One of the main findings that emerged from the focus groups was that – whilst young Londoners care about the environment – it is not their most pressing daily concern.Footnote 5 One female participant (aged 19) remarked: “It is a very ignored issue, because in London now there are more serious issues that we focus on which are life-dependent … like housing, or poverty, or crimes”.
Several participants also made the point that that they had a tough time convincing other young people to respect the environment. Thus, many young Londoners had not previously reflected, in any great depth, on environmental issues prior to the City Hall event, and problematized the issues involved on the day with their peers (rather than coming to the event with pre-constructed narratives).
Yet environmental concerns were paramount for a significant minority - almost all of them young women. One female focus group participant (aged 17) built her Lego model to depict the problem of ‘plastic’ – a ‘green world’ with ‘everything on top plastic’: ‘the issue is that we have too much of it and we should try to reduce it. Not just by recycling … but to try and stop using plastic’. Another female participant’s (aged 18) Lego model portrayed:
‘a person and their little boat and they’re trying to get away from all the trash and pollution that we’ve created … that’s a little bug floating away … He’s trying to get to the greener space where everything’s very clean and the environment is looked after.’
These comments were symptomatic of a feeling of powerlessness and lack of agency, and the emotional state of being overwhelmed by the scale of environmental challenges.
The young Londoners in the focus groups expressed differences regarding attitudes depending on their gender, but social class and geographic location also appeared to be important, placing environmental issues into the broader context of urban life. Poor environmental standards were associated with poor and ignored neighbourhoods that people in power did not care about. Several participants talked about the lack of recycling facilities and loads of rubbish on the streets in ‘shit neighbourhoods’:
‘there are certain places in my community where you have junkies who just leave their needles, leave everything, and there needs to be safer ways for local authorities to clear that within a quick amount of time’ (female, aged 17).
A large majority of young Londoners believed that poverty and lack of public provision were the driving forces behind the challenges they faced. One young woman (aged 19) talked about how money affected access to nature – the fact that the authorities charge to sit down in the chairs in Hyde Park was viewed to be fundamentally unfair on those who are poor or have a disability/health problem: ‘the environment is a big part, because it is constantly adding and decreasing to either our emotional state or our health and the way we function as a society.’
Participants felt that some, poorer neighbourhoods, were bypassed, frozen out and left behind in the growth of London. This connects with the idea of ‘power’: richer people from wealthier boroughs receiving better services from the state. They talked about being ignored and frozen out of public services, and how this impacted upon their everyday lives. For instance, to promote cycling, one young man (aged 18) commented:
‘you’ve got the Boris bikes, which are great, but they’re only for a certain area. It doesn’t come to the hood … They need to bring it to South London – Lewisham, Hackney – where people do actually need this transportation to get into London.’
One young woman (aged 21) complained that:
‘bus stops are closing, buses are passing by in neighbourhoods that are deemed as unsafe or deprived in a way … for example, they’ve closed off the back of Stratford, so you only see the front, the Westfield side’.
Some suggested that 24-h public transport would help alleviate their fears and also alleviate some of the causes of crime.
Young Londoners placed a high value on parks and nature – ‘a space with your community that really de-stresses you’ (female participant, aged 18). This is interesting, because mental health – alongside housing and crime – was one of the top priorities identified in the subsequent survey of young Londoners. However, many young people also thought that this was something London was already very good at: ‘I feel, like in terms of green space, London is doing very well’ (male, aged 24).
Nevertheless, a lack of public provision undermined the space for young Londoners within their urban environment. Discussing the causes of crime, a common response was that young people (especially those without much money) had few places to go and this led to trouble. One young Londoner (male, aged 23) explained how he thought this worked:
‘I think the deeper problem within this is the fact that there is no youth provisions or youth centres. Like my borough, Waltham Forrest, there is not one single youth centre where young people can go to, and they congregate in McDonalds … [which] causes altercations and arguments … It’s a cycle, basically, a vicious cycle.’
‘where I used to live, like in Brent, there were loads and loads of youth centres so everyone would go up and we would chill … we had the police in to come and talk to us and it cleared the atmosphere … [after talking about youth centre closures] I feel that if they brought them back they would definitely do some good’.
The café-style focus groups acted as a deliberative forum – young Londoners felt the experience (of constructing narratives) to be empowering – and led to many proposed solutions to environmental problems. Two members of the focus groups raised the idea of boycotting companies with insufficient environmental standards and pressurizing government and the London authorities into not investing in those companies. One young woman (aged 21) expressed her support for ‘Starting new local schemes for growing your own produce within the community … [which can] reduce the amount of waste we produce.’ This received strong approval from other participants in her group. Others supported the idea of community groups needing to encourage young people to ‘take responsibility’ and become involved in the maintenance of parks, communal gardens, and so on. Another suggestion was the building of more dedicated cycle routes to ‘encourage young people to cycle more’ (male, aged 16) as riding ‘on a busy road in the middle of central London is not safe’ (female, aged 17).
Young people’s narratives were strongly associated with the struggle to ‘get by’ – here the difficulty of transitioning into adulthood was a prominent topic – particularly for young people from poorer backgrounds. There were critical junctures in young people’s lives. Young Londoners noted the lack of support in their transitions to adulthood (for those turning 18) across several issues: for example, advice for obtaining housing, benefits and mental healthcare; and, coping with new costs, such as prescription charges, local travel and university tuition fees. A participant (male, aged 21) added that ‘if you’re a young person who hasn’t got any education and are just trying to get by and work a normal job, London has priced you out’. For example, the issue of a “cliff-edge” (on turning 16 and, then, 18) for young people (as they transitioned into adulthood) was raised with regard to public transport: ‘It’s not reasonable and it feels like it’s suddenly changed … from going to school to suddenly going to college and having to spend so much money to get to college.’ (female, aged 18). Thus, transition was a key dimension of young people’s narratives.