Coming for a drink?- What are we really being sold in our cities?

By · 31 October, 2020 · Blog, Features

From skateparks to pubs and coffee shops, the spaces being afforded to young people are changing and growing more commercial. Is this to our benefit?

The 31st of October is World Cities Day. This year’s theme is Valuing our Cities and Communities. As a UN Youth volunteer, planning student and urbanist, I have a particular fascination with where young people fit into our urban tapestry, and how valued our communities are within our cities. 

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. 

This is true of all of our built environment. When we think of our cities, it’s more than just roads and buildings, it’s how we use those roads and buildings, and everything in between, to interact with one another. How we use space and place is as relevant in discussions about our cities as to whether to dig a big tunnel for a new freeway. It’s this social infrastructure, and how we facilitate social interaction that is so important to making communities feel valued. 

In Adelaide, the skatepark next to the train station has been a popular place for many young people in years past. It’s a common theme all across Australia; that infrastructure for young people means building a skatepark. The Adelaide train station skatepark was closed in 2015, and a replacement in the west parklands is yet to be constructed. 

Skateparks are often seen as the “go to” urban infrastructure for young people

So, what has happened in the five years without the one piece of public infrastructure designed for young people? Maybe a few more people are skating in public squares, especially Hindmarsh Square (or as it’s more commonly known Emo Park), but would most young people actually be affected by it?

According to the ABS, 54 per cent of young people participated in skateboarding, rollerblading, or scooter riding in 2012. I, like many 14 year old’s of 2012, rode my razor scooter to school, so these numbers probably don’t reflect just how many young people would actually use skateparks. And even then, you can’t spend your whole life at the skatepark. 

So where do the majority of young people fit into the urban fabric?

At the end of my street, there is a relatively normal suburban park. It has a playground, grass, trees and benches. If you walk your dog through it on a Sunday morning, you have to be careful to avoid the smashed bottles from the night before. The park’s location is what makes it such a popular spot for underage drinking; it’s central to everything and has good late-night options for food and transport located nearby. It’s a popular park in the daytime for much the same reasons, but it’s rare to see people over 18 there because there’s plenty of places for us to go and socialise. 

There are estimated to be over 6000 pubs in Australia, and the Adelaide CBD has the second most of any postcode in Australia (behind the Sydney CBD). They’re always popular places for people to gather in the evenings, especially for those in the 18-24 age bracket. But in the daytime, when pubs are closed, people turn to the coffee shop. 

But why do we go to pubs, coffee shops or suburban parks? Is it actually to drink beer, coffee, or cruisers? I don’t drink coffee, but when people ask to “go for a coffee”, I’ll always go because it’s a social activity, as much as it is an opportunity for refreshment. 

They’re not selling you a drink they’re selling a space. 

A British study in 2017 found that the number one reason people went to a pub was to socialise, with number two being the atmosphere; the drinks came third. A 2012 study found that supporting pubs “should form part of any wider agenda aimed at raising levels of social capital and fostering better connected, more vibrant local neighbourhoods”. Both studies were funded by major brewing companies, but I didn’t find sources which downplayed the importance of the social side of pub culture. 

Despite these studies showing the importance of pubs in Britain, many pubs there are closing. This may be due to increasing costs, or an increasingly diverse population with cultures that do not support alcohol. Here in Australia, young people are drinking less alcohol, and increasingly turning to social media, rather than in-person socialisation. While this is for the best in the times of the coronavirus, it is not conducive to vibrant and liveable cities. 

So what do we learn from this about how our cities can value young people? That the infrastructure to support the social development of our communities should be more diverse. What does that actually look like? Maybe I should write my honours thesis about that. 

Ned Feary is the Immediate Past President of UN Youth SA, and a 3rd year Urban and Regional Planning student at the University of South Australia. 

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