This Atlantic blog post covers the way urban planning and design can affect the lives of children and the nature of community in children. Here’s a quote from the piece (really short, and check out the comments) that really resonated with me:
For a child, having increasing opportunities to navigate the world around them, explore, invent, fall down, scrape knees, make decisions, screw up, get into — and solve — conflicts and, ultimately, achieve a sense of personal identity and self-sufficiency is a good thing. The right thing.
But you can’t do it easily just anywhere. Place matters. It matters in the design of the streets and the things they connect to. It matters in the variety of uses, opportunities and activities. It even matters in the diversity of housing types. After all, smaller homes or accessory units end up housing people who appreciate, and want to be able to afford, the prospect of being a stay-at-home parent. Or seniors offering options for drop-off babysitting. Not because it’s their corporate value proposition and you’re paying them a thousand bucks a month but because they’re your neighbors and they care about you . . .
Talk of how it takes a village to raise a child sounds — and feels — good but, to make it work, you need a village to start with. Which means you need politicos willing to push it, and developers willing to build it.
OK, I know most of you don’t have kids (or I suspect most of you don’t), so this topic might be relevant right now, but this might just be relevant when you do. Urban planning is a pretty un-sexy topic, I guess, but when you get into there are huge implications from the way we design communities and buildings—implications that affect public health, climate change, crime and education.
I think M. Night proved that it really doesn’t take a Village.
And here I was, thinking you were throwing the old man a bone. (At least make the joke funny, man ;P
Why do you think there are no more black leaders?
Nina: (after a pause)
Some people think it’s because they all got killed. But I think it’s got more to do with the decimation of the manufacturing base in the urban centers. Senator, an optimistic population throws up optimistic, energized leaders. And when you shift manufacturing to the Sun Belt in the Third World, you destroy the blue-collar core of the black activist population.
Some people would say that problem is purely cultural. The power of the media that is continually controlled by fewer and fewer people, add to that the monopoly of the media, a consumer culture based on self-gratification, and you’re not likely to have a population that want’s leadership that calls for self-sacrifice.
But the fact is, I’m just a materialist at heart. But if I look at the economic base, higher domestic employment means jobs for African Americans. World War II meant lots of jobs for black folks. That is what energized the community for the civil rights movement of the 50’s and the 60’s. An energized, hopeful community will not only produce leaders but more importantly it’ll produce leaders they’ll respond to.
Now what do you think, Senator?
I’m not sure if this is the same issue, Den….but oh well…
“Urban planning is a pretty un-sexy topic”
Heh, very well-put.
I don’t think I can add much to the discussion of the specifics of the article, other than by simply saying that we do indeed have a tendency to forget that the cities we are building are actually going to be lived in by humans with needs extending beyond the most immediately apparent level.
I’m very attracted to urban planning. It’s really frustating that being entangled with “politics” it’s really difficult to carry on with long-term plans based in studies of high technical level. At least, that’s what happens here a lot.
I’m not a planner or architect, but one of the more interesting aspects of planning and architecture is the subtle ways the built environment affects human behavior and human psychology—specifically the type of things that would affect us. For example, the ratio of building height to street width has an impact on our level of comfort when walking on a street. If the road is too wide in relation to the height of the building, the street doesn’t as appealing to walk on.
All these type of details can influence people’s decision to walk or use some other mode of transportation. Other design factors affect our sense of a safe neighborhood—which in turn affects whether we feel comfortable letting our kids go out and play with other kids.
I get sad when I think my kids won’t play with neighborhood kids the way I did growing up.
I wish economic forces weren’t so integral, too. But I’d settle for reducing the political aspect, I’d be satisfied. (I’m pretty easy to please. :)
Yes, this is exactly what I mean.
Certainly there are quite extensive writings and research done on this nowadays, but there was one book in particular regarding the psychological components of space and distance in every aspect of life—from the seventies, I think—but I can’t recall the title or author for the life of me. I even recall Marshall McLuhan citing some of these writer’s ideas once, but not the name. .
Also relevant of course is the realm of psychogeography(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogeography) and the Situationists, though based on past threads I feel that Z. Bart could do a much better job articulating this territory than I.
Are you thinking of William Whyte’s work? (He also made a short film where he would set up a camera on certain locations and then notice patterns in the way people used the space. It’s really interesting.) Also, if you’re not familiar with Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building, I’d recommend both.
What I find interesting is the almost universal response to the built environment. We use and react to space and the built environment in very similar ways. Super fascinating.
(Don’t know anything about the Situationists. I’ll check the link later.)
Anyway, I wanted to ask if you notice a lot of kids playing with each other in the neighborhood (without adults organizing the activity)?
Ok a parent chiming in here. I live in a very urban environment and it all depends. Across the street is a heavily immigrant building (many are from Armenia) and all the kids play in the complex, the yards out front, the walkways and hallways in the back. They play with their scooters in front of the building, right on the street. And there are all manner of children there, from babies to teenagers, parents and their neighbors appear familiar with one another, I see older girls looking out for younger kids.
My complex happens not to have any kids my kids’ age. It’s gated though, and recently I’ve allowed my kids (as they’re old enough and my son is good in terms of looking after my daughter, even in front of me! :) ) to go and play in the front yard or visit their (20 something) neighbors with pets in the back of the complex (it’s not very big). As long as I know where they are and can either see and/or hear them, I’m ok with letting them go out and play. Kids must play outside, it’s essential. I wish there were other kids close by that we knew, preferably right in our own complex, but we just don’t, for now. They have school friends, but none are within walking distance, in LA, a lot of the time you have to get in your car for playdates, which I think is insane. As my health improves (hopefully), I will have no choice but to cave in and take trips to hang out with parents I don’t know to make small talk while our children play. In my day, kids had their friends and parents had their friends and the twain did not necessarily have to mesh, but no more…
Our lives are so very different from my parents’ lives, and my kids’ lives are so very different from our lives as children. One day maybe they’ll get an experience similar to what my husband and I had growing up, or maybe not. Times have changed…
No, I don’t believe it was Whyte, but I will most certainly be looking into him—and Alexander.
Being fairly young, I still live in the same area in which I grew up, and I can say with assurance that there is a noticeable difference when it comes to such things compared to previous times. When I was a child, there was a dead-end street aside a grass field where my cousins and I would play each weekend. It was not uncommon for other kids from other houses to pass by and end up joining us. Now, I don’t see any of this—in that area, or elsewhere. Obviously there are still kids playing in their yards and driveways, but there does not seem to be any such communion of ‘neighborhood’ kids that there used to. However—using the logic of the Atlantic article—not much in the immediate area has changed design-wise—that field and dead-end are still there—so I wonder if this difference might not be related to other factors.
@Dada — maybe an eroded sense of community in America, which immigrants do not share, coming from the old world (which does not espouse what we (whatever that is) believe in here)?
That’s along the lines of what I’m thinking. And it duly applies to my area, which is now abundantly made up of immigrants. People feel like outsiders, and they aren’t made to feel welcome, so we all go about our business.
There is that, and the increasing sense that it is simply too dangerous to send your children out the door. Despite what the crime statistics say. Hysterical news reports trump those any day.
Well that’s true about crime, particularly kidnapping and molestation. We definitely fear that with regard to our children.
But it does depend on what neighborhood you live in (re: crime in general). And random things can happen anywhere.
My biggest objection is it’s hard to find a place, outside of single family home neighborhoods, which we can’t afford, where people just stick around and raise their families. Go to school within walking distance. Know one another. I’m sure there are areas around the country like that, but I think I’ve read statistically that in general, people don’t tend to stay where they grew up. It hasn’t been that way for a long time, way before my time, I think…
This is probably partly due to the changing economy, but also because people just don’t stay close to home as a rule anymore, it’s almost abnormal to do so. But this is probably the only way, on the other hand, that close communities are formed — people stick around.
Anyway, there are pros and cons to all situations and I certainly know from my own family history (speaking of my parents here) that “the world was too small” around them, and so they left for distant places. I’ve never had my extended family close by growing up, or old family friends, and without deliberately meaning to do so, I’ve continued the gypsy tradition with my own life. So… maybe that runs in some families’ blood… ?
Odi said Kids must play outside, it’s essential.
Absolutely. But I’ll tell you what happens in the suburbs here. Parents enroll their kids in some athletic league—which generally requires the parent to drive them to practices and games! This happens at a very young age. (My son is playing soccer and he’s not even four! It wasn’t my decision to do this, but let’s not go there. :) So parents nowadays do let their kids “play outside”—but it’s self-organized play that kids do with other kids. That’s really unfortunate to me.
Dada said, However—using the logic of the Atlantic article—not much in the immediate area has changed design-wise—that field and dead-end are still there—so I wonder if this difference might not be related to other factors.
They are. The built is not the only factor, but I think it’s a significant one. Odi mentions that immigrant families across her complex let their children play and that suggests something cultural is at play. My neighborhood also has a high percentage of immigrant families and the kids are playing on the streets around us (and we don’t have sidewalks).
Here’s what’s going on, imo. My parents are boomers and they grew up in a time where playing with neibhorhood kids was the way you did things. They (and their parents) had a neighborhood ethos that no longer exists. Now, when the boomers became parents they brought that same ethos to raising their kids—primarily just out of inertia. Now, my generation really doesn’t have that sense of community thinking anymore. Here are some things that lead to the erosion imo:
1. Technology. I’m talking about cars, electronic diversions (TV, internet, etc.) and other technological that basically allowed us to do things independently (i.e., less reliance on neighbors; e.g. home repair). Technology has lead to a decrease in interaction with the people around us.
2. Urban design. Suburbs accomodate cars at the expense of pedestrians and other modes of transportation. (Again, really fascinating to see the way the two are linked. If anyone is interested in this, I highly recommend the book, Suburban Nation—which is short, easy to read.) Again, this leads to a lack of interaction between the people we live around and it also leads to environment where people don’t like being in public spaces so much. (Odi, if you looked at some of the older urban spaces in NYC and compared them to LA, you could see the way physical design affects behavior.)
These are two things that contributes to the erosion of community, imo.
Jazz — that kind of thing of getting your kids involved in all kinds of extra curricular activities at an early age is widespread, not just in the suburbs. I refuse to get into that. I really believe in just plain and natural unstructured and spontaneous play, kids learn so much that way, they have their adult lives to get locked into dreary scheduling. Why do that to them?
For me, if my kids pick AN activity that takes them out of the house in addition to school, that’d be ok. But as it is, as a working mom, I miss them a lot and WANT them at home when I’m there, even if we’re not playing together. It is a beautiful thing to have children in the house, it’s a short time in your life, and when they leave, they leave for good. Why not enjoy each other? I’ll always remember the feeling of being rooted when I was a child, of having my mother and father not too far away, of having my friends right next door. It’s a good rooting experience.
I refuse to get into that. I really believe in just plain and natural unstructured and spontaneous play, kids learn so much that way, they have their adult lives to get locked into dreary scheduling.
Don’t get my started. :) (You’re preaching to the choir, btw—although at some point I think organized activities, formal lessons is great.)
Why do that to them?
Here’s the rationale I get from friends. The kids that sports or other extracurricular activities at a young age will develop skills faster. If your child does not do the same this will a) make the activities less enjoyable for your children when they do decide to participate because everyone will be more advanced them they are; b) lessen their chances to play on school sports. They may also not develop the type of skills that will make them attractive to colleges.
Again, this is not my thinking—although I’m not completely discounting these points, either. However, I do have a rebuttal, but I won’t get into here. :)
I miss them a lot and WANT them at home when I’m there, even if we’re not playing together. It is a beautiful thing to have children in the house,…
It’s great when the children pass the age of 3, huh? :)
I love my kids and it’s great to have them around—some of the time—like when they’re not whining or fighting with each other or dumping all of the diswashing soap and flooding the kitchen, etc. :)
Jazz, yeah there are those moments of strangulation temptation… :)
Look, many, many people came before the kids of today, with not nearly as much over-education, and they weren’t dummies either. This is just more competing with the Joneses, if you ask me.
Colleges. They way things are going these days, NO ONE will be able to send their kid to college. Insane.
This is just more competing with the Joneses, if you ask me.
I suspect there is a lot of that going on.
They way things are going these days, NO ONE will be able to send their kid to college. Insane.
Yeah. This is where faith in God helps a lot. (I’m saying with a wink, but it’s true, too.)
I’ll always remember the feeling of being rooted when I was a child, of having my mother and father not too far away, of having my friends right next door. It’s a good rooting experience.
Yeah, I hear you and I believe that community design really plays a big factor in this. If you’re walking everywhere (including to public transportation stops), you tend to get to know people in your neighborhood (especially if they’re walking, too). If there are stores and other amenities in walking distance you get to know the people who work at those locations—and your children get to know them to if they’re close by. All these things help create a village that helps raise the child. It makes a parent feel more comfortable letting their kids play in the neighborhood. When you don’t know your neighbors, you get the opposite feeling.
Although, a lot of child molestation occurs via people that children know and trust, which is not a comforting thought at all…
But that can happen if you don’t interact with people in your neighborhood (and just stick to family and friends).
Btw, I wanted to post a quote from an article I read about the way American communities are changing:
Imagine, for a moment, a model of the planet Saturn. If the planet itself represents an individual, the surrounding rings comprise his social universe — everyone he knows through the totality of his interactions. Each ring, depending on its distance from the planet itself, corresponds to the familiarity of each acquaintance. The inner rings stand in for the relationships that are the most intimate. The rings further out successively represent those that are less and less familiar.
Consider how the ring model might apply in the case of an ordinary American adult — let’s call him Joe. The inner rings represent Joe’s nuclear family and closest friends — the few people with whom his life is most intertwined. They are the people who would know if he had both a sick dog and a son struggling in algebra. Most likely, these inner rings would include Joe’s wife or girlfriend, his parents or children, and the few close friends he speaks with several times each week.
Farther out, the middle rings represent acquaintances who are not quite so intimate, but are regular contacts nonetheless. These rings, for Joe, might begin with members of his extended family, work buddies he meets for lunch now and again, neighbors he knows from community meetings, or fellow parishioners from church. In essence, the middle rings would comprise the broad spectrum of people with whom Joe is familiar, but not intimate; friendly, but not close.
These middle-ring relationships are what Robert Putnam lionized in Bowling Alone, the book he published in 2000 exposing what he termed the “collapse” of American community: bridge partners, brothers in the Elks club, fellow members of the PTA. But the middle rings also comprise more ephemeral relationships. Moving farther out, they would encompass the relationship Joe has with the tailor who has hemmed his pants since his graduation from middle school, or the waitress at the diner he visits every Sunday afternoon after church.
Finally, there are the relationships represented by the outer rings, which are less intimate still, and include the acquaintances whose lives are the least intertwined with Joe’s. A preferred eBay vendor might be placed in the outer rings, or the cashier at the grocery store, or a long-lost elementary-school friend whose updates show up on Joe’s Facebook newsfeed. Many of these relationships might be considered nothing more than transactional. And in many cases, the acquaintances represented by the outer rings are met through a single shared interest, without which Joe would be unlikely to engage with them at all.
This model illuminates an important change in American community life: Over the past several decades, Americans have abandoned the investments that previous generations made in the middle rings. Instead, we have begun to devote more time and energy to the relationships found in the inner and the outer rings. We are not, as some argue, abandoning community. But the relationships that have become more prevalent — more superficial friendships on Twitter, for example — are of a character fundamentally different from those that were more common a generation or two earlier. The result has been a dramatic change in the architecture of American community — with major implications for our economy, culture, and politics.
From “Transformation of the American Society,” National Affairs Summer 2011.
The erosion of the middle ring is partly why people don’t want to let their kids play in the neighborhood.
“The result has been a dramatic change in the architecture of American community — with major implications for our economy, culture, and politics.”
It seems to me like the author might have his causality reversed here.
I wasn’t really sure if by “architecture” the author meant just the physical architecture—or if he included non-physical aspects of community as well. (It sounds like he’s talking about architecture beyond just the built environment.) In any event, I think the arrow of influence moves in both directions in terms of architecture (the built environment and social communities) economics, culture and politics. But you don’t think the changes in American communities (as the author outlines) has major implications for politics, economics and culture?
Changes in communities (both in the sense of physical neighborhoods and in the sense of who counts as “us”) certainly have all kinds of implications, but I’m not sure that the changes the piece is talking about are the result of bad urban planning and design, or just a consequence of the way the world has changed in other ways. In the US, the population has roughly doubled in the last 50-60 years, the median age of the population continues to increase rapidly, etc.
In the US, the population has roughly doubled in the last 50-60 years, the median age of the population continues to increase rapidly, etc.
Those things could have an impact our the nature of our communities, but in what ways have they changed this, in your opinion—and how have they changed the communities in the way the author describes (i.e., erosion of the middle ring)? That erosion of “middle ring relationships” is the change (which started a while ago, but seems to get worse) is one of the things that concerns me the most.
I think urban planning does have a significant impact on these types of relationships, and so does technology (as the author points out). On a very basic level, if more people are walking in their communities—because walking is more appealing—then one can have a greater chance of knowing the people that live and work near them. Moreover, if the communities have a mix of building types—commercial, residential, government, etc.—this can not only make walking or non-driving modes of transportation more frequent and desirable—but it can lead to getting to know people other than your immediate neighbors.
My neighborhood is not well-designed (there are no sidewalks). But I go walking or running around my neighborhood. There are a four or five others that I do the same and over time, I’ve become developed a low-level relationship with them. I don’t really talk to them (although I’ve gotten to know one or two of their names), but the connection is not insignificant. I helped one of these neighbors (who lives on another street) track down their runaway dog. I might not have gone that far had I not seen them on a regular basis. (Basically, we’d wave at each other.) These type of interactions can add up to valuable social capital—and I think the frequency would increase if I lived in a more pedestrian place.
I HATE neighborhoods with no sidewalks. That is the lamest of the the lame.
Unless you are in the middle of the country, no sidewalks is just silly.