Another day in Loughborough Junction and another worried conversation with a neighbour about how we could stop the latest shop from closing already, as it's showing signs of decline after a few months of being opened. I couldn't help mentioning Julian Dobson's article in the Huffington Post last week about 'people-powered city centres' and how Mary Portas is looking at ways of regenerating our high streets, hopefully making them more 'social' than 'consumer' spaces.
While we, as Loughborough Junction Action Group, have looked into ways of using these empty shops for community purposes, the legal aspects of insurance, sourcing funding and most tricky of all, finding volunteers to use those shops, proved immensely difficult. We had to give up in the end, thinking that finding volunteers in communities would be Big Society's most difficult challenge.
Julian Dobson's words are all the more relevant to this area as some shops in our own local high street have just been looted by local young people (Owen Jones calling them 'consumerist riots'), while Open-City's research into young people's needs for their town centres (My City Too campaign) says they use shopping areas as social interaction spaces rather than as spaces to shop, for a number of reasons (feeling of safety from adult presence, being at the heart of the community, not having much money to shop, etc.).
This is probably why young people are generally considered as a 'problem group' by shopkeepers and urban centres designers, as the invention of the Mosquito device, 'non-skateable surfaces' and the systematic removal of benches show. Most young people do not feel welcome in shopping areas, and their Manifesto for better spaces states they need youth spaces at the heart of their community (rather than pushed aside, hidden away in side street youth clubs as they often are).
As a local community group was lamenting to me in July that they couldn't find a space to host their youth activities this year (a few meters from two schools with state of the art equipment that would be empty all Summer) and that therefore they wouldn't be running any, I was wondering what we would need to do to turn empty high street shops in youth spaces and whether any of the schemes for empty shops are even thinking of youth spaces. I don't think the lack of space for Summer activities can be easily linked to the riots that took place in that very street a few weeks later, but I remember clearly when teaching in Paris being told by a Youth Centre Manager that the City of Paris funding towards youth residentials was mostly motivated by the desire to 'get them off the streets for as long as possible' and prevent anti-social behaviour rather than by the philanthropic desire to give them the opportunity of a holiday.
Would urban planners even consider using some of their 'ghost town' empty shops for youth activities? Would they think it could be a good idea to involve young people in the planning and design of their urban centre?
The recent publication of the MyPlace evaluation report shows the desire by the previous government to involve young people in planning and designing their youth centre, a major step for youth advocacy, but it seems to be the victim of what French economists call 'the lamp post syndrome' ('le syndrome du lampadaire'): tackling an issue only very partially, where the lamp post lights the street, rather than looking beyond the light and integrating what seems like less urgent issues into their thinking. Is a state of the art youth centre the solution if it is not been woven into the urban fabric in a way that matches young people's needs? Rarely have I visited a youth centre in Paris, Dublin or London, that wasn't in a quiet (not to say dead or unsafe at 10pm on a cold winter's night) residential area at the end of a dark street where no one had managed to argue successfully against its planning permission.
I have worked with urban designers who would choose the space for the 'older children play area' (now compulsory in new major developments) where nothing could be built, far from all amenities and squeezed between railway tracks, arguing that teenagers would like to be far from adults' watch and would like to be left alone.
Young people in Loughborough Junction and in many other places show everyday after school that they want to be near shops, on their high street or in their shopping centres, where the rest of their community is and where they feel safe.
When the government's latest discussion paper for its youth strategy doesn't mention urban planners as key players in young people's well-being, and when high street shop keepers might be reluctant to ask local youth to use their neighbouring empty shops, the road to town centres becoming people-centred and harmonious social spaces for all generations feels like a very long one indeed.
One can only hope that future Neighbourhood Forums created through the Localism Bill will want to involve their local youth in the regeneration of their local high street as social spaces more than as spaces for the display of riches as argued by Will Davies.
Could Big Society reclaim the growing privatisation of public spaces and shopping centres where young people need to be included?