Wednesday, July 1

Children should be able to navigate their world

Somewhere along the line it became conventional wisdom in our culture that suburbs are good for kids. Lawns are supposed to be suitable places for children to play, and the cul de sac supposedly protects them from any strangers who may be passing through. I have to admit that this has always been baffling to me. For one thing, the typical drivable low-density environment is unhealthy ... physiologically. At least that's the conclusion of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who issued a policy statement last month in favor of "building new communities that are less car dependent and making existing communities more dense" as a strategy to promote active transportation. (The AAP also makes note of the excessive death and particulate matter generated by these automobiles as well). But right now I'm concerned with a less tangible story.

After the age of five, most children want to explore the world beyond their own home and lawn. As humans, our sense of identity is often tied up with the places we inhabit, and as a child develops he wants to expand that sphere. Just as adventurers depicted in books and film push out into uncharted waters, to a young child mapping out the neighborhood park or a new street is opening the same kind of frontier. I believe this process inculcates a sense of curiousity and healthy independance that cannot be taught in school or even acquired from eduational television or video games. Can this be replicated in a world where mom or dad are required to provide shuttle service to any of these far off lands?

Children want to navigate their own social world as well. I grew up in a suburb with lots of families. We children essentially elected one kid’s lawn as the play area for sports because it was particularly flat and a little bigger than the others. So essentially we created a de facto neighborhood park, while our dads had to keep mowing our individual lawns that rarely were used (when I was a little older, I was paid to mow, which was cool). I sometimes wonder why the grown-ups didn’t just live closer together and share a real park with real ballfields within walking distance of everyone. That arrangement would seem to have made more sense if it would have been available at the time.

Children want to make their own economic decisions. I was fortunate to have grown up in a closer-in suburb. By the time I was ten, I was riding my bicycle to the Main Street of our town every Saturday with a friend. I could blow my allowance on candy or save up for a cassette tape. It was up to me. I could make my way into the shops along the street and take care of the whole customer interaction myself. It was a great way to wade into the world of adulthood ever so slightly (I was still buying Swedish Fish by the boxful after all). This was six years before I'd be granted my drivers licence, our culture's traditional passport to sudden freedom, but I wasn't going to waste any time waiting for it.

My goodness, reading this, I sound like a crotchety old man. "Back in my day ..."

But, really, I see no reason to believe that our current trajectory toward more isolated, dependent, and obese children is a necessary by-product of progress and affluence. It only takes the will to ask for different kinds of places to live in.


Dave Reid said...

I liked the post, and I agree this belief the the suburbs are better for kids, is just that a belief, as growing up in the suburbs has its own set of issues. As far as kids an early freedom you might be interested in checking out I found it very interesting that there is even some debate, as I was out in the world on my bike at an early age as well.

CarFree Stupidity said...

Great post. This is something that Knustler has hit upon in his books over and over again, and even

Even Jane Jacobs in "Death and Life..." discusses the idea that kids in suburbs don't become socially adjusted to soical interaction because of a lack of experience interacting with a diverse range of individuals that children are exposed to when living in more urban and publicly orriented neighborhoods.

Also, check out this story about a kid who tried to bike to school and had his bike confiscated because it was against school policy.

Daniel Nairn said...

Free-Range Kids. I love that.

Wow. This story on forbidding bicycles is completely outrageous. It's hard to believe that one mother bicycling her child to school is outlawed, while all of the parents who drive their children to school, thus creating the dangerous situation for everyone, are welcomed. The principles said busing is available for all students. There's no need to drive. Completely nonsensical.

On that note, I'm actually volunteering to enter survey data on walking and biking to school in our city. I'll probably do a post on it once the results are processed.

neilswilliamson said...

I appreciate the post but disagree that the majority of parents will embrace the concept of more dense living. It is a lifestyle choice. I, too, grew up in a suburb on a cul-de-sac (a design that is now frowned up on by VDOT).

Today, I live in a house with a yard where my children do play football and baseball with the neighborhood kids. I would suggest based on my personal experiences some of those games (kickball, capture the flag, etc.)were excellent socialization opportunities.

I see the gray flight from the burbs as the empty nest baby boomers decide to move closer to the city amenities but I also see the boomer echos more than happy to snap up those suburban properties for their own families use.

As always, it's about choices and free markets.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks for commenting Neal. I always look forward to hearing your informed perspective on local issues.

I'm fundamentally with you that people should be able to choose where to live. I'm expressing reasons why I would not choose the same lifestyle, not that people should be forced into either an urban or suburban living arrangement. I'm entirely speaking for myself here.

Realistically, you might be right about future projections, but, I think, for different reasons than you mention. Exurban property values around the country have fallen much faster than those closer in, so I imagine many young families and lower-income households will find themselves in situations where the only housing available in their price range will be fairly isolated. This will be especially true as more and more urban neighborhoods become gentrified. My neighborhood in Cville was actually assessed UPWARD by 11% last year, as many surrounding areas dropped. I don't see this trend letting up anytime soon.

I can think of a few young people in this area who would prefer a walkable lifestyle, even at the expense of size of house and land, but believe that this option is not available to them here. They may move to Lake Monticello but not as an expression of their true preferences. Hopefully, development will eventually change to meet these changing preferences. But it takes a long time for housing markets to move, and it would require a favorable regulatory environment which I do not believe we have right now.

LH said...

Daniel, thanks for the heads-up on this AAP piece. On a similar note, check out

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