Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Teens in public space: when the world is your junglegym

Read more articles by

lamp post and shoes

The thing to do on prom night 1998 was to take the rented limo up to the lookout on Mount-Royal after a soirée of underage bar-hopping to see the sun rise. We didn’t make it. Dizzy on newly-discovered drinks, my date and I watched the sun come up from the rooftop of a grocery store around the corner from home.

And we spent a lot of time atop that grocery throughout our highschool years. It was great vantage point and a hideaway too: nobody ever looked up.

Our first date had been in a tree in the church yard across the street from my parents’ house. Later, we climbed scaffolding at construction sites and kissed high above the streets. We also snuck over to the golf course in January and made out in our snowsuits.

With our gang of high school friends, we rolled down the grassy slopes of Murray Hill park and got kicked out after dark. We got kicked out of Westmount Park during a midnight game of tag on the jungle gym. We got kicked out of Strathern Park too, herded back onto the sidewalk by bored security officers.

In those days we were flat broke, claustrophobic under our parents’ roofs and craved physical sensation above all else. Too old for the playground and too cautious to fool around with drugs and sex, we went swimming in wading pools, in the fountains on Prince Arthur street, in the dragon-boat pit on Ile Ste-Hélène, and splashed through the bright lights and water jets in front of the Casino.

We were good kids for the most part – we didn’t graffiti or drink much or smoke cigarettes, but we built a fire on Mount Royal to roast pizza pockets (a culinary disaster). We dirt-biked through train yards in Lachine and dared each other to walk across a train bridge. I was in love with River Phoenix in Stand by Me.

A couple years ago, I noticed that the fire escape we used to take to the roof had been fenced in and padlocked. But by then we didn’t care anymore – we were old enough to get into bars.


When I think about public space, I often remember what it was like when I was sixteen and had no place of my own, no money, and an irrepressible urge to do something unexpected. How I wanted to move in ways that had not been programmed by my parents or another authority, and was always searching for something to climb, for a hole in the fence, for an undiscovered place, a final frontier to push against.

If my experience was any indication, teenagers rely on public space more than almost any other demographic. But, although there’s lots of talk about attracting families to the city, I rarely hear mention of teenagers in urban planning. Beyond an occasional basket ball court or hockey rink, how do we consider their needs and preferences? (If anybody knows of any intiatives, please comment!)

The closest I could find to a teen consultation was a survey done by Montreal’s Youth Council in 2007 that looked at young people’s “sense of belonging”(PDF). They concluded that Montrealers aged 12-17 were primarily interested in having better sports facilities, increased security (more police surveillance and prevention of violence, drugs, gangs, prostitution) and a cleaner environment.

So, on second thoughts, perhaps I was a particularly delinquent kid after all…

Photo: street lamp on St-Dominique and rue Charlotte (Place de la paix).



  1. These days, when I pass near train tracks on my occasional visits to montreal west, I day dream about the days when we would follow those tracks into the train yards and explore. I have a lot of love for those train yards – they are a wilderness of new-groth forests and abandoned concrete – and though we rarely saw anyone else inside, there were signs of use all over the place, especially by kids with mountain bikes. I have a very strong pull to sneak back in and look around – to sit quietly and watch the plants, the pond-sized puddles, the bugs and the occasional animals (there are foxes inside).

    If they ever they just open up those yards to the public… man, it would be an emotional day for me. It’s like a piece of home that I am no longer allowed to visit. When we were teenagers, the security gaurds that occaisionally found us were very tolerant – they might block our entrance if they saw us going in but usually, once we were deep enough inside, they would leave us be – ask us to leave, maybe, but not really mind if we took 2 hours to leave. I was never afraid of them. But now I am. I am afraid because there is a difference between a kid trespassing and an adult trespassing. Seeing an adult wandering in an abandonned area is somehow threatening – but if it’s a kid, it’s kind of beautiful.

  2. Coeur de Pirate has a lovely video of a young couple (herself and and equally attractive young man) kissing, cycling and exploring the “friche urbaine” along the CP railway line between the Plateau/Mile End and la Petite Patrie.

    Even teenagers doing nothing delinquent don’t usually like to be overly surveyed or policed. Many teens have taken to other neighbourhood parks since the police station was opened in Parc Jarry – and now they want to expand it!

  3. This is the sweetest post ever. We grow up and forget what it was like to wander, really wander, and poke and pry open and hop inside.

    I remember skipping out of school and sneaking in to swim in neighbourhood swimming pools, returning to class smug and soaking wet. The best time was when a suburban housewife, cigarette and glass in hand, came out to join us.

    I have a teenager now and I don’t think she wanders like I used to. I used to think that was good. Not so sure any more.

    Thanks Allanah.

  4. Maybe it was the parents that filled out the questionnaire?

    One of the things I noticed exploring around the city in recent years was that I was usually given the benefit of the doubt by cops and security guards. Being much, much older than teenagers I guess they quickly surmise I can’t be doing any delinquent things and when they see camera in my hands, it s almost like a free pass, provided I nicely get my butt out of the vicinity

  5. Niece piece Alanah. I don’t know how old you are, but the public attitude toward safety and security seems to have changed quite a bit since my teenage years. We now live in a society where that “sense of wonder” has been replaced by a “sense of fear” and the response of authorities (and the public) has been to demand the total control of all aspects of our environment.

    I recently heard a keynote presentation at a conference of transportation engineers where a successful planning consultant pointed out to everyone that “most planning is still being done *by* men *for* men.” And that this was a problem.

    Until we understand the needs (and fears) of *all* the people who will be using our public spaces, there is little chance that they will be designed well.

  6. A lovely story!

    it reminds me of my trip to Shanghai a couple of years ago where I saw teens holding hands, kissing and more in the Metro during the post-school hours. I surmised that going home meant going back to an apartment where Grandma or Grandpa was installed (these kids are from the one-child generation definitely, and planners told me that housing was designed for two parents, one kid, and two grandparents.) Riding the trains or hanging out in the stations probably is the only place where no one would be breathing down their necks, and they’d feel free to do a little heavy breathing themselves.

    As for fire-escapes, there is one on the corner which leads rather directly to a long string of row houses. Usually, about every 6 to 8 years,some teen in the neighborhood discovers it and we’re awakened by late night tromping on the roof. Hasn’t happened for a while, although the last time I looked the fire escape was still accesible.

    Oh this younger generation!


  7. I like a lot your post and you have a good point. You are right. We leave a small amout of public space for teenagers. But a question came to my mind: Do we have to have “special” public spaces for each age? Do every public space have to be “determinate”? I have no response but fortunately, part of being teenager is to find your own way; to form your “identity”. So maybe not having “special” public spaces for teenagers can be not so bad, in some way, challengue them to be creative to find alternative ways to be public (as your examples when you were teenager). Being teenager is being spontaneous; find alternatives ways to see you and the world. That’s why Marketing always observe what they are doing. Because there is a lot to learn from them. They think “out of the box” and that’s what we, society needs.

  8. I know exactly the staircase and grocery rooftop you’re talking about. It was Esposito’s on Westminster! I was sad when they fenced the stairway too.

    Lindsay’s post about the CP service road in Montreal West brought up some great memories for me, too. I spent many hours exploring the tracks and all the little bike and walking trails people had worn in.

    I don’t think you were delinquent Alanah! It’s normal for kids to explore. Humans are curious creatures. Unfortunately, society tries quite hard to beat that out of us as we grow up!

    And Lindsay, the CP security on the roads and train tracks are still pretty nice people. They’ll ask you to leave, and that’s about it. I never had any real trouble with them, even though I wandered those tracks well into my twenties.

  9. Alanah!

    I for one never saw you as “a particularly delinquent kid”. You simply had this irrepressible desire to climb every tree, just about everything in sight. Why? To get a feel for it, to try it out for size? I was never sure.

    You weren’t reigned in physically, nor intellectually. Your self-confidence and good sense probably gave your parents the assurance that you could spend time up in that tree without wobbling out of it – and with your equally unruly companions.

    So, exploring all those uncharted areas in public spaces – and more widely later reflects a young person’s need to explore the great world. As Tux says, Humans are curious creatures. Unfortunately, as we grow up, we often settle into our cramped little niches. Though there is always more to explore!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *