Cities Aren’t Built for Kids

To east of Amsterdam In the city center is Funenpark, a peaceful little neighborhood in the shape of a triangle. Its edges are lined with shops and public spaces, including a daycare center, bookstore, and elementary school alongside a large playground. Scattered throughout the enclave are apartment buildings set amidst lawns that give way to smooth stone pathways. There are no private courtyards or driveways and no cars in the Funenpark. On a bright afternoon in early June, I left my daughters with their father on the jungle gym while I biked around.

The green space between the buildings was littered with people, young and old, picnicking in the afternoon sun. As I cycled past a group of kids playing soccer, one of them shot over the gate and slammed the ball down the sidewalk. No driver honked. No brake squeaked. No parents cried to heed the road. No parents even watched the game. As I snaked my way back, I passed a teenager walking an off-leash dog and a little girl, about the size of my 5-year-old, who was using chalk to draw a figure on the path. When I went back to the playground, a lone boy who couldn’t have been more than 6 years old sprinted out, jumped onto a tiny blue bike with bright red wheels and sped off.

The scene unfolding before me felt strangely familiar: a version of urban childhood I had heard of but never experienced, where parents were more relaxed and children could roam their neighborhoods unsupervised until the streetlights came on and they rushed home to supper. Sometimes I hear my elders lament that this approach to raising children is over, but such a thing is alive in Amsterdam. Not because time stood still there, but because the city created the infrastructure for it. Unfortunately not in most major cities.

“Hhuman habitats Shaping kids in ways we don’t appreciate,” says Tim Gill, author of Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities, told me. Gill, who brought Funenpark to my attention, first became interested in child-friendly urban design in 1994. It was then that he began working for the London-based advocacy group Children’s Play Council – now called Play England – and began to realize how profoundly urban infrastructure can be disruptive to childhood.

Think about what it takes for a child to grow into an adult. We come into our lives in a state of total adult dependence. After all, God willing, we will grow up ourselves and be able to master our everyday life independently. The path from the former to the latter, Gill told me, should be one of gradually increasing independence. Parents shouldn’t just offer their children experiences by guiding them between school, play dates and soccer practice; They should let their children explore and discover experiences for themselves.

But modern childhood, in America and elsewhere, is becoming increasingly restricted. As evidence, Gill often cites a map showing the “wandering areas” of children across four generations of a family in Sheffield, England. In 1919, at the age of 8, great-grandfather was able to hike to a fishing lake six miles from his home. By 2007, his 8-year-old great-grandson could only walk to the end of his street – and that’s more freedom than many 8-year-olds have these days.

It’s tempting to blame the highly supervised nature of modern childhood on parents who are too neurotic to take their eyes off their children. But according to Gill, the “gradual creeping lockdown” for children is in part a reflection of the built environment in which they live. In his view, it is wrong to blame parents for not letting their children out when it is often unsafe.

Some parental worries are overblown, Gill admitted, but traffic isn’t one of them. Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death among American children, killing thousands of children each year. And although fewer young children die in car accidents in the United States today than about half a century ago, Gill suspects that progress is partly due to parents’ massive restrictions on children’s freedoms. This compromise leads to a paradox: in cities full of danger, childhood can become too safe.

The challenges of raising children in a city are not just limited to physical risks. According to Hannah Wright, an urban planner who has worked on child-friendly design, most public spaces simply weren’t built for children. During the rapid urbanization of the 20th century, many cities were designed for the people who built them: able-bodied men who would not normally care for children. This created all sorts of obstacles for children and their caregivers: think subway platforms that are only accessible by stairs (not easy with a stroller), or bus routes that are inaccessible for someone en route to school make sense work.

Alexandra Lange, design critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Children, points out that where she lives in Brooklyn, there are no extra buses during school rush hour, as they often do during work rush hour; The bus that goes from the subway to her son’s high school is always full when it gets there. “The routes are not designed to accommodate school children as regular commuters,” said Lange. In New York City, that’s hundreds of thousands of kids.

The difficulty of raising a child in a city isn’t unique to the United States, but it reflects the stress of American parenting in general: children are marginalized by policymakers, and that creates unnecessary stress for parents. Most city planners, Lange said, “don’t make streets safe for children to cross alone. They expect you, as a parent, to make time every day to take your children to school.” With so few options other than the internet for children to deal with boredom and loneliness on their own, many parents have to constantly strive to Make playtime and sign their children up for activities. “If it was restructured so that kids could find each other and then develop football games, we wouldn’t have to sign them up for things all the time,” Lange said.

Long rattled up ways to improve city life for families: slow down cars, narrow roads, add more trees, especially in shady deserts. Placing family-focused venues close together would help create easy routes between them — and it could allow them to feed off of each other. If a child can safely roam around a nearby playground while their parents take a physical education class at the community center, for example, then there is no need to hire a babysitter.

From Gill’s point of view, the ideal child-friendly city would look something like the Vauban district of Freiburg. Few of the approximately 5,000 residents own a car, and those who do have to park it in a lot on the outskirts of town. A tram and a dense network of cycling and hiking trails run through the quarter. Apartment buildings leave plenty of room for relaxation and socializing. And with little traffic, parents don’t have to corral their children into fenced playgrounds. Instead, play structures like swings and slides are scattered throughout the city, allowing kids to rub shoulders with their fellow townmates.

Of course, tearing down existing cities and building kid-friendly cities in their place is not feasible. But urban planners have many options to work with what they have. Gill suggests checking individual neighborhoods for child-friendliness – are there many contact points for children? Can you get to her safely? – and make appropriate changes. Cities can pilot interventions before implementing them more widely. Rotterdam, a city about 50 miles southwest of Amsterdam, did just that. After a 2006 poll found it to be the worst place in the Netherlands to raise a child, the city launched Child Friendly Rotterdam; The intervention mainly focused on the redesign of a single neighbourhood, Oude Noorden, by reconfiguring streets to slow or discourage traffic and to make public spaces more playable. The organizers developed guidelines to make the rest of Rotterdam childproof.

Cities can also make incremental changes simply by being opportunistic. “If you’re already upgrading the plumbing or water infrastructure on the street or laying fiber optic cables or whatever, you’re digging up the street anyway,” Wright told me. Why not reconfigure with children in mind? With a little thought, the run-of-the-mill city infrastructure can be redesigned for play. On a day trip to Rotterdam, I stumbled across an exquisite example of such creativity: a flood retention zone with a basketball court in its basin and seating carved into the walls.

Even subtle improvements can be transformative. For a 3-year-old staggering through life in a semi-conscious dream state, walking anywhere in a city is often a miserable drudgery spent snapping hands and barking orders. But our walk through Oude Noorden was largely calm, even rejuvenating. We followed that kindvriendelijk, or “kid-friendly,” route where the speed limit for cars drops to about 19 mph in some sections and is closed to cars in others. Squiggles of green sprouted from the buildings. I dropped my daughter’s hand. I was chatting with my husband and she was collecting flower petals with her sister. I let her cross the street alone.

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