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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flickr Photo by Joe Duty, Little Kid Down the Road chalking the sidewalk.