For some New Yorkers, justice in the streets might mean freedom from fear; for others, freedom from suspicion. For many young people, it simply means a right to exist in the public realm on their own terms. Teenagers, roughly one million New Yorkers, face a unique spatial challenge: Old enough to be independently mobile but too young to have homes of their own, they conduct their private lives outside. There, adults set limits on youth’s presence in the name of “quality of life.” Authorities in public and private space may call on security guards and police officers to enforce their rules, even setting off a chain of effects leading young people into the trap of the legal system.
For the teenage design-researchers of the Yes Loitering project, justice for youth means public spaces where they can “hang out and be themselves” without fear of reprisal. Rather than passive recipients and interlopers in a grown-up’s world, they propose that young people should have authority over the designs and decisions that affect them. Based on research into the state of youth public space in their neighborhood and in the city, they offer a diagnosis of the problem, and proposals that marry broad principles of access and inclusion with hyper-specific demands. The result is a creative, positive vision: Musical instruments and board games, affordable food and charging stations, rain cover and flexible seating are the boards and hammers of a teenager’s adventure playground. In dreaming up the perfect place for youth to hang out, Yes Loitering imagines a public realm more welcoming than currently exists. If justice is what love looks like in public, as Dr. Cornel West says, then design premised on love for society’s most reviled demographic might be what it takes to build really just public space.
Think back to when you were a teen. Where did you like to hang out? Maybe you went to a friend’s house or the mall, or maybe you had a secret spot away from the watchful eyes of adults. Chances are, there weren’t many places where you felt independent and that you could call your own at that time. This is a common feeling no matter where you grew up. Young people are not simply forgotten in our cities; we are actively rejected from them. Whether viewed as nuisances or criminal threats, young people are often the victims of legal, spatial, and social restrictions that limit our ability to “loiter” — to be ourselves in public space.
We are the Yes Loitering project, a team of six teenagers ages 15-18 from the South Bronx, working with artist and designer Chat Travieso to research the intersection of youth and public space. Over the course of four months in 2017, we conducted group discussions; interviews with experts in youth development, public space design, and the criminal justice system; observations of existing places where youth hang out; and conversations, surveys, and workshops with our friends and other teens. We explored the ways teens are targeted in public spaces and developed ideas about how to create youth-powered spaces that are safe and welcoming to teens.
The limits on young people’s access to spaces where they feel free begin with how society views teens. We started every interview or survey with the question: “What are some assumptions people have of teenagers?” Out of the dozens of responses we got from both youth and adults, not one was positive. Some of the things people said were that teens are thought to be lazy, reckless, loud, disrespectful, and dangerous. In a society saturated with stories and images of young people as disobedient and destructive, it is no surprise that people of all ages hold these beliefs. The persistent depiction of youth as untrustworthy and misguided has led adults to constantly monitor us and attempt to control our every move. This in turn can result in a self-fulfilling cycle, in which the over-surveillance of youth drives some teens to rebel, feeding into the collective picture society has constructed of us.
As a teen in New York, it’s a struggle to find a place to get away to. Our parents’ places are usually not big enough to have a bunch of friends over and offer no privacy. Most of us don’t have front or back yards, and even if we have a shared courtyard or open space in our building, there’s usually a “No Loitering” sign posted there.
One of the first things we did as part of the Yes Loitering project was to walk within a one block radius from where we met near East 168th Street and Gerard Avenue in the Bronx, and document all the signs we saw that discouraged teens from hanging out, such as signs that said “No Loitering,” “No Sitting,” “No Ball Playing,” “No Skating,” “No Biking,” “No Loud Music,” “No Hanging Out,” “No Trespassing,” and “No Minors,” as well as signs with time limits at restaurants and dress-code signs that prohibited hoodies. These signs were everywhere, from residential buildings and restaurants, to stores and schools.
These signs not only show these business and property owners’ individual attitudes towards teens, they also imply a threat — “no loitering or else.” This implicit intimidation is backed up by laws and regulations that can carry significant consequences for those who break them or are perceived to break them. Anti-loitering ordinances, youth curfews, no trespassing laws, noise rules, skating/rollerblading prohibitions, park closing times, dress-codes, parental escort policies, customer-only rules, and restaurant time limits all carry the threat of police involvement, which can have a devastating effect on youth in the moment of confrontation and in their life to come.
“Zero-tolerance” or “broken windows” are policing methods which encourage law enforcement officers to crack down hard on minor and non-violent offenses (ostensibly in the hopes of discouraging larger crimes). In practice, these methods can give the police license to arbitrarily harass teens and increase the likelihood that a teenager will encounter the law. Such encounters can be emotionally traumatic, lead to physical confrontations, or potentially ignite a cycle of incarceration at an early age.
Since many of the spaces young people tend to hang out in — like clothing stores, fast food restaurants, and malls — are privately owned and managed, teens are at the mercy of how the owners of these spaces enforce their policies. Consequences can range from security guards kicking out or detaining people whom they consider to be disturbing other patrons or defying the rules, to managers calling law enforcement to handle the situation.
When it comes to our own homes, not only in public housing, but also in residential buildings whose landlords have signed up for “Operation Clean Halls,” the NYPD regularly patrol hallways and stairwells to deter drug use and sales, and remove non-residents who are “loitering.” This practice can confuse or even escalate interactions with young people who are just hanging out in these spaces.
Added to this, in New York’s public schools, School Safety Officers are NYPD officers who are authorized to use physical force on students or make arrests. So, having a fight in school or misbehaving in class could land someone in court or jail (this is often called the “school-to-prison pipeline”). Also, minor infractions such as trespassing (even including being in a public park after it closes), can result in a misdemeanor charge or worse.
The burden of these aggressive forms of policing falls most heavily on young people of color. According to a report by the Center for Popular Democracy and Urban Youth Collaborative on the School to Prison Pipeline, Black and Latinx youth make up 92 percent of all students arrested and 91.7 percent of students given summonses, while the student population is only 67 percent Black and Latinx. Several of the Black and Latinx youth we interviewed described incidents in which they were followed in stores by employees or were stopped and questioned by the police or security merely for being present in public places.
When society over-monitors and criminalizes teenagers, it deprives us of the ability to explore our identity, take risks, learn to self-manage, practice social skills, cultivate friendships, be creative, and exercise self-determination. Teenagers have a right to the city. We aim to reframe loitering from something that is undesirable, to something that is good and activates a space.
We have developed several preliminary ideas that policymakers, designers of the built environment, and other stakeholders could adopt to make public spaces more youth-affirming. These recommendations go beyond ending hard-line policies, to include positive steps that can be taken to welcome youth presence in public space. Some of these ideas are already in operation at various sites throughout the city. But there is no comprehensive effort to rethink the city through the lens of a teenager’s needs and wants.
When we developed this list of ideas, we did not imagine all of them would exist in the same public space. The first four ideas (Youth Involvement, Social Equity, Safety, and Location) are the most important ones, which must be considered when designing any youth-affirming public space. After that, we see these as recommendations that can be mixed and matched to further improve accessibility for youth. As this research took place in New York City, many of these recommendations are specific to this city. Even so, we hope this list offers some actionable insights for others outside New York too.
We believe youth should be involved in the decision-making processes that affect them. For youth involvement to work, the voices of young people must carry some weight: It’s not enough to invite young people to be part of a meeting, and then never listen to them as equals or implement their ideas. Teens should not only be asked their opinion on already developed proposals; they should have a say in what those proposals are, in the questions that prompt them, in the issues that they bring up, and in how they are framed. There are some formal avenues for youth involvement in the city, like joining a Community Board, contributing to Participatory Budgeting, and joining The New York City Youth Council. But the city can do more to engage youth when it comes to drafting policies around school reform and criminal justice reform.
We need to develop inclusive spaces that welcome youth from every background and allow them to be free without fear of being shamed, bullied, or harassed for their identity. We must acknowledge how certain groups have been historically oppressed and continue to be excluded. This includes, but is not limited to, young people who identify as people of color, women, LGBTQIA, low-income, homeless, immigrant, non-English speaking, religious minority, and/or disabled. To that end, the city must eliminate broken windows and zero tolerance policing as they disproportionately affect many of these groups. Also, at a minimum, an equitable public space would be free of cost with free or affordable amenities, would not have any prerequisites for entering (like being above a certain age, a member of an institution, a resident of a specific neighborhood or building, or a group of limited size), and stay open late or never close.
We believe in community safety. Community safety is when members of a community come together and rely on one another to protect each other from harm or violence, instead of involving the police. Members of the community should de-escalate conflicts when they arise and put an end to them quickly. This means trusting youth to self-manage, engaging nearby residents, and when possible and appropriate (as in a park or community center), having someone onsite who is trained in conflict resolution and can help stop fights or other disruptions through mediation and not through force or legal penalties. In addition, it is useful to have a sympathetic adult or establishment nearby in case of an emergency; lighting throughout (so people can both be out later and feel safer at all times); and at least two entrances/exits.
Instead of having a small number of concentrated and designated places for teens to go, there should be a decentralized network of spots throughout the city where youth feel welcome. This also includes expanding the concept of public space to include not only parks and plazas, but also sidewalks, train platforms, and open space at public housing complexes. In addition, these spots should be close to public transportation and schools or relatively easy to get to without a car, and should be near other attractions, such as restaurants, stores, and movie theaters.
We believe a great spot to hang out would have an array of places to eat. Food selections would consider New York’s great ethnic diversity as well as the location, offering a wide range of culturally sensitive options. Whether food trucks, restaurants, or cafés, these places should be approachable, and menus should be affordable. It also wouldn’t be a strictly customer-only space. Sometimes, not everybody in a group has money to eat, but they still want to hang out. We need a space where if someone isn’t eating or if they bring their own food, they are still welcome. There should be plenty of tables and seats and there should not be any time limits to how long you can be there.
Besides laws and regulations, youth may feel unwelcome in a space due to lack of seating and defensive or hostile architecture, like spikes on ledges and skate stoppers. We propose that any good public space needs plenty of places to sit (whether formal seating, like benches and chairs, or informal seating, like steps and ledges) that are devoid of any dividers or spikes. The placement of any seating element should consider the flow of people in a space, where they already gather, and where people would like to stop naturally. In addition to traditional benches, there should be other kinds of seating to encourage different groupings of friends, like stepped seating, L or U-shaped seating, picnic tables, seating as part of an art installation, and interactive and playful seating like swings. There should be plenty of movable chairs to encourage young people to create their own seating arrangements. Finally, instead of fencing off lawns, we should have more open green spaces for people to chill without fear of getting in trouble for stepping on the grass.
Weather Protection and Indoor Spaces
To create truly inclusive spaces for youth, we need to consider how changing seasons affect where we can and can’t go. Too often “public space” is considered synonymous with “outdoors.” But what if it rains, or it’s too hot or cold to be outside? Besides providing trees, pavilions, and gazebos as shade and rain cover in outdoor spaces, we should also consider designing more indoor public spaces. Most indoor spaces, like restaurants and movie theaters, require teens to spend money. That could change with the creation of more free, public youth centers near existing parks where youth already hang out, and spaces in libraries and schools where young people can talk, listen to music, play games, and be themselves without getting shushed (as they currently do in such spaces).
Activities and Events
Teens not only need a place to go; they also need things to do. To create an active and engaging space for youth, there needs to be regular programming for and by teens. This can include large events such as dances, exhibitions, and movie nights, as well as smaller or more intimate gatherings where youth can organize for social causes, discuss issues with their peers, play games, or temporarily, creatively transform a portion of a space. A variety of activities should happen at once, allowing people to flow from one thing to another, and the space should have plenty of areas with no prescribed function that youth can continuously adapt. A youth-affirming public space will have resources to support youth-centered programming, from staff to help facilitate youth-driven events, to equipment like sound systems and games.
An ideal hangout space for teens would have free Wi-Fi and USB charging stations. While the city is making an effort to have Wi-Fi in more places, like train stations and LinkNYC kiosks, we hope they expand that to parks and plazas, that the Wi-Fi connects automatically after connecting once, and that it does not require one to register and sign up for anything.
Spaces that are dedicated for teen use usually involve sports, but sports like basketball, tennis, and soccer are favored, while activities like skateboarding, inline skating, and BMX biking, as well as other non-traditional and riskier activities, are penalized. While designated spaces like skate parks are good, the city should accept that skateboarding is a legitimate mode of transportation and decriminalize it, eliminating skate deterrents and incorporating intentional and legal skate elements such as ramps, bowls, and rails throughout the city. Also, the city should consider creating more informal spaces that allow for several sports and activities to occur at the same time.
Art and Culture
While there are many great art education programs throughout the city, there are few examples of places where youth can just create and experiment on their own while hanging out with friends — with elements like chalkboard walls, legal graffiti walls, freely available musical instruments and art materials, audio speakers, computers with audio and graphics software, tools, and a sprung floor for dancing can inspire youth creativity. The playful, makeshift atmosphere of a space can also welcome youth, with bright colors, public artworks, attractive places to take pictures with friends, and areas where youth can construct their own spaces with salvaged materials (like an Adventure Playground, but for teens).
Maintenance and Comfort Stations
Besides regular maintenance from the city, trash cans should be visible and easily accessible anywhere in a space, and recycling and composting should always be adjacent to all regular trash cans. To get youth to pick up after themselves, trash cans could have an interactive element, like playing music or lighting up when trash is thrown in to make the activity more fun. There should also be free and easy access to bathrooms and water stations. All bathrooms should be gender neutral. We want teens to be able to stay active all day without having to pay for a cold drink to hydrate or buy a meal just to use the bathroom.
In order to implement any of this, there needs to be a fundamental shift in how society views teens. Can adults rethink their negative assumptions of young people and develop alternatives to how you treat us? Whenever we spoke to an adult, we asked them where they used to hang out when they were teens to get them to think back to that time and how they were treated, in order to build empathy with us. Can you think back to your teenage self and wonder how you would have liked to be treated or what kinds of spaces you would have liked to see?
If you’re an architect, urban designer, or planner, or if you’re a policymaker, hold this thought in your mind. Be more conscious of teenagers as important users and citizens and be sensitive to our needs and desires next time you design something or create policy that will inevitably affect us. Consider the effects that hostile and defensive architecture can have on a young person’s access to a space, or how zero tolerance policies can be devastating to teens.
No matter what, teenagers need to be at the decision-making table. Let’s reinforce existing programs and institutions in which the City already includes youth voices and expand opportunities for youth involvement. Creating more youth-powered spaces would not only be good for youth development, it would contribute to creating a more just and equitable city and more dynamic and diverse spaces for all. Let’s say “Yes” to loitering!