Kid-Friendly Neighborhoods: Takin' It To The Streets

Chalked sidewalk by kid.jpg

Planners and parents have been concerned about two widely reported, and most likely related, trends: the increasing percentage of overweight children, and the growing number of hours that kids spend looking at a screen, be it a television or a laptop. These two activities take up most of the free time kids have after school. Add on the tendency for kids to be driven or bussed to school, and the result is what has been called a “nature deficit” — a disconnect to natural surroundings. Over the long run, the outcome could be a generation of physically unfit and socially maladjusted young adults. The warning statistics are all around us. Is there a way out of this unhealthy cycle? One answer may rest with our planning decisions. Can neighbourhoods be laid out so as to avoid these unwelcome results?

Evidence from research pronounces an unequivocal ‘yes’. Many pieces shape the puzzle that forms the complete answer. The first element of a community friendly to outdoor childhood activity is its ability to draw people — adults as well as kids — out of their houses and prompt them to socialize with neighbours. Since 1980, several studies have shown that the great inhibitor to socializing on a street is traffic. The heavier the traffic, the less the socializing. When there's not much socializing, adults and kids make fewer the friends, and the motivation to get out of the house goes down. A 2008 study on this showed that people who lived on cul-de-sacs had four times as many friends and two times the number of acquaintances as residents on through streets with heavy traffic did. It seems intuitive, and research confirms it.

A second clue can be found by looking at the kinds of streets young kids play on most often. You may have guessed that research shows it's the cul-de-sac. Kids on cul-de-sacs spent 50 percent more time playing actively than kids on other streets. Importantly, the benefits to kids who play on the street continue. Other studies have shown that play and exercise in the early years build an affinity for activity that can last a lifetime, and that, through friendships, these kids also develop the spirit of a beehive at work.

The third puzzle piece needed to create a kid-friendly place is the presence of magnets in the surroundings. These are factors that pull kids out of their homes and send them walking to school, the corner store and other destinations. And one study found that of all the elements that would attract kids of all ages, the strongest common force was the presence of open space.

How parents feel about letting kids play on the street, walk to school, or ride their bicycles plays into the result, too. Justified or not, parental fear and unease limits the range of activities that kids engage in, and builds unhealthy habits.

This knowledge from the field provides a sketch of the essential elements of a kid-friendly neighbourhood and, beyond that, a child-friendly district. Which elements are most essential?

There shouldn't be any through streets in an area about the size of about ten city blocks. That feature gives kids plenty of room to move around in a low-traffic, low-speed environment. Parents socialize and kids play; parental insecurity fades. The easiest way to create this is by using connected cul-de-sacs and crescents.

Every kid-friendly neighbourhood area should have at least one open space, whatever its size. That grants a safe haven for play — a magnet. Its land value will be recovered through higher values for the homes around it. Real estate research shows that homes near cul-de-sacs and open spaces command higher prices. And where there are bike and foot paths separated from the road, with few road crossings, parents are more likely to let their kids walk or bike ride.

Can all this be achieved with a layout? Yes, by selectively fusing well known elements of available community plans. A number of examples of this fusion exist, and plenty of advice is accessible; check out, for example, Taking the Guesswork Out of Designing for Walkability.

These techniques are not just for planning new neighbourhoods. Existing places can also be transformed to create child-friendly environments. Initiatives in many cities have changed neighbourhoods with positive results.

How can you know when a neighbourhood has succeeded at incorporating these creative elements? One of the sure tell signs is chalk hopscotch marks left on the pavement! It signals that the kids have taken possession of a street, and are having fun. Every new family that moves into the neighbourhood will be heir to its physical and social benefits.

Fanis Grammenos is the founder of Urban Pattern Associates (UPA), and was a Senior Researcher at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for over 20 years, focused on housing affordability, building adaptability, municipal regulations and sustainable planning. Research on street network patterns produced the innovative Fused Grid. He holds a degree in Architecture from the U of Waterloo. For additional references on the studies mentioned here, please e-mail the author at fanis.grammenos@gmail.com.

Flickr Photo by Joe Duty, Little Kid Down the Road chalking the sidewalk.



















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Cost of land is very important

I always come back, in these discussions, to what was the cost of the raw land, to the developer?

A well laid out suburb, with amenities, will involve “opportunity cost”.

It is impossible for a developer to sell all the land he paid for originally. Something like half of it always has to be sacrificed to purposes that are not part of saleable lots.

If the land is cheap, the developer will not mind sacrificing more of it to purposes that increase “amenity value”, because the amenity value created is higher than the cost of the land sacrificed.

But if the land is expensive (and it is never “slightly more costly”, it is always driven up in price thousands of percent by growth-containment central planning when this is done) then the developer will be desperate to NOT sacrifice any land at all to non-saleable purposes. The problem is that the amenity sacrificed is less in value than the savings in the price of land having to be recovered in the sale price for each house.

It is always the case that the land should have been less than $20,000 per acre, and has ended up closer to $1,000,000 per acre. This completely changes the whole picture for the developer.

The developer will already be trying to eliminate intersections (hence the cul-de-sacs), reduce the width of streets, reduce the width of footpaths, omit “rights of way”, and so on. He will not want to sacrifice any land for a local school, or parks, or green space – which the central planners will probably try to force him to provide.

In contrast, when the land is as cheap as it should be, these things are not a problem to the developer, because the value of the houses he sells will be increased more than the opportunity cost involved in sacrificing the land to those uses.

It is as simple as this: if the land costs $20,000 per acre, two thirds of it sacrificed to non-saleable purposes would mean that quarter acre lots will have to recover a raw land cost of $15,000 each in their selling price. If the land costs $1,000,000 per acre, two thirds of it sacrificed to non-saleable purposes would mean that quarter acre lots will have to recover a raw land cost of $750,000 each in their selling price.

What happens in the latter case, is that lots are chopped up into one tenth of an acre sizes instead - meaning that "only" $300,000 raw land cost needs to be recovered in the selling price of each lot. AND the developer will try and avoid sacrificing 2/3 of the land to non-saleable purposes - perhaps he will try and keep it down to 1/2. This means $200,000 per lot raw land cost recovery.

Still a rip-off for the end user, with the original land seller laughing all the way to the bank.

If you want to understand why there is no middle ground, “moderately unaffordable housing” cities, only affordable ones with low density, versus seriously unaffordable ones where sacrificing lot size never restores affordability, read the below linked comment. Containing urban growth and rationing the land supply is not like a “flow control valve” over house prices as planners like to think it is, it is like an “on” switch for a nuclear chain reaction in land prices.

http://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2013/06/new-zealnd-house-prices-launch-f...