Youth in Urban Space: youth work and its role in urban developments

‘Youth in Urban Space’ was a two year Erasmus+ Youth project. It took place from 2020 to 2022 and concluded with a conference in January of 2023. Werner Prinzjakowitsch of the Association of Viennese Youth Centres shared insights and outcomes in an interview with us.

For this article we interviewed Werner Prinzjakowitsch of the Verein Wiener Jugendzentren (Association of Viennese Youth Centres) and collected a number of other voices of people who were either involved in the whole project or who attended the final conference.

Hello Werner, can you tell us a little about you and your organisation?

My name is Werner Prinzjakowitsch and I work for the Association of Viennese Youth Centres. We are a big youth work organisation in Vienna. We have 35 youth venues and over 300 employees working in both youth centres and as detached youth workers.

Can you tell us about the Youth in Urban Space and how it started?

The topic of youth in urban space started for us to get more interesting in 2018/2019. A lot of our youth workers, especially those who work in the public space doing street work, had the impression that things were changing. The groups of young people were somehow different than before and were getting smaller.

This then gave us the impression that there are changes in the way that young people are using public spaces. As a result, we came up with the idea to do a larger research project with international cooperation through Erasmus+ Key Action 2 Strategic Partnership. We focussed on young people in the 12 to 20 years of age range.

Who were the partners of the project?

We put together some criteria for the partners. One was that any partner should be doing work connected to urban spaces. Another was that it should be a large European city – not a capital city but a large city of at least 500,000 people. We had some connections already with Helsinki and Stuttgart so it was quite obvious that we ask those partners.

“As the video producers of the Viennese videos for the project, we were able to speak to young people and youth workers about public space. The importance of youth centres was highlighted. We were positively surprised at how committed the young people were to the topic.

Diana Carolina El Masri and Negar Yazdchi, Video producers for the YUS project

The last partner came through an internet search, I encountered the head of Youth Work of the city of Milano through a workshop he had run on youth in public spaces. In the end we had six partners from four countries: Verein Wiener Jugendzentren, and the University for Continuing Education, Krems, Austria; Stuttgarter Jugendhaus gGmbh, Germany; Helsinki Youth Department, Finland; Milano Youth Department, and NGO Tempo per L’infanzia, Italy.

What was the methodological approach for the project?

We said if we want to have a look at what is changing in the public space for young people then we need to do research and we need the competence of those who know and understand research. This is why we made the connection to the University, we wanted to have them as a research supervisor and in the end this was really appreciated by everyone.

We conducted quantitative and qualitative research. We made online questionnaires both for young people and for youth workers. We had more than 2,000 young people and 400 youth workers responding. We did over 20 focus groups in all four cities that engaged over 80 young people and 40 youth workers. Also, for the qualitative research we did job shadowing, and every city hosted youth workers from every other city for a week.

“As a participant of ‘Youth in Urban Space’, I gained valuable insights into how young people and youth work are affected by urban development in different European cities. The project highlighted the role youth work plays in supporting young people's participation and empowerment in urban planning processes all over Europe.”

Dr. Tobias Auböck, Specialist in the office of Deputy Mayor Christoph Wiederkehr and Executive City Councillor for Education, Youth, Integration and Transparency

Apart from accompanying their colleagues, the guests had the task to observe dedicated public spaces and record their observations in logs. Finally, the youth workers, the coordinators from each city, and the people from the University, met together for a 3-day evaluation and reflection seminar.

Even though this was basically a research project, everyone felt at the end that it had been a really huge practitioner exchange accompanied by research. Now we have a lot of highly valuable information in five brochures, practice-orientated and yet with scientific value.

What were some of the key outcomes or conclusions of this project?

We concluded that generally young people are in favour of meeting in person and not online. Of course, there are exceptions but meeting your friends in person is the most important thing and therefore public space is a lot more important for young people than for others, this is important for youth workers to know and understand.

They also do not have the financial resources to meet in a bar or restaurant every evening, so they need some free space outside as a meeting space or access to a youth centre of course. Online communication is important because they need to arrange how to meet, when to meet and where to meet, but meeting in person is the final aim.

The data from all four cities shows that the size of the groups of young people are smaller than they were five or six years ago. So, when some years ago you would go to a public park you could be sure that the same bunch of 25 or 30 predominantly male young people would be hanging around there.

“Besides many results on young people’s leisure activities, it also showed an important development in young people‘s use of public space: this reflects the growing diversity in European societies. Young people meet in public space in ethnically mixed groups and conflicts between different ethnic groups are seldom."

Manfred Zentner, University for Continuing Education, Krems

One theory behind the changes is connected to the internet and social media. Years ago, a young person would just go to the park because they knew some of their friends would be there, after a time a lot of others would gather and then they would decide what to do.

Nowadays the decision is made prior to all that through social media. Now a young person contacts some of their friends through social media to ask what they want to do and if they decide cinema, they meet directly at the cinema. Their activities are more diversified and in smaller groups.

Another conclusion is that the migrant groups are more mixed now. For example, in Vienna now, we almost have all mixed ethnic groups.

Public transport was a big factor in all the cities. Depending on how well it is organised it influences how and where the young people meet. Although their immediate local district hosts the main public spaces they will use, like the parks, they also do go to the city centres more than in the past because generally public transport is better.

The responsibility of youth work now is to come up with creative ideas and approaches, not only to engage the young people but to defend their interests in the urban space.

How do you see this project and its outcomes linking into the Bonn Process?

For me the Bonn Process is about pushing youth work or the importance of youth work at all levels. A lot of things from this project are highly valuable because the greatest impact of youth work is happening in the long term.

There are some general conclusions and recommendations that for example link to ‘Beyond the youth work community of practice’, which is one of the priority areas highlighted in the Bonn Process. This priority is about strategically engaging with other sectors.

"The results have underpinned the importance of professional youth work. During the Pandemic, young people were restricted and their voices haven’t been heard. They lost their trust in society, especially in adults. Youth work is offering spaces and a professionality that understands the interests and needs of young people in the struggle for shrinking public space in big cities."

Dominik Ringler, Project co-ordinator of the Competence Center for Child and Youth Participation, Brandenburg

When conducting youth work in the urban space it is hugely important to network with the other people active in these spaces. This networking must have mutual recognition which has to be built and shared objectives. For example, with the police, municipal gardeners, waste management services and so on. We need to work together with them and communicate with them the value of youth work, but we also need to be aware of what is the task and the job of the other. While this may be quite clear to us, it was not clear to a lot of other people like the police and municipal services.

Something else this project has highlighted is linked to another Bonn Process priority area, ‘Develop and Expand the Youth Work Offer’. Young people deserve state of the art elements in their youth centres and the same for the public space. Young people also deserve professionalism from the workers and that these workers must be trained.

All this costs a lot of money, the most important is the long-term approach and so you also need long-term security of resources. This is another connection to the Bonn Process where it says about investing in accessible and sustainable funding and funding programmes.

We state quite clearly in the report on the project that there is a need to move away from project-based funding. For youth work to tackle specific situations, it needs stable funding and adequate resources to be able to sort things out.

Youth in Urban Space

‘Youth in Urban Space’ was an Erasmus+ KA2 Strategic Partnership project running from 2020 to 2022, focusing on developments in urban spaces, pre and post Covid-19 pandemic, and how municipalities and youth work can address them. The project background and its central results can be consulted in the project video and the project brochure.