By Edith J. Barrett (University of Connecticut)
The Covid-19 pandemic, the resulting economic recession, and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have made ever clearer the gross inequalities in urban America. They highlighted the disparities in social and material well-being and drew further attention to the missing voices of underrepresented groups in urban policy decisions. Especially overlooked in urban policy are the needs of low-income urban teenagers. Teenagers are the most frequent users of public spaces, and in fact, public spaces may be the only areas youth can claim for themselves. Teens use city streets and public parks as meeting places, as play areas, and as spaces to be alone and away from the pressures of peers and family. To design spaces that meet some of the requests of teenagers (such as skate parks, basketball courts, and sitting areas with Wi-Fi hotspots), cities must be willing to consider expanded public land use. Yet municipalities, envisioning the city as a place primarily for commerce, focus their economic development initiatives on creating spaces for private businesses. In a capitalist society, property rights will invariably take precedence over the rights of the general public, for as French Right to the City scholar Henri Lefebvre (1996) argued, public rights are neither God-given nor laid down immemorial by state founders. The commerce-driven actions of city leaders leave largely disregarded the needs of the disenfranchised youth. In my UAR paper, I give voice to the concerns of low-income teenagers. Through their own words, they tell us what it would take to make cities livable for them. In other words, they tell us how they define their right to the city.
The findings presented in the paper draw on interviews conducted in 2014 and 2018 with 27 Black and Latinx teenagers living in Hartford, Connecticut, a small but economically distressed city located in the U.S. state with the second highest level of income inequality. Using a key concepts framework, the text from the interviews was grouped by recurring words and phrases reflecting ideas defining livable cities. The words of the teenagers suggest that they see their right to the city as encompassing of three types of rights: physical rights, psychological rights, and political rights.
The teenagers tell us that they want to grow up in quality physical spaces. They believe they deserve to live in clean, well kept, and quiet residential neighborhoods. They crave neighborhoods that provide amenities for outdoor activities, such as basketball courts and soccer fields, and that are free of trash-filled vacate lots and abandoned buildings. To some, the pervasive neighborhood decay make them feel “depressed,” yet they are still able to offer tangible ideas for addressing the blight. The youth live amidst physical deterioration and social disorder. They tell of witnessing random street fights, corner drug sellers, and loud parties that last into the wee hours of the morning. The physical decay, violence, and noise deny teenagers their right to be children and make it harder for families to build community, according to the interviewed youth. They want to live in peaceful communities with neighbors who know and take care of each other.
Growing up amidst such chaos deprives youth of the ability to determine their own destinies. The teenagers express a desire for the psychological right to be themselves, free from the pressure to join gangs or enter into criminal activity. They want to live in a city in which they do not to face a pervading force trying to “drag me down,” as one teen said. Equally destructive in the minds of the teens are the almost daily experiences of prejudice. As they navigate through the city, the teens told interviewers, they are often negatively labeled because of their race, their ethnicity, and even just the fact that they reside in a poor city. They believe they should be entitled to live as their true selves without facing bias, without the police presuming them criminals because of the color of their skin, and without potential employers presuming them incompetent because they attend an urban public school. The interviewed youth may not be aware of the research demonstrating the negative impacts of prejudice on the body and mind, but they are keenly aware that they deserve to be treated by city leaders as individuals and not stereotypes.
A final type of right to the city suggested by the teenager’s responses is the right to be heard politically. This right manifests itself most deeply as a desire for a quality education that will prepare them to be successful and productive adults. To them, that would entail hiring teachers who care about their students’ academic as well as emotional well-being; enhancing school support services, including libraries and computer resources; delivering meaningful extra-curricular activities; and perhaps most importantly, providing a safe environment free from the violence, crime, and disorder of their neighborhoods. Stepping beyond the schoolhouse, the youth also want a voice in city government. As one individual told the interviewer, “We need to be able to take control over our future. … We’re not exactly the smartest people on the earth, but we have some [knowledge] of it. We’re not dumb. So, you know, if we feel, you know, something would negatively affect us, then I feel like it’s our future. We have the right to say no, no, definitely change this.”
What the teens tell us is that their sense of a right to the city involves much more than a right to geographic space. It is a right to grow up physically and emotionally healthy even when surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city. It is the right to be free of negative pressures to engage in violence or commit crimes. It is the right to live in a neighborhood that is safe and that provides places indoors and outdoors to be together, for sports or other activities, without high cost or constant surveillance. It is the right to go to schools that provide a calm environment conducive to obtaining a quality education. Finally, it is the right to have a voice in the policies and programs that affect them directly and indirectly.
City leaders’ focus on corporate economic development may provide a short term boost in the city’s economy, but a failure to pay attention to the needs of children, leaves generations of youth with little hope. Youth can be active spokespeople in helping to improve city life for everyone. They have something to contribute, and they deserve to be heard.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1996. “The Right to the City.” In Writings on Cities, edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, 63-184. London: Blackwell.
Edith J. Barrett is the associate dean of social sciences, regional campuses, and community and global affairs and a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. Her current research explores the connection between political socialization and attitudes toward social policies among American teenagers. In her scholarship, she explores how public policy shapes the lives of urban residents, especially the lives of youth.