FOCUS: Who cares? Urban youth and the right to the city

FOCUS: Who cares? Urban youth and the right to the city

Agata Lisiak and Elena Vacchelli

Greta Thunberg may be the world’s most recognisable teenager. Over the past couple of years the climate activist has become the global symbol for and of young people’s struggle for climate justice. Excerpts from her fiery speeches have not only made the headlines of major world news outlets, but also, in the spirit of late capitalism, landed on t-shirts and laptop stickers. Her low-carbon travels are widely reported (not without controversy) as are her meetings and twitter spats with high-level politicians. The instant stardom of a white, North European girl draws public attention away from important climate activism led by young people across the world. Even if Thunberg herself tries to build alliances with fellow activists in various countries, it is her name and her face that remain widely recognisable and inspire much publicised praise and dismissal alike. In the process, the crucial work done by climate activists in the Global South is rendered invisible as a recent media controversy jarringly illustrates: the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of the Associated Press photo depicting young female activists at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos. The picture widely distributed by the US news agency prominently featured four young white women (including Thunberg), a gesture Nakate rightfully called out as a racist move to “erase our voices”.

As much climate activism emerges from and targets cities as the centers of carbon capitalism, it is worth remembering that Greta Thunberg’s rise to fame started in August 2018 on the streets of Stockholm, on the pavement outside the Swedish Parliament to be exact. Many of the images of the then 15-year-old protester depict her alone holding or resting next to a picket sign that reads Skolstrejk för klimatet. A slightly deeper dive into a Google image search, however, reveals other images documenting the early weeks of the school strike for climate showing that Thunberg’s was not a solitary protest — she was accompanied by other teenagers. What does Thunberg’s willful presence in public space and the media representations thereof tell us about young people’s gendered right to the city?

The very act of occupying public space in the center of the city should be a right, but it remains a privilege that is strongly determined by one’s race, class, gender, and age, among other factors. In his powerful 2013 open letter to Sweden’s then minister of justice Beatrice Ask, the novelist and playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri recounts his multiple experiences of everyday racism as he was growing up in Stockholm:

Being fourteen and coming out of McDonald’s on Hornsgatan and being asked for ID by two police officers. Being fifteen and sitting outside an Expert store when a police van pulls up, two officers get out, ask for ID, ask what’s up tonight. Then they hop back into the van.

And all the time, a fight inside. One voice says: They have no fucking right to prejudge us. They can’t fucking cordon off the city with their uniforms. They are forbidden to make us feel insecure in our own neighborhoods.

But the other voice says: What if it was our fault. We were probably talking too loudly. We were wearing hoodies and sneakers. Our jeans were too big and had a suspicious number of pockets. We made the mistake of having a villainous hair color. We could have chosen to have less melanin in our skin. We happened to have last names that reminded this small country that it is part of a larger world. We were young. Everything would definitely be different when we got older.

As Jin Haritaworn notes in their contribution, there is little doubt that Thunberg’s execution of her right to the city is powered by her whiteness, and her age, gender, and class further emphasize her assumed innocence. The images of a white teenage girl claiming public space, demanding to be heard, not only manifest her determination, but also suggest, in direct opposition to Khemiri’s testimony, that public space in Stockholm is safe, that the state respects its citizens’ rights. Thunberg is on a school strike, she does not loiter; she is not asked for her ID, she gets invited to speak at the UN.

The media fixation on Thunberg as a hero teenager single-handedly speaking truth to power is dangerous also because, by drawing heavily on the individualistic ‘girl power’ paradigm, it overlooks the importance of collective action and solidarity. Whereas Thunberg is undoubtedly an inspiration for many, she is hardly acting alone, as the media representation of her activism would want us to believe. Even before the climate strike became a global action attracting millions, she was outside the parliament not alone, but with like-minded people. The heroicisation of Thunberg in the media thus creates two important misconceptions: first, that civic engagement rests on individual, exceptional actors rather than everyday, repeated, concerted efforts of many and second, in line with neoliberal logics, that anyone could do it.

The very question of who counts as youth is shaped not just by cultural norms, but also by state and international institutions  as well as economic developments, and thus needs to be politicized. As Linda McDowell demonstrates, labour precarity postpones the age of economic independence, affects familial relationships, and unsettles gender norms. Gendered intergenerational differences for young men living in UK seaside towns are palpable: for millennials and generation Z working-class men, access to service sector employment such as clerical work and retail is made difficult by the affective labour type traits naturalised as feminine. As McDowell’s research demonstrates, young people bear the brunt of austerity cuts to youth services and other state provisions. McDowell and other contributors to this Special Issue of Discover Society explore how young urbanites navigate city spaces that are gendered, racialised, and classed in specific, exclusionary ways and how, in turn, they disrupt and problematize them, how they make them their own.

Urban space is often thought of in binary terms: either as either emancipatory or dangerous. As feminist geographers have shown (Wilson 1991), such a reductive approach obscures the many complexities in how urban space is produced and navigated. Feminist interventions into the Lefebvrian notion of the right to the city insist on taking into the account how said rights are shaped by ‘patriarchal power relations, which are ethnic, cultural and gender-related’ (Fenster, 2005: 217; Vacchelli and Kofman 2018). In popular culture and public discourse more broadly, the city is framed as liberatory to people of marginalised genders and sexualities and often juxtaposed favorably with the countryside which is presented as backward, sexist, homophobic, racist, and transphobic. Such a celebratory approach to cities wilfully overlooks the continuing discrimination, exclusions, and violence towards those marginalised by the hydra-headed monster of structural racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. As Ghassan Moussawi notes in a recent piece, the normative meanings of gay visiblity and gay friendliness in today’s cities need to be questioned and problematized to disclose their links with neoliberalism and surveillance. In Toronto, as Haritaworn discusses, ‘queer youth who are not monied or white are violently excluded from LGBT spaces that are essentially designed for consumer citizens.’

Across Europe, we have seen criminalization of migrant and refugee youth through stop-and-search policies and moral panics breaking out around the presence of young, Middle Eastern and African men in urban spaces coded predominantly as white. The EU border regime constructs male teenage refugees as suspects: they are not treated as unaccompanied minors, but perceived as sexual threat to European (meaning white) women (Farris 2017). Century-old racist tropes continue to plague not just EU and national policies, but also shape municipal action. Marguerite van den Berg and Danielle Chevalier discuss how city planning is gendered and racialised in Rotterdam. On the one hand, in recent years there has been an attempt at ‘feminising’ the city that — given its heavily industrial docks-related imaginary — was previously perceived as masculine. Making the city more feminine meant representing mainly blonde, white middle-class women practicing passive yoga positions in centrally located public squares, projecting the idea of consumer-oriented neighbourhoods ready to cater for middle-class families. On the other hand, a ban on gathering was implemented in Rotterdam peripheries, where mainly minoritised youths live,  specifically targeting loitering of the streets by two or more people, thus reinforcing the public perception of racialised youth as potentially dangerous.

As Karam Alhamad discloses in his poetic essay, as a Syrian in Berlin, he only feels ‘normal’ on Sonnenallee — the thoroughfare dubbed ‘Arab Street’ — where people ‘look like him’. With its Middle Eastern restaurants, shops, and shisha bars, Sonnenallee is a safe space for Alhamad, a space of belonging, a caring space. Across Germany, racialised young people continue to experience discrimination in leisure spaces coded white; in return, they create their own spaces where they feel safe, unbothered, at home. Devastatingly, it is precisely such safe spaces that recently became a target of racist terror: a white supremacist German man attacked two shisha bars in Hanau, a town outside of Frankfurt, killing nine people and injuring several others. The victims were mostly of Turkish and Kurdish origin, three of the murdered ones were Roma. Whereas this act of terror has been framed as shocking in the German mainstream media, violent racism comes hardly as a surprise to those who experience it on a daily basis and who have been speaking up against it for decades. When even shisha bars do not offer the much sought-after normalcy, young racialised people in Germany are asking: where can I feel safe now?

Giulia Zampini and Eveleigh Buck-Matthews depict dancefloors as potential safe spaces, which can be inclusive, progressive, and nurturing despite the fundamentally ambiguous nature of drug-taking. With growing commercialisation of club culture, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure that dancefloors maintain their ‘inclusive and caring nature’, but, as the authors stress, ‘people continue to be active in developing strategies to resist the mainstreaming of dancefloor spaces’. The notion of safe space is also discussed in this Special Issue in the context of Boxgirls Berlin e.V., a sports club in Berlin. In the words of Linos Bitterling (noted in an interview with Agata Lisiak), Boxgirls Berlin e.V. strives to create safe spaces through various projects addressing distinct political issues ranging from body awareness to girls’ empowerment, refugee integration and social inclusion of gender non-conforming people. Besides engaging closely with gender, racial, and religious discimination experienced by young Berliners, Boxgirls Berlin e.V. members regularly participate in street protests, most recently in One Billion Rising, a mass action to end violence against women.

Expressions of protest against white supremacy, patriarchy, and nationalism are widely present on the streets and across various media, amplified by hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #CzarnyProtest, and #MeToo, to name only a few. Started by the Black activist and then youth camp director Tarana Burke in 2006, the MeToo movement originally aimed at empowering girls from minoritised urban communities in New York and the phrase ‘me too’ was a way of telling them not just that you’re not alone, but that you’re normal. The realisation that the exclusion, abuse, and precarity experienced by urban youth are not private matters, but emerge from structural inequalities — and thus need to be politicised — is at the centre of the work presented here by Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler. Shahrokh and Wheeler’s research demonstrates that for young people in Cape Town ‘precarity is lived as everyday violence, as exclusion from economic opportunity, and unequal educational and health’. Both in New York and Cape Town, among countless other cities, legacies of state racism continue to manifest in schools, health services, and on the street thus further marginalising young people of colour and excluding them public life.

Some recent political protests, such as those in Hong Kong and Santiago de Chile, were ignited and powered by young people; others, such as those in Baghdad and Beirut, have relied substantially on the multitude of precarised urban youths. As Sara Abbas observes in her contribution on the Sudanese revolution: ‘In a country where 61% of the population is under the age of twenty-five, this was a revolution of youth. It was also a revolution of young women, who engaged in protest in numbers and ways hitherto unseen.’ Abbas reflects on how the revolution tightened young Khartoumians’ emotional relationship with the city, a phenomenon similar to the one described by Alhamad in his notes on how a sense of belonging in the city has been shaped by his experiences of the Syrian revolution, refuge, and the unnamed condition that followed.

Yet it is not only participation in epoch-making events that redefines young urbanites’ relationship with the space they inhabit. As Naaz Rashid demonstrates in her piece on ‘chai-activism’, in Pakistani cities the threat of sexual violence is demarcated by classed and gendered boundaries whereby ‘respectable’ middle-class women are made to feel threatened by men from lower socio-economic backgrounds, thus reinforcing toxic and predictable narratives that are already dominant in public discourses about street harassment. Digital activism by Desi feminists represents a unifying transnational movement reaching far beyond Pakistan, striving to reimagine more inclusive urban public spaces.

Recent years have seen a rise in local, national and international organisations campaigning for ending rape and street harassment in cities across the Global North and the Global South. The gang rape and fatal assalut of the 23 year old Jyoti Singh on a private bus in Delhi in 2012 sparked global outrage. In the following days various Indian cities saw protesters clashing against the police to demand increased security for women and ‘Nirbhaya’’s death, the fearless, became the symbol for women’s claim for a safe public space and resistance to rape. In the UK, Plan International has successfully made the government recognise that street harassment is a form of gender based violence. 66% of girls who are between 14 and 21 have experienced unwanted sexual attention or harassment in public spaces and have to change their behaviour in order to stay safe and avoid being targeted. These strategies include not going out at night or taking longer routes to avoid dangerous locations according to recent research. 42% of girls who have been sexually harassed moreover did not speak out about their experience  and have been left feeling anxious, degraded and embarrassed for believing  sexual harassment is normal and ‘part of growing up’.

In June 2019 a lesbian couple was assaulted on a London bus by a group of male teenagers after they refused to kiss on demand. The two women were subjected to homophobic abuse, beaten up, and robbed thus highlighting the ambivalent role of urban youth as both potential victims and perpetrators of violent crimes. As one of the assaulted women, Christine Hannigan, argues in her poignant opinion piece in The Guardian, the reason the photo of her and her date’s bloodied faces went viral is because both of them are white, feminine, and cisgender. Hannigan pleads to ‘make the extraordinary reaction to [their] attack the norm’ and to ‘redirect your money from rainbow capitalism to people-of-colour-led organisations striving for justice’. Hannigan’s timely intervention resonates with the research conducted by Rashid, Haritaworn, and van den Berg and Chevalier who unpack how the intersections of race, gender, and class shape the acknowledgement and legitimacy of some but not ‘other’ bodies as worthy of protection. As Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade demonstrate in their by now classical study Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, ‘even though public discussions of safety might appear to be about all women, they tend to focus implicitly only on middle-class women’ and, in ‘the urban Indian context, this middle-class woman is further assumed to be a young, able-bodied, Hindu, upper-caste, heterosexual, married or marriageable woman’ (p.23). This figure of a ‘respectable young woman’ is constructed as always threatened by an opposing figure of ‘the vagrant male (read: lower class, often unemployed, often lower caste or Muslim)’ (p.19). In effect, ‘the exclusion of women from public space is inextricably linked to the exclusion and vilification of other marginalized citizens’ (p.11).

The contributors to this Special Issue of Discover Society aim at overcoming the polarity between viewing urban space as necessarily disabling or enabling for young people of various genders and draw attention to the complex dynamics in which urban belonging is negotiated through daily practices. As editors, we position ourselves firmly within feminism that champions trans rights and thus find it particularly important to feature here contributions that critically revise the dominant strands of research on urban youth, going beyond its gender binarisms and thus rendering our understanding of urban social worlds more complex and inclusive. Sharing research from various geographical locations  and disciplines, we invite the readers to consider how young people navigate, subvert, and reimagine urban space enacting processes of selective inclusion within broader exclusionary dynamics of global neoliberal cities. We invited international colleagues to reflect on their research and activism with the notions of a ‘caring city’ and the ‘gendered right to the city’ in mind. Politics of care and the right to a more inclusive city for urban youth are therefore two threads that run through the contributions in this Special Issue, highlighting dynamics of selective inclusion and exclusion from material, discursive, and virtual public spaces in the interstices of interconnected cities across the world.

Further reading
Farris, S. (2013) In the name of women’s rights: The rise of femonationalism. Durham: Duke UP.
Fenster, T. (2005) The right to the gendered city: Different formations of belonging in everyday life. Journal of Gender Studies, 14(3), 217-231.
Minh T. N. N., R. Zavoretti & J. Tronto (2017) Beyond the Global Care Chain: Boundaries, Institutions and Ethics of Care, Ethics and Social Welfare, 11:3, 199-212.
Phadke, S., Khan, S., Ranade, S. (2011) Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Gurugram: Penguin India.
Vacchelli, E., & Kofman, E. (2017). Towards an inclusive and gendered right to the city. Cities, 76, 1-3.
Wilson, E. (1991) The sphinx in the city. Urban life, the control of disorder, and women. LA: University of California Press.


Agata Lisiak is Associate Professor of Migration Studies at Bard College Berlin. @Agata_LisiakElena Vacchelli is Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Greenwich, London. @elenavacchelli We curate migART — a repository of research, teaching, and activist projects that use creative and participatory methods to engage with migration.  Please contact us if you would like to have your project showcased.

Image: Devin Avery on Unsplash.


The articles in this special issue of Discover Society were written and are based on research conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak, and thus do not engage with the new lived realities of urban youth in a global pandemic. Yet we hope and believe that the discussions presented here will continue to be relevant in rethinking urban futures in the years to come.