Where Do the Children Play?


Are compact cities healthy cities? One argument for compact cities is that they are good for our health.  The New Zealand Public Health Advisory Committee in 2008, for example, cited four principles for healthy urban planning based on the density of development: urban regeneration, compact growth, focused decentralisation, and linear concentration.  The aim is less time in cars and more use of active transport.

One objective of Auckland’s Regional Growth Strategy, with its emphasis on CBD and centre-focused residential growth is “safe and healthy communities”.  But how far can that be achieved through residential intensification?  Does regulating for a compact city work for everyone?  Everywhere? 

Kids and consolidation

Research by Penelope Carroll and Karen Witten of Massey University, summarised here and in a recent article in The Aucklander, highlights the disadvantages for children in the inner city. 

Witten and Carroll suggest that traffic volumes, strangers on the street, and lack of outdoor play space mean that children in central city environments are likely to be confined indoors.  And that raises the disadvantages of high density dwellings: insufficient space, internal noise, lack of natural light, lack of privacy, inadequate parking, inadequate indoor play space, and the potentially hazardous nature of balconies.  Poor health outcomes is a major concern.

A key issue for children in compact parts of the compact city is lack of opportunity for outdoor activity.  Heavily trafficked streets are not good for bike riding, or even walking alone.  Auckland’s centre is devoid of segregated cycleways or play areas.  Getting to school or the park is a major mission, and may well need a car trip. 

Even the Auckland Domain, a splendid sprawling park on the CBD fringe, is surrounded by high intensity streets, remote from most central apartments, and is hardly child-friendly.  The much smaller Victoria Park is similarly difficult to access, isolated by major arterial roads.  Albert Park is about the only central green space of note, but this is a throughway between university and town, not an ideal area for children to play. 

Auckland CBD Green Space

Perhaps the well-being of children is not a major issue here, because only around 600 (aged under 15) lived in the CBD in 2006.  But it was up 130% over a decade.  And they do count.

Anyway, the limits of central city living for children – and families – flag more general issues:

  • The need to think seriously about how we cater for families in higher density living generally, in the CBD, in other centres, and in suburbs targeted for intensification;
  • How we provide safe, public green space, areas for play, and ease of movement in high density, mixed use environments; and
  • Just how healthy is the inner city residential for living generally?

CBD living – not so healthy?

The factors potentially stressing children in the CBD impact on adults too.  Research for Auckland City in 2003 (CBD Metadata Analysis by No Doubt Research) suggested dissatisfaction with inner city apartment living came from a diminished sense of security and safety, noise nuisance, small units, absence of outdoor living spaces, and lack of a sense of community. 

In the absence of outdoor recreation space adult residents may get some exercise in the burgeoning gymnasium sector (for between $1,000 and $2,500 a year).  But for many recreational and social activities a car is a necessity.  Simply to take advantage of the key benefits cited for living in Auckland – access to outdoor recreation opportunities, organised sports, beaches, bush and countryside – residential Intensification around centres means more time- and fuel-consuming car trips.

On top of a lack of open useable space the latest State of the Region Report documents the heaviest concentration of air pollutants in and around central Auckland, hardly a healthy living environment.

Central Auckland Haze
Source: Auckland Regional Council,
State of the Region, 2010

Community in the central city

Research by Larry Murphy of the University of Auckland (“Third-wave gentrification in New Zealand: the case of Auckland” Urban Studies 2008, Volume 45) described different communities in the CBD: the well-to-do with their spacious harbour edge apartments (and quite possibly a second home – a beach cottage or lifestyle block – outside the city); the student-dominated quarter to the east; and the low income population to the west.  Families may end up in the latter area, in cramped apartments in featureless apartment blocks, simply for reasons of affordability.

These are transient populations, some 52% of residents in the Central East and Central West Census Area Units had been in their current dwellings for less than a year in 2006.  This compares with 23% in Auckland as a whole.  These particularly high residential mobility figures contradict any suggestion that high density living might create a strong sense of community cohesion.

Okay for some, for some of the time

The CBD works for some people.  The proliferation of downtown bars and entertainment caters particularly for the young and well-to-do.  Gentrification of the harbour-edge works for the professional couple, the wealthy, and out-of-towners.  But the central city is not right for middle or low income households, or families. 

Two key ingredients of a compact city strategy are increasing residential densities and boosting inner city living.  But these raise health and equity issues.  At the least, they call for investment in the quantity and quality of public space in areas targeted for intensification, making potentially big demands on the public purse given the value of land in the CBD and other commercial centres. 

We may just have to acknowledge the benefits of suburban living for some time to come and seek opportunities for sustainable development that don’t oblige less well-off families to dwell in small apartments and featureless blocks around busy commercial areas for lack of affordable alternatives.

Phil McDermott is a Director of CityScope Consultants in Auckland, New Zealand, and Adjunct Professor of Regional and Urban Development at Auckland University of Technology.  He works in urban, economic and transport development throughout New Zealand and in Australia, Asia, and the Pacific.  He was formerly Head of the School of Resource and Environmental Planning at Massey University and General Manager of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation in Sydney. This piece originally appeared at is blog: Cities Matter.

Photo by Pat Scullion

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Design Matters

Indicating that the only solution for families is to live in the suburbs abdicates the role of design in providing solutions for inner-city living.

It is entirely possible to design dense housing that provides outdoor play areas for children. This is very common in affordable housing apartment buildings in California. Interior courtyards are used to provide sheltered play areas in dense urban environments.

See this example from David Baker + Partners in San Francisco:

CBD versus sprawl?

Disregarding for the moment whether your analysis of the children in the CBD is accurate you seem to be making a very hard distinction between CBD and suburban sprawl. There is a lot in between including great, lower-scale, urban neighborhoods and compact connected suburbs as represented by traditional neighborhood developments. Sure living right above a nightclub may not be the best call for a family with small children but living a quarter mile away in an townhouse or a mid-rise apartment building full of neighboring children might be great.