photo of children playing with dry leaves

Kids and urban space

My local council recently bought a bunch of warehouses and turned them into a public park with a playground. What used to be a barren, semi-industrial area suddenly came alive with people and plants. Everyone visiting the park looked in surprise at the playground wondering the same thing: ‘Where have all of these kids been hiding?’

Today’s urban spaces are designed for cars and commerce, making them particularly hostile towards kids. With most streets being considered unsafe, there has been a huge drop in outdoor play. This study, for example, claims that today just 27% of children play outside their homes, compared to 71% of the baby boomer generation. Or look at this fascinating map showing how an eight year old’s ‘range of exploration’ has changed from ~10 km a few generations ago to a mere ~300 metres today.

This short piece makes some cogent points about how our society tends to divide children into two categories undeserving of autonomy – ‘angels’ and ‘demons’:

On one hand children are considered too small, vulnerable and innocent to roam and play in urban spaces because of traffic, ‘stranger-danger’ and other hazards. On the other hand, teenagers are constructed as a public threat and should not be allowed to hang out on the streets with their bikes, skateboards and presumably bad intentions. … Children and young people are increasingly sequestered in homes, cars or institutional spaces for adult-controlled education and play.

Research tells us that limiting children’s sense of safety and autonomy also hampers their mental and social wellbeing. And yet, we continue to design spaces that completely robs them of their right to participate in public life. “Children should not be reduced to mere ‘future investments’ or ‘adults of tomorrow’. They are also people with present-day rights to citizenship, participation and autonomy in their living environments.

As a kid who grew up in the country, I spent my summers roaming the neighbourhood, local fields and woods. I was pretty shocked to hear about friends in Melbourne having spent much of their early teenage years inside shopping malls. They did so because we gradually made every public space unsafe or unwelcoming for them. The irony of now blaming them for being glued to screens all day!

Many of us (especially people like me who don’t have kids of their own) move about a city oblivious to the lack of infrastructure suitable for young people. Away from home, their ability to move freely is often constrained to fenced off spaces: playgrounds, daycare centres, school yards, sports grounds. They are often chauffeured between these spaces in the very thing that makes streets unsafe for them: cars.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know that designing cities for children ends up benefitting everyone which is why all of us should be demanding child-friendly, slow streets and engage in community efforts to take back public space from cars. Just watch any video of a Bike Bus in action and witness the joy of reclaiming our streets.

Source: Dense Discovery

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