Philly Teens Need to Be Included in Our Public Spaces

The city needs to help empower teens to reimagine their public spaces, to give them a sense of belonging and ownership.

skating skateboarding paine's park philly teens public space

Give Philly teens more public space, like Paine’s Park. / Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia

This past April, the Fashion District mall imposed a 2 p.m. curfew on “unaccompanied minors.” A South Philly carnival banned minors just after that. Walk around Center City, and you’ll see posters in storefronts to the same effect: Liberty Place sets its “curfew” at 1 p.m., while a nearby Chestnut Street shop’s sign simply says, “No school kids allowed without parents.”

An overall sense of wariness toward young people in this city, combined with a lack of investment in our public spaces — as the Inquirer recently noted, Philly spends $73 per capita on parks and rec, vs. the national average of $98 — means there aren’t a lot of places for teenagers to just safely exist in Philadelphia. This needs to change. “We have an opportunity to really hug them instead of pushing this generation away,” says Tyrique Glasgow, who runs the Young Chances Foundation, which works with residents impacted by gun violence. “Not having the ­support — not from elected officials, not from your family, not from your community or the media — is something they have to deal with every day.” The answer, he says, is asking, “How we can address this in a collective way?”

In the Fashion District, for example, Glasgow says he’s tried to reach out to officials to “bridge that gap” with positive relationships via employment opportunities. “Those teenagers being targeted are their number one buyers,” he says. “So why not implement a program that allows those individuals to work where they’re hanging out? Why shut the door at two o’clock on them when every door needs to be opened up to allow them to come in and to flourish, to be the citizens that we want them to be?”

philly teens public spaces curfew

Two signs on Chestnut Street businesses that put limits on minors / Photographs by Laura Swartz

It’s an idea similar to one Rebecca Fabiano suggests. She’s the executive director of Fab Youth Philly, an organization that works with teens to train (and pay) them to be play captains in the Playstreets programs, mini-library stewards, lifeguards and more. What if, she says, the city helped with leases for headquarters and hangouts for some youth-serving organizations like hers? (And yes, they could be in places where kids gather.) “If they gave us a lease for five years for free,” Fabiano says, “we could do something really interesting. We’d be collaborating.”

Meantime, we already have one model for a city teen hang space in the Field Teen Center at the Parkway Central Library. It’s open five days a week, with weekly programming, internet access, an LGBTQ support group, games — they even held a prom this year. Expanding its hours — something all libraries have struggled with since 2020’s budget cuts — and adding more outposts would be a welcome next step. And the city’s Rebuild initiative is working toward creating more appealing parks and rec centers, but now, nearly six years in, that progress has slowed, and plans have been scaled back, ostensibly due to pandemic-related issues. Our next mayor will need to prioritize rather than cut these projects.

Of course, the funding is only part of the puzzle: The city also needs to help empower teens to reimagine their public spaces, to give them a sense of belonging and ownership. Fabiano wants to create a “youth friendliness assessment” — a youth-led audit “to help teens educate folks” about where and how we can do better. Boston’s Youth Lead the Change program goes even further, giving young people from 12 to 25 power over $1 million of the city’s capital budget; the kids vote, and the top three winners are set in motion. Projects in progress now include a youth wi-fi lounge in City Hall, a media center, and a performing and visual arts studio. One initiative simply created more reading spaces in parks.

In Boulder, Colorado, middle-school students researched urban design and presented park plans to city planners as part of that city’s Growing Up Boulder initiative, which aims to create a more youth-friendly city. Today, the park has more seating, a playground, a basketball court, slacklining and a skate park. Skate parks in New Orleans and Brooklyn were also the result of youth-led initiatives. It’s as simple as this: Young people wanted a place to hang out, and their cities listened to and worked with them. And in each case, crucially, the teens were seen as rightful, deserving and inspiring stakeholders in their cities’ futures.

>> Click here for 17 Big Ideas to Make Philly a Kid-Friendly City

Published as “Give Our Big Kids a Place to Be” in the July 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.