What children hate about home town

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Josephine Gardiner joins children on an idiosyncratic tour of their urban likes and dislikes. The Regency terraces and Roman ruins of Bath should be "demolished and replaced with a forest", according to one disloyal nine-year-old resident of the elegant historic city.

Research into children's attitudes towards their local town centres has thrown up the inexplicable finding that Bath is one of the least popular towns in Britain, closely followed by Darlington and Harlow.

But council planning chiefs in Liverpool, Crawley, Chester and Aberdeen can relax smugly in the knowledge that they have topped the children's league table.

The point of the research, carried out by lecturer Helen Woolley at Sheffield University's department of landscape, was to find out what children between the ages of eight and 15 liked and disliked about their town centres, what they saw as the priorities for town planning over the next 50 years, and whether they thought they, as children, could make a difference to the environment.

Teachers in 60 schools in 15 towns administered questionnaires to their pupils, and the towns were divided into six categories - industrial, coastal, historic, new towns, metropolitan cities and ports. A total of 1,071 children responded.

While social scientists and town planners indulge in hand-wringing debates about whether out-of town town shopping malls are draining the lifeblood from traditional town centres, the Sheffield researchers reasoned that children are frequent visitors to shops and shopping centres and so their opinions should be sought. As the town planners of the future, the impressions they are forming now will determine the shape of Britain in the next century.

The results indicate that children's views on what needs to be done are pretty sensible (litter, graffiti, drunks, traffic jams and "smelly places" are particularly abhorred) and while many of them enjoy the experience of out-of-town malls such as Sheffield's Meadowhall or the MetroCentre near Darlington, a massive 92 per cent thought that towns without proper centres would be a bad idea.

There was more good news for small shopkeepers: when the children were asked whether, in the future, they would prefer to take their own children to the town centre or an out-of-town mall, only 3 per cent opted for the latter.

Least favourite places in towns include department stores, where parents spend too much time and "drag us round", and public toilets.

Specific examples of despised areas include: "the Bull Ring shopping centre because it is ugly and dirty" (girl, 11, Birmingham); "subways because they do not have enough light, they are smelly, dirty and they don't make you feel safe" (girl,13, Sheffield), "closed areas because they are scary" (boy, eight, Darlington) and "Superdrug and CA because we get followed" (boy, 14, Bath).

Violence was a worry for 14 per cent of children in poor old Bath (again), and 9 per cent in Maidstone - compared with the average of 3 per cent. Children in port cities felt least threatened by violence.

Most children believed they had the power to make a difference to their town centre, usually by cleaning it up or writing to an MP, though one 11-year-old Liverpool girl with totalitarian tendencies said she thought towns should "have gates at the beginning so that the guard would not let people in who look a bit funny". The responses from those children who did not think they could make a difference were sad - "no one would listen to a child", "it's too late".

Helen Woolley said that the second phase of the research would involve children in London boroughs, non-metropolitan cites and market towns.

"We also want to find out if the beef scare has had any impact on the frequency of children's visits to burger bars."

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