Attachment to Place: How do young people feel about their seaside town?

As part of UCL’s Grand Challenge of Cultural Understanding’s Dynamics of Globalisation initiative, support was awarded earlier this year for the project, ‘Youth Attitudes towards Mobility and Migration: Exploring the Dynamics of Globalisation in Coastal Communities’. Following the conclusion of the pilot project, Rachel Benchekroun and Avril Keating report back on findings. 

A recent House of Lords’ report outlined the wide range of challenges facing coastal communities and highlighted the short- and long-term impacts that these challenges can have on young lives.  What was less clear was how young people themselves feel about their growing up in these communities. This was one of the key questions we wanted to explore throughout our pilot project.

Coastal communities in crisis?

Since the 1960s, global integration and cheaper international travel have created pressures on traditional seaside resorts whose economies rely on tourism (Agarwal et al, 2018). These factors, compounded by the global economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures, have led to many seaside towns experiencing a significant fall in tourism as well as cuts to public services. While some seaside towns have managed to recover and find an alternative economic base, many have become ‘deep pockets of deprivation’ (Rickey and Houghton, 2009, p.47). They are characterised by ‘youth out-migration and inward migration of older people, high proportions of retirees and benefit claimants, transitory populations, physical isolation, poor-quality housing, over-reliance on tourism, seasonal employment, low incomes and pressure on services during the summer months’ (Burdsey, 2018, p.37). How is this experienced by young people?

Margate in three words

One of the ways we tried to capture young people’s views of their town was to ask them to describe it in three words. Their responses were, for the most part, negative. Typical phrases included: eccentric, drug-infested, loud, unsafe, dirty and chavvy. ‘Chavvy’ was mentioned multiple times, and when I asked what they meant by it, Aiden (male, 14) quipped, “council house and violent!” Lydia (female, 14), however, was more nuanced in her response: ‘That’s one definition. Everyone has their own definition of what they see a chav is. The easiest way to describe it is […] quite aggressive, speaks and does things in a certain way’.

“Trampy” was another suggestion with similar connotations. Ryan (male, 14), for example, offered “chavvy, trampy and different” as his three words to describe Margate. He explained that ‘trampy’ meant “full of tramps”, which in turn he defined as: “[people who] chuck rubbish and everything. They think they’re hard and everything.” Similarly, Craig’s (male, 15) view of Margate was that it was full of “drugs, poverty, [and] gangs… Crime is everywhere, drug-use is, you always see homeless people on the street, it’s everywhere.”

Craig’s perspective is corroborated by Thanet District Council’s recent report highlighting some of the biggest social challenges in the local area, including exploitation, drug and alcohol misuse, and crime and gang activity. Thanet is affected by drug gangs operating from London (‘county lines’) and the practice of ‘cuckooing’, where a dealer befriends a vulnerable person and takes over their property to deal from there. In addition, the Council has outlined concerns about increasing numbers of vulnerable young people placed in care in Thanet from other parts of the country, putting them at risk from the criminal activity in the local area.

 These local characteristics have not gone unnoticed by the young people we talked to; many felt that parts of the town were dangerous and unsafe for young people like themselves. Paris (female, 14) emphasised her frustration with the noise and feeling unsafe:

“…it’s so loud I struggle to sleep at night. The area where I live is more near the seaside – there are quite a few people who hang around at night and think it’s okay to shout and sing loudly! And it’s even worse on Fridays! It’s unsafe, [although] I’m sure there are lots of parts of London that are more unsafe than here.”

When I asked the students if there was anywhere in particular that they felt unsafe, “Cliftonville!”was the consensus. As one of the most deprived areas in southern England, and the highest crime area in Thanet, Cliftonville is known for the high levels of transience, poor housing conditions and problems with overcrowded accommodation; 75% of private sector tenants are dependent on housing benefit. The students described feeling intimidated by “lots of people in massive groups”, referring to the area as “quite rowdy”.

More positive views…

Although the young people expressed mostly negative views of Margate, the students also expressed some positive views of their town. For example, while Evangeline agreed that Margate felt ‘unsafe’, she also emphasised ‘unique’ places like Dreamland amusement park, which is “quite funky and could – [it] used to be considered a tourist attraction, so it’s quite popular”. The theme park was not seen as being just for tourists: Linda (female, 14) said Dreamland is a ‘safe’ space for her:

“It’s a place where I feel like I can hang with people and I have things to do; not just sitting around doing nothing.”

And in a discussion about images of Margate, some also mentioned positive things about the ‘nicer’ parts of town (“the old town is actually nice”)  and the beach that lies at the heart of the town (“I go to the beach – in the summer I’m there practically every other day”).  Many of the students (and one of the teachers) also drew my attention to Margate’s ethnic diversity, which was agreed to be an asset.

Ismet (male, 15) described Margate as ‘welcoming’ and ‘busy’, relating his observations to the tourist industry. But the tourism can also have its downsides during the summer. Rory (male, 15) described Margate as ‘crowdy’ when it’s warm:

“If you go to Dreamland, especially this season, or if it’s just warm in Margate, the beaches will literally be full, and you will have to oom! [mimes using elbows] [others laugh] They are full! Crowdy.”

In short, the students’ first instinct was to highlight the negative attributes of Margate, and their descriptions and discussions suggested that there are key areas in this town that young people do not feel are safe or accessible. Further findings from the project are outlined in a series of posts on the UCL Global Youth blog:

Mapping Young Lives: what are the spaces and places that young people use in coastal towns?

Piloting Place-based and Participatory Youth Research: lessons learned in Margate