An historical analysis of young people's use of public space, parks and playgrounds in New York City

Wridt, P. J.

Wridt, P. J. (2004). An historical analysis of young people's use of public space, parks and playgrounds in New York City. Children Youth and Environments, 14(1), 86–106.

New York City , parks , playgrounds , public space , young people

In this paper I present childhood biographies of three people who grew up in or near a public housing development located on the border between the contrasting communities of Yorkville and East Harlem in New York City. Stories of their middle childhood (ages 11-13) poignantly capture the social and spatial evolution of play and recreation in New York City from the 1930s until present time. Based on in-depth childhood autobiographies and archival materials from the New York Times, I demonstrate changes in children’s access to play and recreation space, how children negotiate their lived experiences in these spaces, and how these spaces reflect differing representations of childhood over time. While play and recreation are, of course, a broad range of activities that occur in multiple settings and under various forms of supervision, the focus of this paper is upon the role of the streets, public parks and playgrounds in children’s everyday lives. Preliminary results suggest that children’s access to public play spaces in New York City has declined over time. This decline can be attributed to public disinvestment in neighborhood parks and playgrounds, perceived (and real) violence in these spaces, and more recently, to the commercialization and privatization of playtime activities.

Main finding
Victoria, Noel, and Reggie’s biographies suggest the decline of public play spaces in East Harlem and Yorkville since the 1930s. Playgrounds and parks have become less of an emancipatory space to protect children from harm and more of a dangerous space to be avoided to achieve the same goal over time. Both perceived and real violence, commercialization and privatization, and public disinvestment in neighborhood playgrounds and parks can explain the decline of playtime activities and spaces, and how they are often replaced with virtual environments.

Description of method used in the article
The author primarily used environmental autobiographies (n = 23), including interviews, focus groups, mapping, neighborhood walks, and visualization exercises. The study also relied on archival research, a community forum, and three years of ethnograpic fieldwork.

Of practical use

Organising categories