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Young people the ‘missing middle’ of park planning, development: B.C. study

Sara Barron and Emily Rugel created a way to evaluate parks based on order, seclusion and diversity
The researchers studied two Australian cities and gathered data from the last 20 years. (Photo: Paulo Ramos/UBC Faculty of Forestry)

The pandemic had ill effects on the mental health of young adults and a new study suggests that cities are moving slow to adapt public greenspaces to fit the needs of the “missing middle.”

A UBC study published Thursday (Nov. 17) found that those aged 15-24 are often left out of being considered when urban planners design their parks, especially when compared to the needs of children and the elderly.

“We’re really good at providing playgrounds for younger children or including things like benches in parks for older adults,” researcher Sara Barron said in a news release.

“But when it comes to youth and young adults, there’s a noticeable lack of intentionally designed spaces where they can just be themselves.”

Barron and fellow researcger Emily Rugel developed a three-pronged tool to better judge how young adults will utilize parks and greenspaces.

Young people respond better to parks that are well-tended and feel safe. Rugel says safety is a primary concern for young women who use parks.

“That’s definitely [an area] where we need to think about what safety feels like for young adults versus other people who might be in a green space.”

READ MORE: More adult children are living with their parents; new B.C. study to dive deep into dynamics

When it comes to diversity, parks with a variety of plants and available activities scored higher, the study found. There’s also a demand amongst young people for quiet spaces that are more isolated.

“Some people will kind of seek that retreat,” Rugel said. “But many other young adults want a place where they can come together with their friends, play games and have a loud conversation that they’d get yelled at for in a library.”

In exploring the parks and laneways of Melbourne and Sydney in Australia as case studies, Rugel and Barron found very few parks scored highly in all three areas of order, diversity and seclusion. The conflicts between the three is a challenge for cities wishing to adapt the framework.

“There will be tensions between young adults and other park users,” Rugel said. “People who may want to use a big open space to play a game [conflict] with people who want to be sitting there and having a picnic…That’s definitely a tension that we think can be easily resolved, particularly by creating different areas that will provide options to people who butt heads when they’re there for different purposes.”

However, there is opportunity to improve smaller “pocket parks” and even alleys to better serve young people – such as Melbourne’s laneways that feature street art, plants and shrubbery.

“If you see a place where there’s graffiti, that means there’s an opportunity for a fabulous mural,” Rugel said. “That would contribute to the sense of order and the sense it’s a place that’s well cared for.”

The study finds that greenspaces can positively impact mental health by relieving stress and strengthening social ties. During COVID restrictions, a lack of access to outdoor spaces had direct impacts on young people’s mood, ability to pay attention and to focus on important things.

Rugel hopes the approach is used as a checklist to improve parks in Metro Vancouver and other cities in the area.


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