The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Youth Mapping to Understand Neighborhood Perceptions and Create Safe Passageways

Thursday, January 17, 2013: 4:30 PM
Marina 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Samantha Teixeira, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
John M. Wallace, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background & Purpose: Recent research has suggested that, in addition to the aesthetic and monetary concerns related to vacant and abandoned buildings, the presence of this type of neighborhood disorder affects people mentally and physically. These effects are especially salient for children whose developing brains and immune systems are at higher risk for exposure to vacant and abandoned housing related health hazards. Despite empirical knowledge that many of the toxins related to vacant housing (lead exposure, mold, dander from vermin) may be hazardous to children; there is sparse research in the area. Researchers have suggested incorporating children’s perceptions and experiences as an important future direction for the study of neighborhood effects.  Further, research suggests that children are willing and reliable sources of information and should be involved in monitoring their own well-being.

This purpose of this study was to address this gap through the involvement of youth in a mixed-method evaluation of their neighborhood environment. The specific aims of the study were to: 1) actively involve youth in a participatory assessment of the built environment in their neighborhood; 2) engage youth in reflective discussion through photo elicitation exercises and youth-led neighborhood tours to elicit input on their use and interaction with the neighborhood environment; 3) provide youth an opportunity to directly influence ongoing community planning processes.

Methods: The study utilized youth-led neighborhood tours and photography to actively engage 12 youth aged 14-16 in an assessment of the physical environment of their neighborhood.  This study used participatory photo mapping, an approach that integrates photography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and walk-along interviews, to elicit input about the youth's lived experience and to analyze spatial patterns of neighborhood use.  Youth engaged in thematic coding of the photographic and spatial data. Themes that the researcher noted through field notes were discussed with participants to ensure accuracy. Youth used this information to identify actionable issues and presented their findings to a community forum to help inform community planning efforts.

Results: Spatial data and data obtained during the walk along interviews with youth suggested the importance of play spaces (parks, fields, playgrounds) in shaping the participants’ childhood memories and perceptions of the neighborhood. Youth highlighted the influence of places in negative memories related to exposure to violence, drugs, and physical deterioration in the neighborhood environment.  Despite these hardships, there was a distinct focus on assets including educational landmarks and institutions like libraries and community centers and the role they could play in changing negative perceptions of the neighborhood. 

Implications:  This study demonstrates a replicable, participatory method for engaging youth in research and community change. The photos and maps created during the process became persuasive advocacy tools and garnered local media attention for the youths’ community change efforts.  Youth reported that the process was enjoyable while parents and guardians expressed pride at the youths’ ability to present their findings and become advocates.