Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are Kids the Urban Canary in the Coal Mine?

I have touched on the idea of kids, cities and suburbs are few times, and shall revisit that here, thanks to an article I read in the Salon, written by Will Doig.

In the past, I have said that urban design can make it dangerous for kids to walk on their own. This article looks at the issue from a different approach. In essence, by not allowing kids to walk, we are suppressing urban life, something that is essential to a vibrant streetscape.

That a kindergartner was allowed to toddle four blocks without adult supervision seems extraordinary now, even though cities are at least as safe for children today as they were then. Crime is at a 40-year low. The percentage of kids fatally hit by cars has been dropping for decades. And the child abductors that leer from every corner are tabloid fantasy — only about 100 kids, out of tens of millions, are kidnapped in public by a stranger each year.

So naturally, children can now be found romping unsupervised throughout our neighborhoods, acquiring the intuition, resourcefulness and sense of independence that such a childhood provides, right?

Actually, no. In the time since [Lenore] Skenazy walked off to kindergarten alone, the number of children that can be found in public without supervision has only diminished. In one survey, 85 percent of mothers said they allowed their kids outside unsupervised less frequently than they themselves were allowed. In Britain, the average age of children allowed to play outside adult-free has risen by more than a year since the ’70s, and 25 percent of 8- to 10-year-olds have never played outside without an adult. One study diagrammed the shrinking distances that four generations of one family’s kids were allowed to stray from home: six miles in 1919, one mile in 1950, half a mile in 1979, and 300 yards today.

 I think this is what it boils down to when parents think about this. We all want our kids to be safe. Yet, we always revert to the lowest common denominator. When they are infants, we have baby monitors or video feeds to make sure they are safe when they move to their on room, away from parental supervision. Play dates weren't "invented" 20 years ago, because we just naturally let our kids go out and themselves or to their friends. Even things that I can remember doing as a kid (I am just 32) aren't allowed anymore by lots of parents. I remember the first freedom I felt when I got my own bike and was allowed to roam the neighborhood alone or with friends or sister. My parents said what to watch out for and what to do and let me be on my way. And you know what? I did it. I believe to often we think kids don't have the ability to follow instructions when it matters, but they do. We did.

I think that may be more of the crux of this issue. Trust. Either we don't trust our kids or don't trust other people.

That also comes into part of what good urban areas build, a community trust. Seeing the same people, eventually socializing with them builds social capital. When you see the same folks, an informal relationship builds. Even seeing the same type of people tears down walls. In an area that is car-oriented, those things aren't possible. People aren't out socializing, they are in their own private sphere. People there just aren't able to do the same things in suburbs that they can in quality urban areas.

My son, in a few years, will be able to walk to the convenience store a block away. Folks in the suburbs can't, because it is a mile or more and the streets may or may not have sidewalks, but a certainly border thoroughfares that are a minimum of six lanes, straight and at least 40 miles per hour and usually more.

However, until now, I never thought of the urban area's health and vitality in terms of children walkability. 

She travels the globe preaching the gospel of less-protective parenting and hosts an annual event called “Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not just for the kids’ sake: Skenazy believes that free-roaming children are an integral part of what makes a good city. “When you’re talking child-friendly, you’re usually talking about the same things urban planners talk about: mixed-use, people outside, a rhythm to the streets.”

She says the “Popsicle test” is a convenient way to use free-roaming kids to gauge a city’s health. “If an 8-year-old child can go get a Popsicle from the store by themselves and finish it before they get home, that city is probably thriving,” says Skenazy. Such an act is possible only in a walkable, reasonably safe environment that has a good pedestrian infrastructure and where retail and residences are relatively intermixed.

 As it happens, this is exactly the type of environment that’s proliferating in many cities. So why has kids’ freedom to roam only faltered? Overprotective parenting is, of course, the culprit that first springs to mind. “We’ve come around to the idea that parenting is a skill,” says psychologist Alex Russell. “We’re now all aware that those early years are extremely formative.” But another reason, says Russell, “is that we are parenting more and more in isolation. Parents used to parent in communities, but now it falls squarely on the mother and father.”

This, I think, is a direct result of suburbanization. This village parenting idea has existed for centuries and more. The phrase it takes a village is quite old, but no longer applies to our country's society. Low-density, car-oriented design has spread families apart and isolated us from our neighbors. Add in the mistrust that isolation brings and it is no wonder kids aren't allowed to be kids. 

Cities reinforce this paradigm with ever more creative ways of banning unsupervised kids, even though the definition of “unsupervised” depends on one’s perspective. As Russell suggests, kids can be supervised in the absence of their parents. In the Sydney Morning Herald, a writer recently marveled at seeing children wandering unchaperoned all over Tokyo. When she worried to her Japanese colleague about the lack of adult supervision, he responded, “What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians.” In Japan, 80 percent of kids between 6 and 12 walk to school grownup-free.

I have always marveled at the Japanese urban design. Now there are obvious cultural differences, but they build cities in the way that I preach here. There is a great appreciation for social bonds and responsibilities there.

In some ways, I don't think it is that much different here, only the design. Here's what I mean. If I am walking down the street and I see a kid, I watch the kid, even if only casually. If something bad were to happen, like an abduction, theft or just a crying kid, I intervene. Surely, there isn't that many who wouldn't. Yet here, we first think the parents are bad.

And it also takes a step for the parent too. In my personal experience, it can be hard to give them that freedom that isn't 100% secure or safe. But I see an independence streak in him that I had. And I am already seeing the parental and developmental benefits of giving him freedom to make choices.

Part of this is simple geography — Americans are more spread out than the Japanese. Sixty percent of Americans lived within two miles of their children’s schools in 1969. Now, 40 percent do. This helps explain why, in 1969, walking or biking was the most common way of getting to school, according to a UCLA study. Today, only about 13 percent of kids get to school that way.

BTW, we also had a childhood obesity epidemic. Coincidence? Certainly not in part. A lot of blame goes to video games or staying indoors, but now allowing them to walk for everyday needs may be the biggest change that requires the smallest change.

Also, if people say kids don't get enough outdoor play time, but they aren't allowed to go outside on their own, is it a shock they aren't getting enough active play time?

Once again, I think suburbanization plays a part. Some people have expressed their opinions that I am making a bad decision by not moving to a single-family house with a backyard. I just don't think that is necessary. When you realize that humans survived centuries upon centuries without backyards, it does seem weird that a relatively recent invention is considered an absolute necessity for childhood development.

“It’s almost a suburbanization of cities,” says Skenazy. “The idea that we should keep kids in cars and hover at the park and be with them 24/7 — it started in the suburbs and became the norm for parenting.”

Exactly right. When suburbs are all you know, and when you have a city like Dallas that tries to emulate suburban design, it is no wonder the current generation doesn't know anything but the suburbs.

[Nancy] Pullen-Seufert gets this, and I imagine that when she’s not talking to a reporter, she’s just as openly frustrated with parents’ irrational fears as Lenore Skenazy is. “Sometimes what we hear from [parents] is, ‘Look, my job is to protect my kid, and if this is one less thing I can expose them to, great, let’s mark it off the list,’” she says. “For a while some organizations tried to convince parents by saying, ‘Take the longer-range look: This is a way to build physical activity into your kid’s day.’ And some parents bought that, but a lot of others just said they could get the physical activity in other ways.”

I'd even take it a step further. Yes the physical activity is important, but what does this do for kid's mental development? What happens when a teen finally has freedom they never had before? What happens when a helicopter parent stays in their kids life and directs their children, even when they are in college and beyond?

It is a fact that the human brain develops most of its lifelong functions before ten. If kids don't know how to handle freedom and responsibility before that process finishes, then they will struggle with it for the rest of their lives.

It says something that we perceive walking down the street to be a greater risk to kids than speeding along in two tons of steel and glass, when in actuality, four-fifths of kids killed by cars are in those cars. No parent, however, is going to be accused of endangering their child by driving them to school, but the parent who lets them walk might be — the fear of being judged by other parents looms large. As does the fear of liability on the part of these schools and cities. “Our belief in our communities has been eroded by fears of lawsuits, insurance companies whaling on the schools, the constant din of horror story tonight at 6,” says Skenazy.

This is what gets at the heart of the matter for me. This is the oxymoron of suburban development. We want to make our kids safer, yet the thing that makes that perceived safety possible, is actually the biggest threat of all. The number one killer of humans between the age of 2 and 19 is the car. Nothing kills our kids more, not disease, not inner city violence, not bullying and certainly not walking outside but ferrying our kids around in the car. But we never hear of the dangers of that, at least not on any large scale. But we do hear about the more rarer incidents like abductions, and then paradoxically, we keep them more isolated and more dependent upon the car.

And in the end, Salon notes, when we think of kids in the design of our cities, everyone wins.

And seeing kids outside can give people confidence in their city, too. It can make them think twice about speeding in their cars and help old people age in place (kid- and senior-friendly infrastructures are often one and the same). “There’s this intangible piece to it,” says Pullen-Seufert, when asked what makes a true safe route for a child. “It’s an overall community feel, where people just feel comfortable being out there.”

I shudder to think of what cost suburbanization will have on the baby boomers. Once their capacity to drive has diminished to the point of dangerous for themselves and society, it is either nursing home or extreme isolation. Neither sounds pleasant. Cities with a greater degree of walkability will certainly have the edge, both for their citizens personal benefits and socially as a whole.

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