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COMMONS MAGAZINE

Posted
February 26, 2015

Kids Around the World Just Want to Hang Out

But studies in Stockholm, Sweden and Keene, NH show American teenagers hold less hope it can be found anywhere besides private businesses

Teenagers flock to the Pumpkin Festival held on Keene's Main Street.  (By Heather Katsoulis under a Creative Commons license)

Between 2009 and 2010 two very different cities, Stockholm, Sweden and Keene, New Hampshire, underwent a process of community visioning and master planning. High school students in both places were asked to provide input about their preferences and visions for their cities. High school students are interesting because in many ways they are pre-political. They are clients and consumers of the public services and environmental amenities around them but with little exception they have not experienced the costs associated with their provision. Asked what they like or want, in other words, they are much less likely than adults to think about things like taxes, public sacrifice, or the restraint of private choice that might be necessary to make that outcome happen. As a result they are less likely to self-censor or consciously limit their ambitions.

Stockholm and surrounding cities boast a record of documented results from active planning, and high schoolers there predictably saw government providing public and environmental goods and services they valued for the future. High schoolers in Keene agreed that the government was a source of valued commons assets, but were hesitant to ask for more. When asked about their desired future many instead mentioned malls and amusement parks, while Swedish high schoolers wanted clean waterways, street art, and public transit. This difference, which goes beyond mere preference for environmental or cultural amenities, lies in the perceived capacity of utilizing government to provide these kinds of public goods in the future. This difference is significant and revealing, not just for the contrast it strikes between young people in these two cities, but also for the prospects for planning and governance as these high schoolers grow into their roles as wage earners, property owners, taxpayers, and voters.

Collecting and Comparing Statements From High School Students

            In 2009 Keene city planners asked young people in high school about the features of their town that they valued and would like to protect. Meanwhile a similar effort to solicit the visions and planning objectives of students 4000 miles away in Stockholm, Sweden was already underway.

            Since these two studies were not coordinated and the questions prompting all of these results were not identical, a classification system between the categories of public or social and private goods has been used to code student responses so they can be more readily compared. Private goods are items and services that can be exclusively acquired through the market. A public good, on the other hand is defined as non-excludable, which benefits every members of a community which no one can be prevented from using,”Public goods might include a pleasing roadside garden or fireworks high above the crowd at a baseball game or benefits from government action like national defense or environmental pollution control. Public goods are of interest to the study of politics because they are, to one way of imagining it, one of the main reasons humans create and submit to government. Government is the institution that creates and sustains the provision of public goods. It has the power through taxes and other methods to coerce, if necessary, for their payment. Politics is the public debate about which of these goods will be created and how they will be paid for.

            Groups in both studies were asked to describe the problems they saw around them and their source. In Sweden students overwhelmingly identified problems arising from insufficient government action or inadequate protection or provision of public goods and services: They feared a decline in green spaces. They were concerned with loss or erosion of public transit. They complained of a lack of bicycle paths or gathering spaces. In fact, of fifty one areas of concern developed in the study of Swedish high schoolers, thirty two (63%) directly translate as declining public goods (a decline in biodiversity, for example) or a lack of government action (to stem a rise in crime, for example). Twelve percent were identified as problems resulting from a lack or decline in private goods.

            American students were more focused on their town of Keene as they wrote answers that described the things they would change or problems that concerned them. Nevertheless, in their responses 62% (almost identical to those in Stockholm) identified problems arising from inadequate provision of public goods (a need for more public transportation or an improved public skate park, etc.), while 5% cited undesirable side effects of business (too many chain stores, construction leading to displacement of wildlife and natural areas). A substantial number (30% combined) identified government actions as a problem or saw problems in their town from a lack of business or types of business.

The responses of students in both countries results are quite similar. Keene students seem to appreciate public goods, like their Stockholm counterparts, but are also more openly critical of government and desirous of private goods provided by markets.

The significant differences between Stockholm and Keene students arise in their vision of their town in the future. In the Stockholm area 53% of high schoolers’ responses sought increased public goods, with examples ranging from “a better education,” to a “healthy Baltic Sea,” to less crime, to free public transportation. Added to this were 22% of responses classifiable as the product of increased government regulation or intervention (things like “more green homes” or more renewable energy, or a “car-free inner city”).

            The vision that Keene students promoted of their city was more mixed. Only 36% of responses envisioned a city with access to more improved public goods. These included some of the same things Stockholm students wanted: improved public transportation, green buildings, preserved parks and green spaces, biodiesel buses, or a new skate park. However, many more of these New Hampshire  students envisioned increased private goods (28%) and hardly any (3%) envisioned a more active or responsive government.

What’s Going On Here?

One could argue that American students seem less inclined to trust government than their Swedish counterparts. Young people in Keene (one of the most liberal areas of New Hampshire, according to recent voting results) are not offended by government regulation, bloated bureaucracy, or an oppressive “nanny state.” They are not Tea-Partiers alarmed at creeping socialism. Students appreciated the parks, trails, and green spaces of the town. In fact, in a question about the features of their city they value – a question not asked of Swedish students – a full 73% of responses were government-provided or government-protected public goods. They liked the festivals and public activities as well as the fact that the town is “walkable.” What they appreciated about the commercial side of their city was sometimes a specific establishment (Borders Bookstore, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Brewbaker’s Coffee Shop) but more often a general category: “new stores,” “movies,” “restaurants.” Commercial establishments seemed to be appreciated because they provided “something to do” as opposed to providing goods themselves.

            Thus what distinguishes American high schoolers from their Swedish counterparts is not the things they value but rather what they expect to see the future, which affects  the things they feel justified in seeking and their imagination of what’s possible to obtain. When asked what they like about their town, Keene students articulated a list dominated 3 to 1 by public goods. But when asked about their desired vision of a future for the town, public goods and private goods were mentioned at about the same level. Further, a majority of the envisioned private goods involve things like a mall, an arcade, or low/no cost places to “hang out.” Some spelled this connection out directly: “a mall or something for teens to do,” or “more places to shop and hang out.” What responses like these seek is a commercial realm or market that provides them with the things that approximate a public commons – a safe, pleasant, and conducive place to be or engage with others.

            But why do American teens seek these commons amenities from private sources like a mall or theme park instead of the public realm? Such places are rarely truly accessible to all (a defining feature of public goods) or even qualitatively equivalent to their public component. Gated communities feel safe but secluded and unspontaneous. Malls close before it gets too late, expect at least some spending by visitors, typically necessitate driving (or being dropped off), and employ security guards to prevent the kind of gathering that a public space invites. Knowledge of this is implied by one Keene high schooler who requested a mall “but get rid of some of the cops.” With all of these shortcomings, why ask for private amenities and spaces over more public ones?

            A plausible answer is that these young people no longer consider government to be the entity most able to provide them with what they want. The era of big government was declared over before they were born, perhaps eliminating the possibility of more public goods as even a possibility. During their lives current US high schoolers have seen the total Federal outlays as a percentage of gross domestic product track steadily downward. Tax cuts are seen as a policy tool of first choice, and privatization or charging fees for what were once public services is common everywhere from parks to police protection. New research demonstrates that young people engage in consumer choice (“political consumerism”) as a means of making social change more than any other age group. Older people in America people think change comes from voting. Younger people instead practice “fair trade.”

While more research is clearly called for, the upshot seems to be an ideology among American youth that appreciates the things that government makes possible in their lives and society, but that lacks imagination that these or similar things will continue to  be available from government in the future. For almost a quarter of Keene students, in fact, a positive vision of the future is one that merely holds back the loss of the public goods around them. Call it an ideology of limited expectations from government. It functions as a preventative against disappointment and redirects focus to the benefits promised by the private/commercial realm.

Limited government is not embraced by everyone in America, and planners and others should not read the preferences and attitudes that might arise in surveys of young Americans as indifference to public goods. Like their counterparts in Sweden it seems likely that American young people will support things like the preservation of green and public spaces, or the expansion of mass transit. Nevertheless from within the ideology of limited government expectations explored here it makes perfect sense for a young person to place their future hopes on new stores that will not displace too much open space, even as they relax in a park playing Frisbee with friends.

Michael Welsh is Professor of Political Science at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, where he has taught since 2004. His research and teaching areas include American Politics, Political Theory, and Environmental Policy. Welsh was chair of Keene’s Community Master Plan committee and has served as member and Vice-Chair of the City’s Planning Board since 2009. He would like to thank Jeff Ranara, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre for his advice and access to his research on Stockholm High Schoolers, and Mikaela Stroop, who collected the original surveys of Keene High Schoolers and who read and provided valuable comments on an earlier draft.