Sanitary Cities

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The Homeboys Brendan Esposito




How Designers Banish the Young and the Poor from the Public Realm

Report Rob White

The city can be seen as a site of constant processes of social inclusion and exclusion. Unequal power and resources are constantly being translated at a material level into new forms of ‘enclosure’ and separation as the city is reshaped to concretely express the differences between social classes and groups. These concerns lie at the heart of the following discussion on the social location of young people in the urban environment.

Social and Spatial Inequality
Inequality in recent years has sharpened in Australia. Young people have been especially hard hit by the effects of recession and persistently high unemployment rates. Many thousands of young people are now excluded, permanently, from a living wage. And more generally, it been estimated that almost 700,000 young people have particularly insecure employment prospects.

Inequality of this nature has a number of spatial dimensions. Many of the ‘at risk’ young people live in neighbourhoods, or regional centres (i.e. country areas), where the adults in their households are likewise unemployed or very poor in immediate monetary terms. Poverty and unemployment are geographically concentrated largely due to changes in local labour market conditions. Social difference is being constructed between localities on an increasingly polarised class basis, as poverty becomes an entrenched feature of social life in specific city suburbs.

Increasingly in Australia there are neighbourhoods which for all intents and purposes are now resembling the classic ‘ghettos’ of overseas. Processes of polarisation and inequitable opportunity are having a particularly devastating impact on young people. Thus, joblessness among teenagers in low income areas is much higher than their counterparts in higher socio-economic areas.

Where you live is also linked to the nature of local amenities. The provision of parks, recreational facilities, open-air plazas and gardens is contingent upon resources for civic design work, everyday upkeep, maintenance and repair, paid and volunteer labour, and responsible management. Lack of state and private finances in poorer areas translates into inadequate provision of services and community supports or maintenance of existing reserves and facilities relative to need.

In a similar vein, government cutbacks in social services such as schools can have a disproportionately negative effect on rural communities and low income neighourhoods. Many students simply leave the system. Here we can point out, as well, that school grounds are an important site for young people to congregate and spend time together. The widespread sell-off of school properties in effect removes these particular places from community use and destroys valuable points of neighbourhood connection and identity for students and unemployed young people.

The extent and nature of local services is particularly important to consider when examining where young people actually ‘hang out’. The availability and accessibility of open-air parks, ovals, malls, plazas, and beaches have obvious implications for youth activities. So too, the mix between commercial enterprises (such as amusement parlours and shopping complexes) and non-commercial locations (such as the street) will affect youth livelihood and ‘spare time’ behaviour. The latter is especially important in that large sections of the youth population are no longer able financially to participate fully in activities which require money to access.

Street Life and Crime Prevention
Shopping centres in most of our cities act as a strong pole of attraction for young people. While used by many different groups for many different reasons, the contemporary shopping complex is primarily socially constructed as a ‘commercial space’. The wide net cast to pull people into the consumer space also attracts those who do not or cannot consume what the commercial enterprises have on offer. For many young people, for instance, the shopping centre is a site for socialising first, and ‘consumption’ second, if at all.

The visibility and presence of young people, particularly the more marginalised, non-consuming individuals and groups, has in turn been met by concerted attempts to exclude or regulate them. The police, private security firms, shopping centre security staff, transit police and welfare officials are significant players, with varying powers, in the policing of young people’s behaviour and movements. In some cases, as with the Southbank Corporation in Queensland, private companies and corporations are being granted extraordinary powers to police users of their privately owned but publicly accessible urban spaces.

The shopping centre is part of a larger urban matrix broadly conceived of as ‘street life’. The ‘street’ can be defined as space which is generally ‘open’ to the public and which incorporates roads, footpaths, beaches and parks, as well as specific buildings and structures such as plazas, malls and shopping areas. The economic, social and political marginalisation of increasing numbers of people, especially the long-term unemployed, is both forcing them to live in identifiable low-income residential areas, and making them even more visible when they venture out into the public domains of the shopping precincts, parklands and street thoroughfares. The sheer numbers and concentrations of the unemployed, particular the young, has engendered considerable ‘moral panic’ and ‘fear of crime’ in the more ‘respectable’ sections of the populace.

Street policing (whether private or public, law enforcement officer or moral crusader) is thus increasingly oriented toward ‘cleaning up the streets’ of young ‘hoodlums and thugs’. One consequence of this general regulatory push is that the city is steadily being divided into a series of overlapping ‘no-go zones’. Major commercial districts are divided into publicly accessible, but selectively open, consumer areas. Even publicly owned malls are increasingly subject to extensive surveillance via the use of spy cameras. Meanwhile, wealthy residential areas are increasingly resembling urban fortresses as security is commodified and sold back to people under the rubric of ‘safer communities’ and protected homesteads. The target of social exclusion is precisely those for whom the economy and state policy has been the largest failure—the young unemployed.

Fortification is but the mirror image of ghettoisation. For people subject to the latter, open or restricted entry to services and shopping facilities are not the main issues. Rather, the dearth of adequate facilities, and the lack of needed financial and human resources to mould a more human and humane environment, are the main contingencies. Here too, the ‘no-go zone’ is steadily being fostered and solidified as the young take over their streets and assert their presence in the world.

The transformation of public space into commercial space or ‘mass private property’ has reshaped the nature of community space generally.

Privatisation and hyper-development have combined to create architecture and planning schemes which are designed with very specific objectives and very particular communities in mind. The wealthy, the consumer, the investor—these are the winners in the redevelopment stakes. The rise of private security forces and sophisticated security systems has been matched by an exclusionary access to work, living spaces and consumption which protects the privileged while excluding everyone else.

Accompanying concerns to prevent crime, rather than simply respond to it after the fact, much planning attention in recent years has focussed on specific ways in which to modify the physical and social environment. Thus, changes to the physical environment have included such measures as better streetscape and building design, improved lighting in public spaces, and use of closed-circuit TVs, remote sensors and electronic key-cards. Attempts have also been made to extend the range of surveillance of local neighbourhood activities, involving such things as the setting up of Neighbourhood Watch committees, reintroduction of police beat patrols in inner city areas, and encouraging ‘natural surveillance’ through residential planning. In addition, attempts have also been directed at enhancing citizen participation through programmes which are not crime-centred per se, such as sports and recreation programmes, and community ‘clean up’ campaigns designed to make a local environment more attractive and conducive to positive social life.

The crucial point about these crime prevention measures is that the wide variety of techniques, practices and policies encompassed under the broad ‘crime prevention’ umbrella have differential social impacts. How certain measures affect different groups of people depends very much on how they are implemented and the political basis for their particular implementation.

The adoption of many types of ‘protective’ and ‘surveillance’ measures serves to reinforce the crime control agenda of the right-wing law and order lobby, and to orient programs and policing strategies toward containment objectives rather than dealing with the wider conditions which generate crime. Particular kinds of crimes are targetted over others (e.g. commercial property theft), and the intention is to create a hostile environment for certain categories of people (e.g. unemployed young people who do not have the capacity to purchase goods and services). Economic and social exclusivity is built into such crime prevention strategies.

Shopping Centres and Social Inclusion
The construction of space, and its relationship to social inequality, goes to the heart of democratic decision-making processes and the general allocation of communal resources in our society. With regard to this, we need to be alert to the fact that the struggle over public space has a number of dimensions. One of these dimensions relates to the commercial implications of the planning process itself.

For example, new centres are emerging which are premised upon selling ‘security’ to young people (and their parents) themselves. Such entertainment complexes are in essence ‘total control management’ centres. Hidden sensors are there to scan each entrant for possible hidden weapons, and the facilities have restricted access and exit ports. Cameras monitor the goings-on, and each worker in the complex is wired-up in the so-called Disney style (named after the famous U.S. entertainment complex) whereby each is in direct voice communication with a centralised security system.

In the context of overpowering technology and environmental design, young people have no real voice in how the site is to be managed. And, importantly, there is a cost to enter the complexes as a whole. Those who can pay are afforded total security and peace of mind. Those who cannot, are left to their own devices, and their own ways of spending time on the ‘street’ outside.

On the more positive and inclusive side, however, are those instances where shopping centre managers have tried a different approach, one which does not discriminate on the basis of entry fee. For example, a shopping centre in Perth was having problems, such as vandalism, which were largely attributed to local young people. The manager of the Midland Gate Shopping Centre decided to speak to a local youth organisation about collaborating to seek a solution.

In the end, a youth worker was hired and funding was provided jointly by the shopping centre and the department for community development. The youth worker’s role was to liaise with the young people and link them up with existing support services such as health, accommodation, legal and other services.

Within a matter of weeks, the tone of the centre had begun to change. With the youth worker acting as liaison between the management and the young people a number of interrelated issues were dealt with which hitherto had not been recognised. Youth-specific services were housed in the shopping centre. The young people were encouraged to contribute ideas about the operation and activities of the centre. They were made to feel a valuable part of the community.

Feedback from community members, management, retailers, customers and young people was overwhelmingly favourable. The atmosphere is now one which is based upon the attitude that a win-win situation can be devised for everyone concerned. It involves listening, and responding constructively, to the problems, need and desires of the various young people who use the centre.

The example of the Midland Gate Streetwork Programme has already had an impact on developers and youth workers in other parts of the country. For instance, in a case which is in part directly based upon the Perth experience, the youth worker at Leichhardt Council in Sydney negotiated with a company a series of youth-specific conditions as part of the development application for the re-development of the former Grace Brothers site in Glebe, NSW. A proposal was worked out which stipulated that, as conditions of site development: there be formed a youth advisory committee, to be consulted throughout the design, building and operation of the complex; a full-time youth services co-ordinator be employed and fully funded by centre’s management; an annual youth activities budget of $10,000 (indexed to cost of living adjustments) be provided; and a full time youth worker be employed. The developer had appeared to be more than happy to comply with this condition, although the actual outcome remains to be seen.

Such developments open the possibility that provision of appropriate space and facilities for young people could become, in effect, a routine demand when shopping centre developments or expansions are being considered by local government.

The social partitioning of the city is not necessarily a conscious ‘choice’ of developers, shopping centre managers and those who have the material means to do so. Very often the pressures to adopt exclusionary policies, to sell ‘security’ and to enforce a particular kind of spatial code are shaped by ‘commercial’ decisions and corporate balance sheets, rather than sociological or political considerations. But, as we have seen, these same commercial realities may also open the door to more inclusive and participatory practices. However it is designed, the construction of public space has enormous implications for today’s young people.

Dr Rob White is a lecturer in the Department of Criminology at the University of Melbourne. This paper draws upon ‘No-Go in the Fortress City: Young People, Space and Inequality’, published in Urban Policy and Research, Vol. 14, No.1, 1996. The photographs are from the State Library of New South Wales’ current exhibition Photo Documentary: Recent Images from Everyday Life.

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Published online: 1 May 1996

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Architecture Australia, May 1996

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