Young people’s ‘Third Places’ and why the oldies should turn the telescope round

A while back a tweet flashed before my eyes via the twitter account I co-supervise on behalf of a community group I’m involved with in my corner of Cardiff.

Usually, such tweets are related to the local park that we are Friends of and overwhelmingly tend to reflect our main themes:

  • Wellbeing
  • Conservation, biodiversity and environment
  • Engaging with local people and park users
  • Engaging with the wider local community – businesses, groups, schools, social infrastructure etc

We have almost 1000 followers – no mean feat for a small group – more than pretty much all the other accounts related to our district of Cardiff.

This means that we tend to get drawn into bigger debates. When such a debate is about, say, council park maintenance budgets, Green Flag awards across the city, or active travel (the Taff Trail runs through our park) then we have little compunction about getting involved.

But as a rule we tend not to want to get drawn into the more petty, parochial and partizan matters beyond our ‘patch’. 

One such instance was the tweet below from the account of one of the elected members for a neighbouring ward.

It coincided with me being on a bit of a youth work ‘trip’ because I was in the middle of preparing for the podcast I subsequently recorded with Mark McFeeters and Lauren Macaleavy at Ulster University’s Community Youth Work course. It would have been inappropriate to reply via the Friends account so I quickly switched hats and challenged it.

Before lockdown I used to use Llandaf train station a lot and I’m pretty sure, though I can’t be definitively so, that I know which young people the councillor was referring to. I’ve seen them at the station and they’re not in the slightest bit intimidating in my opinion. Though I fully appreciate this is a subjective perspective informed by age, gender, size, and all manner of other factors. And this is not to say that the young people haven’t been intimidating on occasions; maybe they have. But young people are not intimidating per se.

It is easy to read too much into one’s underlying motives for composing a particular tweet given how much nuance tends to get jettisoned to fit a tweet’s character limit. Although it is incumbent on an elected representative to aspire for as much clarity and transparency as possible in their public communications.

Down the years I have sat in many a forum where young people are demonised, patronised, ‘othered’, criminalised, and overtly discriminated against. They are invariably talked about rather than chatted with; and when the latter does happen all too often they don’t frame the terms of reference of the discussion: the topic(s), the location, the time and so on. 

The PACT meeting which the councillor tweeted about is another in a long line of such fora. I’ve seldom been much of a fan of PACT meetings either as a community development practitioner or resident. 

They promote the voices and interests of some people at the expense of others and re-enforce monopolies of power and inequality. Young people don’t stand a chance of a fair hearing in such fora. Plenty of other groups suffer the same marginalisation and non-representation too.

Not so long ago Llandaf station underwent a huge renovation and upgrade and now comprises:

  • free wifi available throughout the station
  • new shelters
  • secure bike facilities
  • improved lighting

By turning the telescope around to see it from the young people’s point of view we would see why Llandaf station is an entirely logical location for them to hang out. It is providing for young people some of their basic needs: safety, security, access to information, proximity to other goods and services; a place they can adopt as their own.

Wouldn’t it be great if a local PACT could spend time and energy trying to understand the meaning behind people’s behaviours, rather than placing itself at the beck and call of a local vocal elite?

  • The free wifi provides the young people with free entertainment via streaming and Youtube and access to information.
  • The new shelter provide them with shelter from the elements (remember: this tweet was posted in February in Wales!).
  • The new bike facilities provide somewhere for the young people to leave their bikes under CCTV observation and within view. 
  • The improved lighting will help to make young people feel safer – a key consideration given how much more likely a young person, especially a male, is to be the victim of crime (either against themselves or their property) than the average PACT attendee.

Add to this fact that there is also a Co-op shop nearby which stays open until 10pm and that the station sits on a train line providing access to Cardiff city centre and it makes a lot of sense that young people adopt it as ‘theirs’. Consider Llandaf station from the young people’s perspective and it displays many of the characteristics that characterise Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the ‘Third Place’.

Ray Oldenburg

For Oldenburg, one’s ‘First Place’ is the home and hearth, where one lives. The ‘Second Place’ is the workplace, where people may actually spend most of their time; this could for under 16s conceivably be their school.

Third Places are those locations.

“where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances”

Oldenburg calls them “anchors” of community life that facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction among people, and where difference is encountered, a crucial element of fostering social capital in communities according to Robert Putnam (2000)

Consider Llandaf station in relation of the eight characteristics of Third Places:

1. Neutral ground

People are under no obligation to be at a Third Place. Notwithstanding, some of the basic needs that the station provides them, the young people are not obligated to be there on financial, political or legal grounds. They are free to come and go as they please.

2. Leveling

Third places put no importance on an individual’s economic or social status in a society. They allow for a sense of commonality among its occupants.

3. Conversation is the main activity

Oldenburg refers to playful and happy conversation as the main focus of activity in Third Places, as well as citing wit and playfulness as key elements of interaction at Third Places. Quite simply, young people can hang out.

4. Accessibility and accommodation

As noted al;ready, the station is accessible 24/7 x 365 and provide for some of the wants of young people.

5-6. The regulars and a low profile

Third Places have their regulars that help give the space its tone and mood; its ‘colour’. The regulars to Third Places are key in attracting newcomers.

Oldenburg notes that Third Places are ‘wholesome’. This jars if we take the councillor’s tweet at face value; acting intimidatingly is not wholesome or welcoming. However, consider that Oldenburg identifies Third Places as being without extravagance or grandiosity, and has a homely feel, it is conceivable that young people act with bravado and a defensiveness in order to protect the integrity of their Third Place. Neither might the actions of (some of) those who enter their space be complementary and compatible with the codes and norms that characterise this Third Place. 

7.  The mood is playful

Witty conversation and frivolous banter are commonplace. Moreover it is highly valued. Imagine lots of jokes at each other’s expense and references to each other’s mums

8. A home away from home

Third Places often engender the feelings of warmth, possession and belonging that one feels in one’s First Places. Olenburg talks about a ‘spiritual regeneration’ from spending time in Third Places.

I don’t know for sure if this is the case with Llandaf station, the ‘home away from home’ sense is not created immediately. But in one sense it is damning that a decade of austerity and the parlous provision of youth services in the UK means that a train station rather than youth hubs, centres, YMCAs etc are where young people have to create their Third Places.

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