Think of somewhere that was special to you when you were a child. Was it outdoors? Was there an adult present in your memory? For most, at a presentation on the Cities Alive report by Arup, the answers were ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively.
Perhaps because of my awareness of the agenda to get kids walking and cycling and the campaigns for ‘free-range kids’ or what the report calls ‘everyday freedoms’, my first thought was not of a place, but of a journey. My walk to primary school in the 1980s. Like previous generations, from the age of 6, I walked to my local primary school, sometimes in the company of children two or three years older, but rarely with an adult. My daughter’s primary school does not let a child leave the school site without an adult until they are 10 or 11. Thus my daughter’s confusion when I read about the 1950s school children in the Ramona books by Beverley Cleary. Everything else she could relate to, but not this idea that children were allowed to walk themselves to Kindergarten.
For most others at the presentation, however, the memory was of playing in the street. I don’t remember doing that. The driveways, front and back yards of my American childhood were large and open, with rarely a fence or hedge between them. There were sidewalks and verges between us and the road. The key was being allowed to cross the road on our own to play with kids who lived across the street.
By the time I was 8, I was allowed to play with kids on other blocks or to walk to the park without an adult, 4-5 blocks away. At 10 or 11, I could walk downtown, using the signalised cross-walks, and hang out with friends on the busy Main Street. At 13, when I went with my family into Boston, MA, I was allowed, along with my invited friend, to wander around independently for a couple hours once a meeting time and place was arranged.
So in my ‘urban childhood’ (hometown population: 75,000), the everyday freedoms were all important. The independence to wander about, on foot, without adult supervision was all I wanted. I loved to play what my daughter calls ‘walk and talk’ with a close friend. But whereas we used to stroll along city blocks, through the park, from one family household to another, at almost 7, she has so far only played ‘walk and talk’ going in circles round the school playground.
Meanwhile, my son, just finishing pre-school, has an even smaller circle to circumscribe:
At least that’s a great piece of children’s infrastructure: a circle to run around, benches to climb on, a tree to hide beneath… and right outside the local library too.
Yet primary school age children are not given the everyday freedom to use this space unsupervised. The excuse would be because it is on the busy High Street. But the High Street is a 20mph zone with plenty of traffic calming. And 1950s small-town America had plenty of busy roads for Ramona and her friends to contend with.
So whilst there are many cities with traffic-swamped, dangerous, and unwelcoming places and many positive recommendations in Cities Alive for children’s infrastructure, for my children at least, I see the major barrier as a risk-adverse, somewhat intolerant culture that suggests children are not responsible enough to be unsupervised and have everyday freedoms. Perhaps we need to remind everyone of the independence they had as children, and that only they can make part of their own children’s inheritance.