No cigarettes, no chewy, no dogs;Research Focus;Briefing;News amp; Opinion

19th November 1999 at 00:00
Dirt, smells and litter are anathema to today's children. What they really really want for their town centres is fountains. Big fountains. Stephanie Northen reports.

THE NATION'S 10- to 12-year-olds, whatever the state of their bedrooms, are "strongly anti-litter, dirt and smells, pollution, disorder and incivilities".

A major study into youngsters' opinions about their town centres has found they feel strongly about their environment. A Darlington boy, for example, wanted "a sign in the town - no cigarettes, no chewy, no dogs".

The study also reveals how children feel ignored when it comes to the decisions that shape their environment. "They never do listen. It's always 'oh, it doesn't matter what they think'."

The findings - by Sheffield University psychologist Christopher Spencer - stem from a survey of 1,648 children in 21 towns and cities, followed up by 91 discussion groups involving 428 children from more than 20 schools - all funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

On the positive side, it's yes to seats, yes to street entertainment and yes please to fountains. "The frequency with which fountains were mentioned was really striking," said Dr Spencer, who was working with Helen Woolley and Jessica Dunn of Sheffield's department of landscape.

Children in Bath wanted "a fountain, a big fountain in the middle of the town". The loss of water features grieved them. One Darlington girl said: "The fountain was nice - it was good because you could just sit down and chat, but now they ain't got that because they've got the glass lift."

The children liked malls - the shops, the cleanliness and safety. But they were also aware of the possibility of being manipulated. One girl claimed the local mall's carpets were designed to give her pram-pushing mother an electric shock and force her into the shops.

Too young for pubs and clubs, but old enough to go out on their own, the children often met up in alleyways or outside shops. Many just wanted somewhere to sit down. "If I want a seat in town, I just go to the graveyard," said an Aberdeen boy.

The children were concerned about the needs of other groups. A Southport boy suggested "a bar going all around Southport that blind people can feel and as long as they stay to that bar they are safe".

Like everyone, the children disliked any sense of urban decay, or of feeling under suspicion in shops.

And it seems including children in the planning process pays off.

In Darlington, where the council had involved schools in redesigning the town centre, pupils responded with enthusiasm. As one child said: "I really enjoyed making my designs ... because they really showed the spirit of Darlington."

"The child as citizen: experiences of British town centres" by Christopher Spencer, department of psychology, Sheffield University. Tel. 0114 222 6556. E-mail: c.p.spencer@sheffield.ac.uk. This report is based on articles to appear this month in 'Landscape Research' and the 'Journal of Urban Design'.

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