The Importance of Place when thinking about Youth

Youth on the street

Growing up, our life chances are shaped by a vast number of factors – money, for sure; our individual agency; our family and their wider connections. Even the time that we are alive forms certain roles that are valued and those that aren’t, shaping our future paths. But a factor that is said to be often overlooked is the importance of place.

In a way, this almost seems counterintuitive – of course place is important. But with the overwhelming focus on issues of inequality, identity and political exclusion (amongst others), the role of context can often be overlooked in mainstream and academic discussions – particularly when it comes to issues surrounding young people.

In an excellent paper reviewing ‘space’ in sociological literature, Thomas F. Gieryn (2000) suggests that academics regularly give the impression that they aren’t interested in conceptualising the role of place and space. For those interested in youth, this is of critical importance when we begin to unpack the role of locality in shaping identity, life-chances, opportunities to socialise, play and develop. It is an interesting exercise to just pause and think back to your own childhood and youth and consider the areas that you yourself frequented, with adults and when with friends. How do you think these shaped your youth? Are these memories happy? How much freedom did you have? Were they comfortable, could you relax? Doubtless there are a whole host of questions one could ask at this point.

Gieryn differentiates between space and place. Space, he argues, is when place has all the meaning and value sucked out of it. Place, he suggests, is ‘space filled up by people, practices, objects, and representations… place is not merely a setting or backdrop, but an agentic player in the game-a force with detectable and independent effects on social life.’ He makes the important point that place is relational – that is, it is the buildings, roads, streets, parks and geographic locations where we live and operate, but it is also about the meanings, interpretations and identifications we have with those places. We act upon our place – but it acts back on us. As Gieryn states,

Places are made as people ascribe qualities to the material and social stuff gathered there: ours or theirs; safe or dangerous; public or private; unfamiliar or known; rich or poor; Black or White; beautiful or ugly; new or old; accessible or not.


The meanings that we (as individuals and groups) attach and ascribe to places are rooted in culture, history and identity. They (can) create a sense of belonging which is important to identity formation. But for young people growing up, particularly in urban areas I would suggest, these factors are hugely important in limiting (or not) the experiences and opportunities available to them as they grow up. Some places, for example, will be seen as safe – others may not. This can be for a variety of reasons such as territorial disputes with other young people, privatised space which is hostile to the presence of young people or upmarket areas which young working-class people choose to self-exclude themselves from.

This is before we even begin to unpack the increased surveillance that young people are coming under, constraining the places available for them to relax and be. Shildrick and colleagues (2009) highlight the importance of this issue:

Social policies based on the principle of social exclusion, ostracize youth from their own space, making it appear that the only place that government sanctions for young people is their home…young people face mounting tensions and surveillance at home, on the street or in the park as they seek to capture what adults already possess, their own place.

Young people themselves aren’t blind to this – research shows that young people often congregate in numbers in order to feel safe in laying claim to space. Of course, large groups often attract adult suspicion and hostility creating a vicious circle where young people are eventually pushed into areas that can be darker, more isolated and as a result, more unsafe.


It is also important to note that what some think of ‘deprived neighbourhoods’ can often be seen as places of safety for young people growing up there. This is where the relational aspect of place comes to the forefront – family and social networks which offer security, friendship, love, respect and a sense of belonging. In short, the ties that we all cherish. MacDonald and colleagues (2005) encapsulate this when they write ‘close family ties, mutual aid and voluntarism are often strong features of poor areas and help people cope with poverty, unemployment and wider processes of social exclusion.’

Much youth literature traditionally focused on the urban/rural divide, which tended to place the urban as a ‘utopia of progress and modernisation to be dichotomised against the disadvantage faced by rural young people’ (Farrugia, 2014). Of course, the pressures of globalisation, de-industrialisation, the fracturing of the class structure, the absolute collapse of the youth labour market and the gentrification of many of our inner cities mean such dichotomies can no longer be drawn (if they ever really could). Many young people are only too aware of the heightening inequalities which can be illustrated by the differences in place they occupy, with places like Leith in Edinburgh and the East End of London going through changes which young working-class people know is ‘not for us’ (Watt, 2013). The privatised space which tends to profilerate with processes of gentrification can significantly alter the landscape that young people occupy with certain newly minted areas being off limits to groups of young people. David Harvey calls this ‘accumulation by dispossession’.  In short – they want youth money, but not youth presence.

It’s also worth pointing that how young people interact with place is significantly shaped by subjective factors such as gender, race and (dis)ability amongst other personal characteristics. Visser (2015) noted, for example, that ‘the presence of police in the neighbourhood may be perceived by girls as a resource, as it increases their feelings of safety, whereas boys might experience it as a problem, as it reduces their feeling of freedom to express themselves.’  And as the last blog post by Katy McEwan discussed, the job opportunities available will ultimately shape young people’s transition to independent adulthood. The closure of major local employers undoubtedly have enormous impact on the lives of young people as they progress into the working world.


In conclusion, it’s important to draw upon the notion of place when thinking about young people. It’s through their interaction with their localities that they form identities, friendships and part of their world-view. How adults respond to this is therefore of real importance. And as academics we should perhaps have notions of ‘space and place’ at the forefront of our minds when working and researching young people. Understanding how they give meaning to their locality and how this influences their interaction with the world around them is crucial to unpacking youth experience in the messy world that we live in.


Farrugia, D. (2014). ‘Towards a spatialised youth sociology: the rural and the urban in times of change’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 17, (3), pp293-307

Gieryn, T.F. (2000). ‘A place for space in sociology’, Annual Review of Sociology. Vol. 26, pp463-496

MacDonald, R., Shildrick, T., Webster, C. & Simpson, D. (2005). ‘Growing up in poor neighbourhoods: The significance of class and place in the extended transitions of ‘socially excluded’ young adults’, Sociology. Vol. 39, (5), pp873-891

Shildrick, T., Blackman, S. & MacDonald, R. (2009). ‘Young people, class and place’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 12, (5), pp 457-465

Visser, K., Bolt. G. & van Kempen, R. (2015). ‘Come and live here and you’ll experience it’: youths talk about their deprived neighbourhood’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol.18, (1), pp36-52

Watt, P. (2013). ‘It’s not for us’, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, Vol. 17, (1), pp99-118,

Categories: Politics

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply


  1. Youth Matters – Newcastle Conference – Exploring Youth Issues

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: