Coming in from the margins

Slowly, the needs of teens are being taken into account when public spaces are designed.

Nasrin Sultana, a 17-year-old New Yorker, is thinking big-picture design these days.

Along with 30 other teens, she is participating in "Re-Design Your City," a program at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, a division of the Smithsonian in Manhattan. With the help of professionals, the group is working to find ways to transform the 116th Street corridor, which cuts across Harlem.

The project, which concludes with a presentation to the American Planning Association conference, has encouraged this city-bound teenager to consider the human dynamics of public spaces, something that seldom happens.

Teens are only occasionally drawn into the design process or considered as prime users of the built landscape. Still, there are scattered places, programs, and people attuned to their needs and the contributions they can make.

Patsy Eubanks Owens, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Davis, is one of them. She helps conduct a project called, Building Youth Resiliency Through Environmental Design, which looks at the role a young person's physical surroundings play in surviving adolescence. To some degree, she is studying hangouts, which she feels are often misunderstood.

"I think something we have to get across as a society is that hanging out is actually a positive activity for teenagers," Professor Owens says. "They are trying to figure out who they are, what their place is. They need this kind of informal group interaction. They don't get that at school, where they must follow a rigid schedule under adult control. They need opportunities to build their own little network and work within that."

Owens is an advocate of seeking youth input not only in designing school grounds, but for community-wide plans. She remembers how appreciative, practical, and responsible young people were several years ago when asked to design their ideal park in Davis, Calif. They wanted many of the same things as adults.

This willingness to think broadly is evident in comments by teens in the Cooper-Hewitt program, too.

Speaking of her own neighborhood in Queens, for example, Ms. Sultana doesn't call for a youth center or teens-only hangout. Instead, her vision is for a series of small, neighborhood parks where people could congregate within walking distance of their homes.

"People in my community pretty much keep to themselves," she says. "I'd want a place where they could sit and talk. There'd be an open space for ballgames, but a separate space with flowers, a pond with fish, and benches. I think teenagers would enjoy having a calm place to be."

This is an urban vision, but the need for a network of neighborhood pocket parks is just as great, and probably greater, in the suburbs.

Where the sidewalk ends

Suburban sprawl, most experts agree, has inhibited interaction, especially among young people. The growth of automobile-dependent subdivisions in the post-World War II era has been "decidedly anticommunity," according to Ray Oldenburg, a sociology professor at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

"Residential areas have been created without a single gathering place, and often without even sidewalks," he says.

Professor Oldenburg has studied what he calls "third places," those spots outside the home and workplace he considers critical to the wellbeing of the individual and society - cafes, community centers, and hangouts of various kinds.

His book on the subject, "The Great Good Place," garnered a lot of attention, but to his disappointment, a chapter devoted to young people, entitled "Shutting Out Youth," was virtually ignored.

"How viable, in the long run," he asks, "is a society that cannot unite the generations in an integrated community?"

One place where this union can be built, Oldenburg says, is on the street.

Streets are often associated with danger today, either in the form of rushing traffic or antisocial behavior, but in an earlier time they were considered ideal playgrounds - close to home, within earshot of parents.

Oldenburg is joined by so-called neotraditional or New Urbanist architects and planners in advocating a return to more youth-friendly streets, as well as biking and walking paths.

"The most fundamental thing is having a pattern where streets are designed so you can walk along them, they're safe, and they lead to neighborhood parks, community centers, and shopping districts," says Shelley Poticha, executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. "Kids learn how to be adults in neighborhoods like this because they aren't separated out into some kind of teen-only place. And because they're walkable, kids have more autonomy."

"Theoretically, it seems these places would be good places for teenagers," says Professor Owens.

But while fond of New Urbanist designs, which often incorporate front porches and alleyways that facilitate meeting and hanging out, she knows one teen who considers his neotraditional community a desolate place.

Consequently, like many teenagers, this teen goes on the Internet to make connections.

"I think we've pushed teens indoors," Owens says.

Some experts would say at society's peril. They view the fatal shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last year as a symptom of what can go wrong when teenagers are alienated from their communities.

"I can't imagine what happens when you sit in front of the Internet all day," says Peter Lang, an instructor of architecture at the New Jersey School of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "When I was growing up, going outside and running around was the best and most fun thing. You definitely want people out."

Basements and garages have become the unsupervised hangouts of the suburbs, Dr. Lang says. Cul-de-sacs, meanwhile, have become dead ends in more ways than one.

Ms. Poticha of the Congress for New Urbanism says the hottest real estate market in San Francisco - the place where cutting-edge Internet companies want to be - is near a historic neighborhood park surrounded by shops and restaurants. She takes this as a positive sign that even serious e-mail users, as many teens are, want to experience in-person communities.

At the same time, she observes, the hottest retailing growth market is in pedestrian-oriented shopping districts, not big-box superstores and giant malls.

Shopping malls can't cut it

Although still considered one of the last community refuges for teens, surveys have shown that malls are no longer "cool." By definition, they are controlled environments, with rules and security guards. Some have established curfews for teens, such as the 520-store Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., which doesn't permit anyone younger than 16 without an adult escort after 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

In the absence of better public transportation, some teens would like to skateboard from place to place, but many communities build skate parks as a way of confining this activity.

For those teens with cars, and even those without, says Lang, one of the most popular places in suburbia is the convenience-store parking lot.

"The spaces in front and in back of the 7-Eleven [near my neighborhood] are very significant for teenagers," he says. The main reasons are simple: Convenience stores are open long hours, they have parking lots, and they sell the kinds of products that appeal to teenagers.

Lang would encourage communities to designate spaces for teens that would actually invite convenience stores. He'd add benches, trees, lighting, perhaps artwork or a kiosk. This, he believes, is far better than the alternative, which is to drive off teens to who-knows-where.

Besides convenience stores, coffee shops are gaining a youth following. Some teens find just what they want: a casual atmosphere, suitable menu items, and an air of grownup sophistication.

Robert Gibbs, a retail planning expert and president of Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, Mich., says it's important for town commercial districts to bring together teens and adults.

"I think there's a yearning by teenagers to be around other people besides teenagers," Mr. Gibbs says. One subtle indication of this is the way teens often congregate in the narrowest parts of the sidewalks, practically inviting contact with passersby.

Hanging out a "teen center" shingle isn't enough. The keys to designing for teens, Gibbs says, are "to treat them somewhat like adults, give them an opportunity to visit [each other] on their own terms, and use their own mode of transportation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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