Parks, A Shared Setting in Our Stories of Youthhood!

This blog was written by Maria Gabrielle Sipin.

Is there anything that can compare to the feeling of getting out of school for spring break? Soon many students will have the opportunity to take a break from school for their spring break and I think we can all remember the sense of freedom and joy that came with the opportunity to take a breather. Students will likely share their experiences out of school, if they haven’t already posted them, on Instagram or TikTok for their friends to see. For those who have access to local parks, campsites, and beaches, these stories often have the outdoors as their backdrop. But for too many, outdoor places like these aren’t within reach or safe enough to venture to for a host of reasons. Often, people are wary of groups of kids spending time in public spaces, especially those who are seen as part of racialized minorities. Just like students are asked to reflect on the ups and downs of their spring break, the rest of us can explore how we decide how youth are allowed to use public space.

This past summer, I was honored to present at the annual Unurbanist Assembly by Thrivance Project, a discussion on “Decarcerating Youthhood: Whose Parks?” Of note: Thrivance Project was founded by Dr. Destiny Thomas, one of Safe Routes Partnership’s board members, and the facilitator for NACTO’s inaugural Transportation Justice Fellowship in 2021, which propelled me further into reparative planning, with Dr. Thomas’s mentorship.

But what does “Decarcerating Youthhood” mean?

Let’s start by describing what carceral is. Carceral is defined as “of, relating to, or suggesting a jail or prison.” Decarcerating Youthhood recognizes that carceral systems go beyond the confines of a prison and are present in many areas of a community, especially for those who are considered racialized minorities. With that understanding, “Decarcerating Youthhood” means creating a world for children and young people that is affirming and celebrates exploration, diversity, and discovery, rather than focusing on punishing “bad” behavior. It emphasizes creating environments and re-shaping systems that prevent children and young people from being exposed to overly harsh, punitive environments.

When spending time in parks, youth of color are often confronted by unfounded complaints from neighbors due to their laughter and play, unnecessary contact from police (leading to cuffs or citations), and surveillance of their family members for riding bicycles on sidewalks, walking in the street, or dancing in public. However, these experiences of youth confinement and punishment may be more subtle and look like curfews, park closures, basketball court bans, and strict supervision requirements.

Attendees of the Unurbanist Assembly exposed the injustices that youth experience that hover in parks, schools, and places that are formative to youth development. We discussed the urgency of not just allowing, but helping youth joyfully use these public spaces, because it is a matter of public health.

Present injustices have been built through decades of policy and funding decisions that marginalize people of color which require government action and community participation to upend these systems. Together, we need to replace carceral systems with restorative ones. For youth and the outdoors, we reimagine parks and the street network surrounding them because the benefits of parks and streets are not extended to everyone.

The movement for Safe Routes to Parks (and everywhere) requires reflection, action, and multi-sector approaches and commitment to tackle gaps in policies and programs. As a community we can:

  • Learn about the legacy and contemporary policy and funding decisions that have created inequitable access to parks. You can read how we got here in our mobility justice story map, “We Built It This Way: A Primer on Transportation Inequity.” The story map reviews the historical context that built inequities into our communities and transportation systems, and shows how those inequitable systems have affected communities of color with examples from across the country.
  • Examine how carceral approaches show up in your community, particularly those centered on Enforcement, in our institutions and communities, and ways to divest from those that cause harm to racialized identities. As an organization, we removed enforcement from our 6 E’s of Safe Routes to School framework and promote safety methods that don’t actively put Black and Brown lives at risk.
  • Take inspiration from communities elevating youth rights and well-being. The Critical Resistance Oakland chapter campaigns have demanded the City invest in schools and community programs instead of jails, end police harassment and partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and adopt the Children’s Bill of Rights to prevent and address the trauma that carceral systems create. California Mobility Justice Advocates also published a set of principles that outline ways for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities to develop solutions for street safety.
  • Take action in your community by learning more about youth incarceration in your state and evaluating conditions at local parks (and streets) enabling policing and surveillance that are barriers to youth joy and safety. Incorporate strategies that create the environments and conditions for young people to thrive.

This spring and as we move into summer, we have the opportunity to think about ways to help youth celebrate exploration, diversity, and discovery rather than barring them from public spaces. Youth everywhere deserve to joyfully live in their full expression of self, and public spaces like parks are essential spaces for that to happen.