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Spaces and Styles of Participation. Formal, non-formal and informal possibilities of young people’s participation in European cities.

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PARTISPACE (Spaces and Styles of Participation. Formal, non-formal and informal possibilities of young people’s participation in European cities.)

Reporting period: 2016-05-01 to 2018-04-30

The aim of the PARTISPACE project was to understand how and why young people participate in different ways in the public sphere, what participation means to them, and under what conditions young people’s practices in urban public spaces are recognised as participation or not.
The project has undertaken a comparative mixed-method study in 8 European cities: Bologna (IT), Frankfurt (DE), Gothenburg (SE), Eskişehir (TK), Manchester (UK), Plovdiv (BG), Rennes (FR), Zurich (CH). Research questions focused on, how and where young people participate, what styles of participation they prefer and develop – and in what spaces.

The project design included reviews of national youth policies, a secondary analysis of survey data, and a critical discourse analysis of European policy documents. In addition, qualitative fieldwork was conducted in the 8 urban contexts consisting of a mapping of participation, expert interviews and group discussions with young people, in-depth case studies of formal, non-formal and informal participatory settings, and biographical interviews with young people. Further, participatory action research projects were carried out enabling young people to explore and express their views and experiences of participation.
The research findings have revealed a broad range of styles of youth participation on the one hand whereas dominant understandings of participation in policy, research and practice proved to be rather narrow. Formal institutionalised settings of participation such as representative structures, conventional political activities or volunteering tend to be recognised as participation. Yet, more informal practices like unconventional political activities, engaging in change through living social alternatives, using the public sphere to create their own spaces, activities characterised by exploring own interests and developing skills, or involvement in non-formal pedagogically supervised leisure tend to be not recognised as participation or are even repressed and stigmatised.

The findings reveal a clear prevalence of informal participation among young people which has been referred to as everyday life participation. Young people are active in coping with their lives structured by pressure in school, unpredictable transitions to work and independent living, as they navigate discrimination, precarious realities and uncertainty. In so much as these styles of practice involve using public space, they include claims of being a part of, and taking part in, society, whilst simultaneously feeling neglected and marginalised. Therefore, everyday life participation needs to be seen as political as young people negotiate fluid boundaries, even if they distance themselves from politics:

For example, one of the most wide-spread and preferred activities of young people in urban space is hanging out with their peers. Benches in parks or squares where they can sit together are important places. Yet, young people feel their status as citizens is marginalised and neglected when residents demonise them as an unwanted presence and authorities have benches removed.

In order to better understand youth participation, PARTISPACE has analysed young people’s practices in public space with regard to the role of urban local contexts, spaces, styles, biographies as well as learning and has formulated recommendations for policy and practice:

1) Urban local contexts differ according to socio-economic factors, discourses on youth, local youth policies, but also access to education, welfare and jobs. Well-developed youth policies tend to lead to established formal youth representation, but are criticised by professionals and young people for their tokenism and paternalism.
• Local youth policies need to provide a youth work infrastructure for all young people across different social milieus, youth cultures and neighbourhoods and at the same time be responsive (aware and flexible) to the diverse needs and practices of young people.

2) Social space structures young people’s practices which in turn structure social spaces. Young people are active in appropriating public urban spaces according to their own styles, meanings and purposes by occupying and defending abandoned areas, or using school, youth centres, parks or squares in a range of ways. They aim at turning them into meaningful ‘places’ providing feelings of belonging, safety and control.
• Public urban spaces need to be available and accessible for young people. This implies providing additional spaces as well as tolerating the use of public spaces in a range of different ways.
• Appropriation of, and conflict over public urban space should be accepted as constitutive of participatory democracy. Policy, planning, and everyday life practice need to encompass arenas in which conflicts can be enacted.

3) Young people participate in different styles. Issues and processes matter as much as forms of participation. Questions about whether they participate need to be replaced by appreciation of how they participate. Participation is subjectively relevant where it enables balancing individual and collective identities structured by social inequalities.
• Youth policies need to shift from inviting young people into uniform settings of formal participation to supporting and funding a diversity of practices; including direct funding of young people’s initiatives.

4) Most youth participation is motivated by a search for recognition and belonging. Where and how they participate depends on a complex interplay of factors: access to resources, critical life events, peers, experiences of injustice or lack of self-efficacy. Young people show a preference for informal settings. Those who have made positive experiences in formal contexts such as school are more likely to engage in formal participation.
• Fostering youth participation must not be limited to specialised youth policy but include unconditional access and choice with regard to education, work and welfare.

5) Young people learn democracy and participation through experience, recognition and reflection on their own activities in public space. In contrast, participation is often taught through citizenship education before being endowed with rights and power.
• Access to power, rights and resources should not be conditional on prior learning, instead adults and professionals can support young people learning about participation and citizenship through opportunities, recognition and dialogue
• Democratising schools is more important in providing opportunities to experience and learn rather than teach participation and citizenship as a subject. Youth work should be strengthened as an open space for appropriation rather than focus on supporting school, enterprise and employability.

In summary, PARTISPACE findings suggest that youth participation is relational (not individualised), based on experiences of recognition, political (but not politics) and often conflictual. Participation is rooted in everyday life practices and struggles structured by social inequalities, inclusion and exclusion. It evolves in public spaces and thus includes claims to be a part of, and attempts to take part in, society.
• Developing a (European) Charter of Youth Rights – understood as a living document and platform for conflict, learning and recognition – would signal a shift towards recognising the diversity of youth styles of participation in public spaces.