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young people’s mobilities and immobilities

March 28, 2013

In a study of young Aucklanders’ im/mobilities, Tracey Skelton writes:

Within the ‘new’ paradigm of mobilities, there is a call for a focus on more [‘]local concerns about everyday transportation, material cultures, and spatial relations of mobility and immobility[‘] (Sheller and Urry, 2006, p. 212). Additionally, within geography and urban studies, there are calls to return our attention to the ‘‘actual, everyday materiality of the places in which people actually dwell’’ (Latham and McCormack, 2004, p. 702). This article is in part a response to those calls. It focuses on young people’s everyday and occasional mobilities into, through and out of the city where they were born and brought up. This focus facilitates an exploration of the spatial and social relations and formations of urban mobility and immobility. The article is also a challenge to the lack of attention afforded young people by urban studies as it places young Aucklanders’ urban experiences central. This intervention argues that explorations of young people’s mobilities and immobilities provide a valuable insight for examinations of the city. Jensen (2009, p.149) has called for critical enquiry into the diverse experiences of urban dwellers ‘being-on-the-move’.” (p.468)

The notion that the city is constituted at the street level through footsteps means that pedestrians play a significant role in writing the city (de Certeau, 2000; cited by Hubbard, 2006, p. 98). Young people and children experience geography and spatialities differently from adults, and differentially within the range of these younger age-groups (Aitken et al., 2008; Freeman and Tranter, 2011; Holloway and Valentine, 2000; Jones, 2008; Jeffrey and Dyson, 2008; Katz, 2004; Matthews et al., 2000; Skelton, 2009; Skelton and Valentine, 1998). Hence it is inevitable that young people will experience urban im/mobilities differently too; even if they use the same means of transport as adults—cars, buses, trains, cycling, walking—they will experience it in distinctive (but sometimes similar) ways.” (p.468)

Young urbanites are of an age where their personal physical mobility to take advantage of all the resources, recreation [-p.469] and sociality offered by an urban landscape is an important part of ‘growing up’ and identity formation (Chatterton and Hollands, 2003).” (pp.468-469)

For young people, safe, efficient and affordable public transport, secure pathways for walking and use of their own vehicles (cars, motorcycles, bikes) are important priorities for gathering urban experiences. The city can be a sensuous place; a space where feelings of danger and excitement, anticipation and dread, desire and disgust, hopefulness and disappointment can mingle together in a single day or night-out in the urban centre.” (p.469)

Skelton explains that Auckland “is very much geared towards car use. Hence young Aucklanders face different kinds of restrictions to, or possibilities for, their urban mobilities that can be based on their gender, ethnicity, age and socioeconomic status.” (p.469)

Young adults are always on the move in YA Fiction, but I never thought about analysing their mobility to better understand the power relations and identity formation of their stories…. This has potential!

Explaining mobility studies a little more, Skelton writes:

“We are told that mobility is how we live and that it has become an ordinary, everyday part of life (Adey, 2010). However, to date, relatively little work on mobilities has recognised the roles of young people as actors and agents of the mobile world. There are notable exceptions (Barker et al., 2009; Gough, 2008; Gough and Franch, 2005; Holt and Costello, 2011; Skelton, 009; Winton, 2005). However, generally theorisations of mobility (Adey, 2010; Canzler et al., 2008; Cresswell, 2010; Sheller and Urry, 2006) make limited mention of children and young people. Yet younger people are mobile in all sorts of ways either independently or in the presence of others, which Adey (2010, p. 23) reminds us, is ‘‘mobility as a social activity’’. If we accept that space is a product of social relations and always in process (Massey, 2005); that places and spaces are ‘‘dynamic, practiced and performed through the movements of all manner of things’’ (Merriman, 2009b, p.134), then young people and their mobilities actively participate in the persistent production, creation and alteration of [-p.470] spaces and places; in this case, the city of Auckland.” (pp.469-470)

“Mobility in the past has not been seen as the norm, but this has shifted to a recognition that mobility/movement is not a rupture but part of normal/everyday life (Gough, 2008, p.244). Hubbard argues that everyday life in cities cannot always be predictable or fully prepared for. Even the more ‘‘banal and routine aspects of urban life (for instance the way we walk, talk, drive and generally negotiate our way through the city streets)’’ (Hubbard, 2006, p. 95) mean that adaptation and shift are part of moving through urban space (see also Chatterton and Hollands, 2003, for an analysis or urban everynight life).” (p.470)

“I would argue that immobility must also be taken seriously in any ‘politics of mobility’ (Harker, 2009). How and where young people can/cannot move with speed or slowly, with freedom or constraint, are important features of deepening our understandings of the complex relationality of mobility and its connection with identity formation.” (p.470)

Mobilities are part of the process of how we engage with the world.” (p.470)

“Cities are increasingly being scrutinised through the lens of mobility and recognised as key sites of movement and flow, mobility and immobility (Simone, 2010). Cities have been described as ‘intransitive’, existing at multiple scales simultaneously, as pliable and fluid (Hubbard, 2006, p. 165). This multiscalar approach makes it imperative to try and understand all sorts of complexities about the subjective im/mobilities in the city, and this includes those of young people.” (p.470)

Wherever there are relations, then there are networks of power. Mobility, and its counterpart fixity, produce geographies and politics of power (Adey, 2010; Cresswell, 2010; Merriman, 2009b). Access to mobilities as a resource is very unequally [-p.471] distributed (Gough, 2008; Harker, 2009; Winton, 2005; Sheller and Urry, 2006; Urry, 2008). Motility is described as the capacity of an actor to move socially and spatially; but it becomes mobility when there is an intention to move (Canzler et al., 2008, p.3). Children, for example, may have motility but are unable to translate this into mobility because of parental controls of their movement based upon fear and/or to offer protection.” (pp.470-471)

Many young people in advanced capitalist economies, particularly those aged 16 to 23, are going through considerable changes and challenges in their lives. Such changes are usually encapsulated under the term ‘transitions’ (Punch, 2002; Skelton, 2002). Many of them (and all my research participants) are taking competitive examinations, making the shift from school to work or further studies, and exploring elements of their identities and what these mean in wider social and spatial contexts. A key aspect of transition is the growing expectation of, sense of responsibility about and desire for, independent mobility. Gough argues that, as young people grow up [‘]Their mobility in and between spaces of the home, the neighbourhood, and their wider environment, changes, which is an important part of achieving independence, competence and maturity and sustaining social relations with their peers[‘] (Gough, 2008, p. 244). Identity formation, particularly the project of independent identity formation, and its link to mobility, is an important feature for broader consideration within mobility studies.” (p.471)

Skelton refers us to “Leyshon’s (2011) analyses of the ways in which young people’s independent mobilities, through walking, in rural space play a significant role in their identity formation and senses of belonging. There are similar processes at play in the contemporary globalised city,” Skelton then asserts, “where mobility-facilitated encounters can enhance social mobility through the accoutrement of social and cultural capital, cosmopolitan perspectives and a confidence about difference and diversity (see Simone, 2010).” (p.472)

Interestingly, she also points out that “it is important to remember that, in a multicultural city such as Auckland, comprising indigenous Maori and migrants from all over the world (historically from Europe and, more recently, from the Pacific and Asia), young people do not have to be highly mobile to encounter difference and diversity. Hence, the ‘work’ of identity formation through such meetings can take place in everyday, localised contexts of relatively limited mobility such as schools, shops, workplaces, sports groups and neighbourhoods.” (p.472)

Interestingly, her research found that “Only one of the interviewees mentioned car driving as a problem in relation to climate change problems, and showed the possible sociality created by sharing cars with friends; the loss of the train as a social relational space as more friends acquire cars was lamented. However, car mobility based on friendship effectively reinforces a kind of immobility within social class; wealthier car drivers share with their wealthier friends and so cushion them from a world of ‘others’ using public transport or walking; they also use their cars to traverse the city to visit friends, but remain in that same social milieu rather than experiencing some moments of connection and encounter.” (p.478)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Tracey Skelton (2013) Young People’s Urban Im/Mobilities: Relationality and Identity Formation. Urban Studies 50(3) 467–483

There is a mobility turn in the social sciences affecting how we scrutinise, research and represent the city. In recent scholarship on mobilities, global human mobilities have been identified as predominant. Nevertheless there have been calls for research that focuses on issues relating to everyday transportation, materialities and the spatial contexts of im/mobilities. This article is a response to those calls with a specific focus on young people’s local experiences of urban im/mobilities. It is also a challenge to the lack of attention afforded young people by urban studies. Young urbanites are of an age where personal physical mobility to take advantage of all the resources, recreation and sociality offered by an urban landscape is an important part of ‘growing up’ and identity formation. Utilising two of mobility studies’ conceptualisations, relationality and identity formation, this article examines young Aucklanders’ im/mobilities through urban space.


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