To Save Our Cities, Put Children First

What’s the universal design principle that can regenerate our cities, make them great? Kid-friendliness, says architect Jason McLennan. 

This article talks largely about American cities and the failed American Dream. But with some adjustments for the way the Indian culture and socio economic realities play out in our cities, the message offered by the author applies to Indian cities as well.

“We know a lot about the ideal environment for a happy whale or a happy mountain gorilla. We’re far less clear about what constitutes an ideal environment for a happy human being. One common measure for how clean a mountain stream is, is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It’s the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”

– Enrique Peñalosa

Change is coming to our cities in the next 10-20 years, whether or not our culture is ready for it. As cheap oil disappears and we firmly enter the age of  ‘extreme energy’ and additional finite resources diminish to scarce levels, we will be forced to adjust to new ways of building and living with a global population approaching eight billion—almost entirely in urban settings. Even as our cities mushroom in size, the very mega-infrastructure projects that built them—created in a world where cheap energy was substituted for common sense and ethical planning—become obsolete.

We exchanged a sense of community for take-out and parking lots. We converted the scale of our communities from a human to a highrise level. The scale of the child has been left behind in most of America.

During the post-World War II era we redefined and recreated communities of all sizes to support the transition to an automobile age within the span of only three decades. The North American landscape was changed forever—and its about to change just as radically, over just as short a timeframe yet again. The types of infrastructure and planning that separate us within our own communities—urban sprawl, big box retail, interstate freeways, mega powerplants, centralized sewage treatment systems, and absurdly tall skyscrapers will suddenly become impossible to sustain. In their place will emerge a new urban landscape supported by new kinds of infrastructure responding to the new reality of energy, food, water, and population.

That we’ll remake civilization is guaranteed—how we’ll do it is the only question. Will we simply spiral towards the visions found in many science fiction novels and Hollywood movies? Will our cities become versions of an unhealthy, ecologically depleted, crowded, dirty Blade Runner future? Or will we use this opportunity for change as a course correction to create a healthy, vibrant and beautiful living future?

How do we begin to create a future that brings out the best of humanity and safeguards the planet’s fragile ecosystems?

Putting Kids First

As simplistic as it may sound, the best way to plan our cities to function as nurturing, dynamic communities for all people is to design them well as places for children first. Regardless of function or location, all re-development and new planning should be grounded by asking the questions, “Is this good for children?” “Does it relate to a scale that children relate to?”

Why is it that so much of the built environment is unfit for our most sensitive and vulnerable citizens? The disturbing answer is that other than dedicated school yards and some city parks, children are mere afterthoughts in the ‘serious business’ that is city and community planning. For the last sixty years we’ve designed our communities first around the scale of the automobile, and secondarily around the scale of adult men and women. By leaving children out, we have left out the best of humanity—and the chance to connect our future leaders with functioning workable urbanism. Whole generations now have no experience with how fantastic well-done urbanism can be. The best cities in the world have a walkable, relatable scale that children and adults alike can relate to. They tend to be safer, more accessible, and more culturally rich. They give us greater opportunities for social interaction as well as chance encounters and educational opportunities.

By catering our infrastructure to those among us who have the least control, we actually usher in greater opportunities across multiple demographic segments.

Think about what makes a place great for kids: a focus on sound learning, personal interactions with others, opportunities to interact with nature and natural systems (water in particular), right-sized designs that aren’t intimidating and automobile-based, a city with an all-around gentle touch. Now consider a city that extended such considerations to everybody. If communities were built in ways that nurtured children rather than worked around them, all ages would be the better for it. By catering our infrastructure to those among us who have the least control, we actually usher in greater opportunities across multiple demographic segments.

It’s bad enough that typical futuristic images of our cities are ecologically impossible; what’s also crazy is that they never appear to be very nice places for children. It seems that the visionaries who craft these plans of soaring buildings and concrete landscapes—or even present-day housing developments with endless rows of identical homes—have forgotten the importance of what it means to just go outside and play.

Even many much-heralded “eco-developments” seem to contain few genuine child-friendly opportunities, unless one counts the occasional recycled plastic slide in a fenced-in play area. It’s time to turn our attention back to our children and do what makes sense for them, for us, and for the environment. The good news is that child-centered city planning is not simply generous; it’s practical.

Doing what we do best – A super quick history

While its very easy to feel defeated and pessimistic by the overwhelming evidence of energy and water scarcity, climate change, and worldwide economic upheaval, I consider it more useful to look at these significant challenges as opportunities to re-imagine civilization in a way that ensures our long term place in it. Many people have a hard time believing that we can redesign our cities within the span of a few decades, but the truth is, it will happen regardless of our intentions. The question is whether we will steer things towards the best possible outcomes or see impacts continue to move in the wrong direction.

Stealing from the Innocent

Children in every neighborhood—have been robbed of opportunities as we’ve drained the life out of our cities and created vast sprawls of bland and unhealthy suburbia. Most profoundly, kids across all strata have lost a sense of freedom. City children have sustained a figurative loss as their neighborhoods’ vitality and relevance has faded, leaving many without hope for the future. Suburban kids spend an unhealthy amount of time in the car getting from one spot to another in their over-bland environment, leaving many bored, unengaged, and overweight. When schools are built on inexpensive land on the edge of a community, kids from all segments of the population spend more time on buses than in their own residential surroundings.

The fact is that we’ve been sucking the youthful life out of our children because of the way we’ve designed our communities. With automobiles in dominant roles, it is less safe for children to bike, walk, or play outside. Our increased isolation and lack of connection to our neighbors has made us increasingly paranoid (egged on by irresponsible, fear-mongering media), prompting us to restrict our children’s ability to enjoy unstructured time outdoors. Children spend more time in front of screens, substituting virtual connections for personal interaction. 

The Tyranny of the Big, the Beauty of the Small

Admittedly, we have all suffered. But kids feel the disconnection more acutely not just because they are more vulnerable, but also because many of them know nothing else. Are we raising a whole generation that does not have a chance to learn naturally what it means to be both a functioning citizen of a community as well as the natural world? Are we in fact robbing our youth of key experiences needed for future maturity?

Adjusting to the Inevitable

The good and bad news is this: the age of cheap oil is almost over. The days of the suburban experiment are numbered. People simply won’t be able to afford driving everywhere and communities won’t be able to sustain the miles of sprawl that were built on speculation in an era of both cheap energy and cheap labor. We now have neither. The only possible response is to return our focus on the urban core and responsible density, and in so doing, bring back the beauty that is also possible in great cities. 

It will take a commitment to   maintain the values necessary to  support truly regenerative neighborhoods. Most importantly, it should usher in a new commitment to our children.

Jason F McLennan


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