I do feel like my presence isn't as valuable because adults don't think I have anything important to say or share.”

“If it’s a group of us, and we’re laughing and kind of loud, people start looking, probably automatically assuming that we’re up to no good. sometimes it’s even what we’re wearing that start negative assumptions” 

“They might assume that teenagers are not as smart as themselves, and overall have the preconception that they are immature or not able to understand certain concepts.” 

When asked if they had ever felt unwelcome in spaces (both public or private) because of their age, it was almost an even split with 51.4% of the youth answering yes. However, when asked if they as youth feel like they have control/say over the way public spaces can look, 66.7% answered no. In a follow-up question, they were asked to state why they chose no, and here are some of those responses:

“I haven't ever been asked how I wanted my community to be designed.”

“Teens and adolescents are not seen as a trusted source for feedback and or worth conversing with on community projects” 

“Maybe because they [adults] don’t want us to feel comfortable?”

“When designing public spaces, our opinion is not really asked for, even if the spaces are being designed for our age group.”

“Because I feel like I'm young and those that can make a change are usually adults, and adults feel like they can do everything compared to a mere teenager”

“I think the youth should have a say in what our public spaces are because they affect us too. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good. I think that if the majority was to give the youth a chance to even feel like they can design their own environment, you’d be surprised with the ending result.” 

With youth being the future of our public spaces, it is not enough for them to be considered throughout the design process -- they should be given creative control and have direct involvement in how their spaces are shaped. While spaces have largely been designed to focus on adult users with some emphasis on young children, there is a large gap in activating and designing inclusive spaces for the teenage population. Through these early conversations and preliminary research, Youth Move strives to bring together a collective of youth, youth advocates and youth practitioners to discuss, create and visually represent what youth inclusive spaces can and should look like.