In this article, Joanne Neary examines young people’s experiences of living in neighbourhoods undergoing large scale urban regeneration. She finds, among other things, that some of the young people discussed are feeling frustrated at not being involved in the planning process.
Walking around a neighbourhood in the North of Glasgow with a group of teenagers on a windy day, I am told to stop by a derelict piece of land located in the centre of the neighbourhood. The oldest of the group, a 13 year old girl, explains that this used to be where two large high-rise flats used to stand. The group started to share their memories of the now demolished block: one said their aunt used to live there, another said they lived there when they were younger, and a few said they were there when it was demolished the previous year. The group all agreed that now it was derelict land, it was a social space in the neighbourhood. It had become one of the go-to social places for younger teenagers in the neighbourhood. However, there were a few caveats: they had to watch out for uneven ground, broken glass, and adults who also used the space to drink there at night.
This was a fieldnote from one of many guided walks I took part in as part of my PhD which examined young people’s experiences of living in neighbourhoods undergoing large scale urban regeneration. Urban regeneration is often discussed as a policy solution to issues of social exclusion in deprived neighbourhoods, and is often characterised by the redevelopment of the physical or social environment of the neighbourhood, and improving housing with the aim of improving people’s quality of life and well-being.
My study focused on two neighbourhoods in Glasgow, UK; one in the North of the city and the other in the South. The two neighbourhoods were selected as they were undergoing similar types of regeneration: demolition of high-rise tower blocks, the relocation of residents to nearby neighbourhoods, and the promise of redeveloped land. At the time of fieldwork (2011-2012), 80 per cent of residents had been relocated, and between 35-49 per cent of housing had been demolished.
Fifteen young people between the ages of 11 and 17 were interviewed five times over a period of 16 months, and were asked about their experiences growing up in neighbourhoods that were currently ‘regenerating’. Interviews included guided walks around their neighbourhood (either alone or, in the case of the example above, with friends), interviews in their high-rise flat home, and a photo-based task where they were asked to photograph what they liked and disliked about their neighbourhood.
Perceptions of regeneration
The regeneration process in the two neighbourhoods began in 2006 when the participants were between the ages of 6 and 12 years old. Therefore it was likely that for some of the younger participants, much of their conscious memories of the neighbourhood would have been when it was undergoing regeneration.
This had two knock-on effects. First, it was difficult to separate what their experiences of neighbourhood and experiences of regeneration were; their daily routines were conducted against a backdrop of physical signs of regeneration: derelict buildings waiting to be demolished, presence of building sites, and closure of services. Second, for the younger participants, they described these massive physical and social changes as being something that they took for granted as it had been happening for so long.
Given the importance of the neighbourhood for young people, it was unsurprising that regeneration was often described in negative terms. Some young people described feeling lonely in the neighbourhood because their best friends moved away as their high-rise block was due for demolition; others described feeling frustrated that their youth club was offering a reduced service due to decreasing numbers, and several suggested that they were more afraid to walk around after dark.
The latter was described as being caused by two connected issues: less people present in the public spaces of the neighbourhood so the young people felt more isolated when walking alone, and the presence of vandalised derelict buildings which some described as being where the ‘junkies’ were likely to hang out. Comparable fears were also discussed by adults in similar studies.
Regeneration was also seen as a positive influence on the neighbourhood. Some of the young people described their neighbourhood as feeling safer since the relocation process began as the local “neds” had moved out, leading to the reduction in fighting in the neighbourhood. Others said that while their friends had moved out, their new neighbourhood was close by, so they were able to keep in touch.
Also, as the majority of the young people had a pay-as-you-go smart phone or access to the internet, if they could not meet their friends face to face they could chat to them online. This meant that while they were using the physical spaces of the neighbourhood less, they did not feel isolated. And, as illustrated in the example at the beginning of this piece, some of the younger participants enjoyed creating play-spaces from the derelict ground which once contained housing. This was one of the unintended consequences of their neighbourhood’s regeneration.
Growing up with regeneration
One of the most important findings of this study was the fact that while young people’s use and perception of the neighbourhood was changing as a result of regeneration, their own lives were also changing as they experienced adolescence. As a result of this, often the changes of the neighbourhood took a back seat to the biographical changes happening in their lives. During the fieldwork, young people spoke about stresses including leaving school, parental separation, or applying for college.
While this is a common sense finding, it is one that is often missing in policy documents. They can be framed, rather conflictingly, as either integral to the sustainability of regeneration, or part of the problem that regeneration can solve (especially with regards to youth unemployment or crime).
Perhaps because of this conflict, young people are rarely consulted with regards to the future plans of regeneration. Within this study, some young people discussed feeling frustrated at not being involved, and felt confused about exactly why their neighbourhood was undergoing over 10 years’ worth of redevelopment. When asked about what how they found out information about the intended plans for their neighbourhoods, the majority mentioned informal methods: hearing from family members, friends, or the rumours which circulated around the neighbourhood. No one described being formally consulted with.
When asked if they would like to be consulted with, the responses were mixed. While some young people felt they did not want to be consulted with, others felt that young people could make a real difference to the shaping of the new neighbourhood. One young person in the North Glasgow neighbourhood gave an example of a new multipurpose games pitch that had been installed. It was located away from the main pathway, with flood lights on the pitch, but no additional lighting on the path leading up to it. The young person described it as ‘too dangerous to go to at night’, and suggested if the developers had asked the experts, the young people who play in the neighbourhood, they could have made a positive difference to the neighbourhood.
Overall, the study highlighted the importance of perceiving young people as residents (rather than as the children of residents). Given the large proportion of time young people spend in the neighbourhood, involving them in the process (either through more formal information exchange in schools and youth clubs, or consultation exercises) may strengthen the ability of regeneration to create positive and long-lasting change.
Joanne Neary is a Research Associate in Public Health at the University of Glasgow. She tweets at @joanne_neary. Her doctoral research presented here is part of a wider research and learning programme (GoWell), investigating the impact of investment in housing and neighbourhood regeneration on the health and wellbeing of individuals, families and communities in Glasgow.
(Featured image credit: Michael Gallacher CC BY-SA 2.0)