BY AARON DIXON
Full disclosure, I’m not a parent.
But, having now been living for a few decades, I’ve come to realize that streets are important for childhood development, and I write these words from my own experiences as a street kid, and now as a master’s student in urban planning studying active transportation.
Growing up, I was that kid that never went inside. My friends and I were those kids that those yellow diamond signs warned you about: ‘kids at play.’ Unbeknownst to us, during all that fun, critical physical, mental, and social skills were being developed while we played street hockey and tag, skateboarded, and rode our bikes. The streets were our playground.
So, what happened? When did children become so good at being unplayful?
Government of Canada statistics show obesity in children and youth have tripled in the last 30 years. Tripled.
The World Health Organization charts a 10-fold increase in obesity in children and teens over the last four decades. There are 124 million obese kids in the world today. Obesity brings an elevated risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the entire world, according to the WHO.
The WHO recommends, and it’s not difficult to figure out, that kids need high-quality food and high-quality exercise. So why have we been so terrible at providing both? Part of me doesn’t blame parents. Again, I’m not one of those yet.
But what I do think is a source of the problem is the erosion of what a street used to mean.
In the same way the car lobby, in the 1920s, successfully corralled pedestrians towards crosswalks and publicly shamed anyone not using them as ‘jaywalkers,’ we’ve now subjugated kids to little islands of fun in the form of playgrounds. What the proliferation of playgrounds represents is less about opportunities for fun but more so the loss of street-oriented activity for the sake of automobile efficiency.
We’ve planned neighbourhoods away from the street with the notion that they’re car-only environments, a place of danger. Just look at how little our front yards are used today – a deserted patch of grass symbolizing bygone eras of playful interaction. Another indication: across the globe, the percentage of children who walk or cycle to school has decreased from 82 per cent to 14 per cent within the last 30 years, according to one MIT study.
From WHO statistics, guess what another top 10 leading cause of death is, globally? Road injuries. You can bet that unfortunately some of those fatalities are happening on neighbourhood streets, due in part from car-centric city-planning where everybody drives because streets are dangerous (and the streets are dangerous because everybody drives).
So, what’s the connection between good street planning and positive public-health outcomes?
Slow the cars, and prioritize walking, cycling, and public transportation.
The Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise shows evidence that people who commute by walking and cycling get more physical activity on average than people who use motorized transport and that they sustain this longer over time than structured activity programs, like going to the gym, because it’s integrated into daily routines.
It’s easy to understand that healthy kids often lead to healthy adults.
So, build convivial streets for people, not cars, raise a street kid, and we just might reverse the statistics.