By RAINER CHLANDA
I welcome with excitement the Town Council’s recently proposed “family bike and skate facility” as we desperately need more spaces for youth that are free to access and non-prescriptive, meaning when and how they choose to use the space is up to them. But I see major pitfalls in the proposed location and consultation process.
I work in a Youth Support Service in the CBD where hordes of kids flock into our office space every day, teeming with energy and clutching at straws for things to do.
They have a small chance of using our tiny “youth room” (intended as a quiet space for us to use with our clients) or of going for a “cruise” (a quick detour from whatever task is at hand when we drive through town and let the kids play music).
They come to our office despite the skate park being next to the town pool, the Gap Youth Centre being an odd three kms from the CBD, or even when ASYASS Drop in Centre was a five minute walk from the CBD and infinitely better equipped.
Predominantly, the kids who come to us are “youth at risk” who experience many unmet needs including that of inadequate adult attention.
These kids will always resist being pushed to the fringe no matter how well designed a facility is, as their stubborn presence in the CBD stems from a strong yearning to be seen, heard and to receive acknowledgment from the adult community.
It is, in part, due to the absence of platforms for positive self-expression that the kids seek attention and stimulation with antisocial behaviour.
For instance, a popular game is to “take coppers for a run” which is usually achieved by suddenly breaking into a run when seeing police officers, despite having done nothing illegal. Naturally a chase ensues.
A recent anecdote from a colleague has kids tearing out the beepers from books at the library, simply to set the alarm off and prompt a confrontation.
Other behaviours are of course more serious and impact our social fabric by breeding an adversarial culture between the under-stimulated youth and frustrated and bewildered adults.
If the new facility is at Newland Park (Gillen) it will fail to capture many of the disengaged youth who need it most, whilst also missing the opportunity to experience and celebrate our young people excelling at something.
We need a new facility to be in full view of the general public, in the heart of town where the kids will be keen to exhibit their talents.
It would breathe life and excitement into the CBD whilst sending a message to the youth that they are welcome and valued.
Imagine adults cheering as the kids perform incredible manoeuvres instead of shouting at them after they tip over tables in a food court.
If we celebrate instead of castigate these troubled youths, the impact on their sense of self would be profound whilst social cohesion would increase as we would all come to see each other in a different light.
I propose sites such as the council lawns, the courthouse lawns or the grass area around the Uniting Church and the Meeting Place – an existing youth drop-in space owned by the Uniting Church that struggles to stay open on a regular basis as it is run solely by volunteers.
Could there be potential for incorporating this facility with the new one? Maybe the building could store skateboards and bikes to loan to kids who don’t have one?
The pitfall in the consultation process, where elected members and council staff will meet with members of the community, is a simple one – how will the kids, whose facility it will be, have their say?
I have often thought that to simply ask the youth what it is they want is an incredibly obvious step that is nearly always neglected when devising ways to engage them.
There is a constant flow of new programs and workshops that are too often based on assumptions made on behalf of the youth and about what they want, or worse, on personal ideals of what it is the organisers think the youth should be doing.
These initiatives are often misaligned with the interests of the youth and don’t allow enough room for free association and expression.
To capture the youth’s ideas people employed in Youth Services could survey the kids they work with and schools could consult their students.
Whilst thinking about this piece, I began talking with some of the kids I work with about the proposed hub, asking them what they would have there if they had a say.
Amongst many creative ideas, standouts were large in-the-ground trampolines (an absolute hit when they were at the town pool) and play equipment on sand for doing parkour (running, jumping, climbing obstacles).
I noted that these are both activities that don’t require the kids having any equipment.
Let’s open up the consultation to all young people in Alice Springs with a particular focus on encouraging the disadvantaged and disenfranchised to help create something of their own.
The result will be a facility much more attuned to young people’s interests, whilst instilling in them a sense of pride and empowerment, from which the whole town stands to benefit.