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Mapping the city: young people’s insights on urban living

Children and young people imagine the world differently to adults, the places they live and play take on special meanings and functions that are usually only known and understood by other young people. Researchers at Northumbria University have been uncovering young people’s perceptions and experiences of urban life through a series of mapping the city projects. Through this work young people have revealed the treasures, legends, fantastical creatures and secret places of their cities. This understanding is helping to shift adult perspectives on city development and shape conversations at the decision-making level.

 

Maps can tell stories, often providing rich knowledge of the history, culture and everyday lives of people, as well as their aspirations, fears and beliefs. Yet these stories are told from a certain perspective, most city maps reflect the world of adults – places built to be efficient for making and spending money – as such, they overlook the needs and desires of children and young people, making them less appealing and friendly to a younger generation.

 

While young people’s voices have been neglected in traditional city planning, they make up significant numbers of the population and will continue to in a world where urban living is on the increase – the UN predicts that by 2050, two out of every three people will be living in cities or other urban centres. Providing a unique opportunity for young people to be heard, Northumbria University researchers Jon Swords, Mike Jeffries, Sebastian Messer and Holly East are conducting innovative research into how young people experience city life, and the findings are revealing.

 

The ‘Mapping the City’ project invites young people to explore the places and features of the city that are important to them and earmark those requiring change. Using pens and paper, rather than digital or GPS software, young people are asked to answer questions such as ‘What are your local treasures?’, ‘What are the myths and legends that people should know about?’, ‘Where are the places most important to you?’, and ‘What should aliens visit on their holidays?’.

 

More than 2,000 young people from 30 schools and youth organisations in the North East of England have been involved in mapping their cities, collectively producing an atlas of over 1,400 hand-drawn maps. This work reveals the lesser understood relationships children and young people have with people and places in the city, the significance of their favourites spots, the legends of the streets and buildings, and the places of memory. The maps provide developers and adults in general with perspectives that have previously been unconsidered but deserve attention.

 

The maps have been displayed at 10 exhibitions, attracting thousands of visitors and raising the profile of young people’s perspectives on city living. The project has also caught the attention of decision makers and was cited in a council debate about a skateboarding ban in Norwich in 2015.

 

The next phase of the project is to produce an atlas of the North, celebrating the region through the eyes of young people and creating a young people’s manifesto for the city that will influence future policy, planning and development.

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