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Postcards from the urban worlds of young city dwellers

Book review of: Kathrin Hörschelmann and Lorraine van Blerk. Children, Youth and the City. Critical Introductions to Urbanism and the City
Juan Torres
Bibliographical reference

Kathrin Hörschelmann and Lorraine van Blerk. 2012. Children, Youth and the City. Critical Introductions to Urbanism and the City. New York, Routledge.

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1The state of the world’s children 2012 report from UNICEF is entitled Children in An Urban World. This flagship publication highlights that almost half of the children in the world are living in urban environment. This provides opportunities for individual development, but also gives rise to increasing inequalities and challenges to children’s rights. As an instructive and updated synthesis of these issues, Children, Youth and the City sheds light on the complex interaction between young people and their urban environments. According to Hörschelmann and van Blerk, the aim of this book is “[…] to show both how children and youth contribute to the making of urban spaces and how the particular structures, textures and materialities of cities inform how they live their diverse lives” (p. 1). The goal was ambitious, but brilliantly accomplished through a comprehensive review of relevant literature and a collection of diverse and relevant examples.

2The book is published at a moment of relative maturity on the literature the relationship between young people and the city. Since Lynch’s (1977) seminal work, authors from different disciplinary standpoints (geography, sociology, psychology, urban planning, etc.) have explored this relationship through a variety of different dimensions (education, mobility, health, poverty, etc.); meanwhile, world demographics have confirmed the relevance of this topic in urban research. The literature has responded to a growing need for conceptual and operational tools for both researchers and professionals, stimulated by an international agenda which positions children and youth participation in local development as a standard – cf. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Agenda 21 (1992), Habitat Agenda (1996), etc. Hörschelmann and van Blerk’s synthesize much of this literature in a chapter that introduces the idea of a “Critical introduction to urbanism and the city” – the subtitle of the book. Nevertheless, unlike an introductory text, the book proves also useful and inspiring for informed readers.

3After the introductory chapter, which outlines the book’s rationales, the second chapter – Imagining Children and Youth in the City – draws largely on the sociology of childhood (James et al. 1998) in order to discuss in depth about the socially constructed meanings of age. By insisting on the relevance of a relational approach, the authors make clear how conceptualizations of the city is both a result from and a support for social constructions of childhood and youth. However, readers expecting the city to be treated as thoroughly as the question of age will be less satisfied: the second half of the chapter refers to the urban environment in generic terms, without going beyond a rural/urban polarity that the authors criticize themselves (pp. 25-26).

4That being said, the following chapters contain interesting insights about the diversity of urban settings and urbanization process throughout the globe. Chapter three, for instance, focuses on the structural Causes and Effects of Social Inequalities on Children and Youth in the City. The authors highlight phenomena like gentrification and urban migration to explain the causes of children and youth impoverishment in global south as well as in global northern cities. The authors devote a chapter to this issue, since “[…] children under the age of 18 are disproportionately affected by poverty and there is a close connection between socio-economic status and the number of children in a household” (p. 43). The exploration of how diverse the expressions of poverty can be transposed from one context to another is efficient.

5The environmental psychology approach underpins chapter 4 – Growing up in the City –, that explores how children and youth make the city their own ways through varied experiences of urban spaces, especially as a living and playing environment. Borja and Muxi (2003) claimed that children are the ultimate users of public spaces; Hörschelmann and van Blerk highlight the diversity of such spaces by exploring their historical transformations – from the traditional street to more “commodified” playing areas – as well as their heterogeneity among cities in the global south and north. As for the private settings, housing forms and tenure statuses are also brought into play. Through these analyses, the authors explore the weight of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and class in the way young peoples experience growing up in cities. Surprisingly, the growing impact of daily TV watching on environmental experience of young people is not addressed in this chapter. This issue is only partially covered in the next chapter, as part of the global media through which children and youth engage with worlds that go far beyond the local.

6Chapter 5 – Globalisation and Youth Culture – completes the analysis of the structural causes of social inequalities among young people (developed from chapter 3 onwards) through an investigation of neoliberal trends and their impact on the life of urban children and youth. The consumption and commodification of leisure are fundamental ideas in this chapter: “This includes not only [young people’s] use and enjoyment of global cultural products, such as media and music, but also daily encounters in the globalizing city as a site of spectacle and consumption” (p. 129). The (at least partial) appropriation of such a city by children and youth is brilliantly depicted here, as well as the exclusionary structures contested by the young. The chapter concludes with a presentation of two urban youth subcultures, skateboarding and graffiti, challenging and recreating the “global” and bringing creative ways of engaging within urban space.

7Participation and Active Citizenship in the City – chapter 6 – is a call for action. If the previous chapters put forward how children and youth appropriate their urban environments in different ways, the authors acknowledge that this occur “in opposition to and in spite of urban policies and structures that marginalize young people” (p. 157). In this final chapter, Hörschelmann and van Blerk draw on the inspiring work of authors like Roger Hart, Louise Chawla and David Driskell to lay out solid justifications for young people’s participation in urban planning. In a true didactic approach, they put together several techniques for fostering intergenerational collaboration in research, planning, and implementation processes. It is worth mentioning that methods for research with children and youth appear very early in the book (chapter 2). These tools, as well as the layout of the book – with chapter previews, learning tasks, discussion questions and a number of relevant boxes presenting detailed references and illustrative examples – make of this book a handy companion for both practitioners and researchers.

8With Children, Youth and the City, Hörschelmann and van Blerk go beyond a mere literature review: their own research and the comprehensive synthesis of the issues concerning the city and its youngest inhabitants enable them to propose a meaningful contribution. The diversity of the issues and the cases covered in this book will surely foster a better understanding of the contextual differences in the way children and youth grow up in urban settings while (hopefully) encouraging interdisciplinary and international collaboration.

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Borja J, Muxi Z. 2003. El espacio público: ciudad y ciudadanía. Barcelona, Electa.

James A, Jenks C, Prout A. 1998. Theorizing Childhood. New York, Teachers College Press.

Lynch K. 1977. Growing up in Cities: Studies of the Spatial Environment of Adolescence in Cracow, Melbourne, Mexico City, Salta, Toluca, and Warszawa. Cambridge, The MIT Press.

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Electronic reference

Juan Torres, Postcards from the urban worlds of young city dwellersArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2012, Online since 26 November 2012, connection on 21 September 2021. URL:

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About the author

Juan Torres

Juan Torres has degrees in architecture and urban planning. He is assistant professor at the Institute of Urban Planning at the University of Montreal. He received his Ph.D. in planning in 2008. He carried out his doctoral research in connection with the Growing Up in Cities framework (UNESCO). His research interests include urban design, participation, mobility, child-environment and ethical development. He is member of VRM network and of Ivanhoe Cambridge Observatory of Urban Development and Real Estate. Email:

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