The second half of the twentieth century saw increasing urbanisation and sub-urbanisation in the UK, particularly in the south-east of England. Housing was provided on a very large scale, and ‘new towns’, suburban sprawl, roads and motorways developed rapidly. Children often constituted a high proportion of the population of the suburbs and ‘new towns’. Local authority planning provision did not appear to keep up with changes in the structure of the population, nor changes in the physical structure of the landscape in terms of provision of leisure spaces, parks, and places for children to play in or to ‘hang out’ in (Morrow, 2001). However, renewed focus on the importance of neighbourhoods and communities in English social policy in the late 1990s generated research that explored people’s concerns about their localities, and a consistent theme that emerged from this research (and policy concern) was anxiety about children and young people in neighbourhoods (Social Exclusion Unit, 2000). This chapter draws on data collected in a sociological study conducted for the Health Education Authority (then the health promotion arm of the Department of Health) that explored the relevance of Putnam’s (1993) concept of ‘social capital’ in relation to children. Social capital was understood to be a community-level attribute, and consisted of the following features: social and community networks, civic engagement or participation; community identity and sense of belonging; and norms of cooperation, reciprocity and trust of others within the community (Putnam, 1993). The premise was that levels of social capital in a community have an important effect on people’s wellbeing. Health research with children and young people had tended to focus on individuals’ risk behaviours, like drug abuse, smoking and alcohol consumption, but the social context of young people’s everyday lives had not been explored in detail. Social capital has been contested at a number of levels, conceptually, methodologically and theoretically (discussed in depth elsewhere, see Morrow, 1999, 2001). My research drew on the theoretical paradigm proposed by the British social anthropologists Prout and James (1997). They argued that we need to move beyond psychologically based models of childhood as a period of socialisation, and emphasised that children are active social agents who shape the structures and processes around them (at least at the micro-level) and whose social relationships are worthy of study in their own right. I am a sociologist, and I have been working within the ‘new sociology of childhood’ paradigm. This recognises the importance of direct research with children and young people, gathering data from them about their everyday lives, in order to develop policies and programmes that are relevant and responsive to their concerns (Boyden and Ennew, 1997). This chapter focuses on urban spaces, and how such spaces are used and perceived by children.
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