Friday, July 15, 2011

Children and Sidewalks

Chapter 4 of Jane Jacobs book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, titled “The Uses of Sidewalks: Assimilating Children,” Jacobs argued that we have to give up the notion that playgrounds and parks are automatically good places for children. She believed that playgrounds can be dangerous places because “children have moved out from under eyes of a high numerical ratio of adults, into a place where the ratio of adults is low or often nil (p. 101).”
Jacobs thought that urban planners did not understand that to adequately educate children how to be good citizens, children should be playing on sidewalks that have lots of adults. These adults on busy neighborhood sidewalks, both locals and strangers alike, play a role in teaching children how to act and be part of society. This particular role cannot be taught by parents or adults paid to watch children. “People must take a modicum of responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each another. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibilities to you take a modicum of responsibility for you (p.108).” “It is a lesson that parents, by themselves, is powerless to teach (p.109). I agree with Jacobs, but we are lacking two things; one, sidewalks with lots of people, and two, it is not okay to tell someone else’s child what to do or not to do in today’s childrearing culture. 
Instead of taking advantage of the supervision that adults on busy sidewalks can provide for childrearing, our society has sheltered children from the streets and created an artificial world of over-planned, over- supervised activities. “It is not in the nature of things to go somewhere formally to them by plan, officially. Part of the charm is the accompanying sense of freedom to roam up and down the sidewalks, a different matter from being boxed into a preserve (p. 113).”
Most Americans do not live in Jane Jacobs world. A world in which population density is high and storefronts and neighbors are mixed together and close to the sidewalk. Also most of our sidewalks are too narrow to hold a mixture of uses at once.
What about it the Netherlands? Have they created this kind of mingling of uses and encouraged children to be part of it? Spatial planning is an important process used in the Netherlands when designing new streets. In Houten it was important for them to design spaces where people can meet and talk to each other. I did not notice very many children playing on these streets. What they have done in Houten for children is to make it easy for children to get to schools at a young age and teach them to ride their bike.

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