This three-part series of guest posts is written by Alex Bonham, a member of Women in Urbanism, who has worked as a Porse carer and is now researching “the playful city” for her doctorate.
In this series of three posts I will be looking at how kids fit in to the city. In the first I shall look into the state of play for kids today in New Zealand, with a particular focus on Auckland. In the second I will look into how we could facilitate more playful journeys and public spaces for the whole family, and in the third I will look at what older children and teenagers need as they expand their horizons.
Play is really important. It is how kids develop their physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills and learn to manage risk. Informal play correlates with greater creativity as adults (and the reverse is true for formal structured activities). When kids explore their area, they feel they belong, and have a sense of ‘ownership’ of it. Kids that don’t play are more likely to grow up to be antisocial adults. Play expert Stuart Brown noted ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’ (2009).
The urban form facilitates a certain way of life. I remember New Zealand in the ’80s as being full of large gardens with flowers, vegetable patches, fruit trees, a lawn to play on and maybe even a creek at the end. Kids would play in the cul de sacs and be called in to dinner at dusk. Things have changed. Many of those big suburban gardens have been infilled with other houses. According to the Growing Up in New Zealand study, the average maternity leave taken in New Zealand is five months, with kids either in daycare or looked after by grandparents. 2/3rds of two-year-olds watch 1-3 hours of television a day, not including up to an hour extra playing on tablets or phones. There has been a rise in structured activities.
If there is now less play at home, there is considerably less play in the neighbourhood. The (mums’) eyes on the street have gone, and in 2006 research found out that 63% of Australasian kids are NOT allowed or able to travel independently to school at 10 years old. This compares to only 20% of German kids. These findings encouraged the establishment of school buses, so at least kids would get exercise and it would relieve congestion. Kids didn’t care so much about those benefits, but did enjoy getting to know their neighbourhood and socialising with their friends (Kearns). However, the school bus has done nothing to improve children’s independence. Stranger danger and traffic are the main reasons given for this ongoing supervision. It is the mid-income suburban children who are most likely to fit the profile of children largely confined to the “semi-fortified space of home”, and ferried between activities (Kearn & Collins, 2006).
This matters because it seems that a significant minority of children are not doing well in New Zealand. One in ten are obese, according to Ministry of Health statistics. 14% witness violence against other children. Half of Auckland’s Pacific population live in overcrowded households and, we have just discovered, Auckland’s CBD is twice as polluted as major European cities and three times worse than Canadian ones. The combination of poor quality housing, overcrowding and air pollution has driven a rise in respiratory diseases, from asthma to bronchiolitis. Unicef puts NZ at the third-lowest of 40 OECD countries for youth wellbeing, and NZ tops the youth suicide table. Millennial Austalian journalist Luke Kinsella blames the ‘stranger danger’ message for making young people so anxious. In his opinion, they have minimal experience dealing with strangers outside school and family, and then get stuck in a world where the grown ups are not constantly watching their back.
The 2017 status council report on their youth strategy (I Am Auckland, 2012) echo the national findings. They have made the least headway in two areas, goal 3, “I am happy, healthy and thriving” and goal 7 “we are all thriving”. “There are currently few council initiatives directly aligned to goal 3”. Apparently, “this can be expected as central government controls most of the levers that create significant change in this area”. The city council does have a purview for planning and transport, look after civil amenities and engage in community building, entertainment and events. It is odd they don’t believe they can have an impact on the health and wellbeing of their young people.
Of course central government does have a role. We know that a number of non-housing problems are exacerbated when a house is rented. When house prices triple (as they have in the last 15 years), so do rents. “Rents are straining the budgets of many families and households” (Auckland Plan 2018). Kids worry about the financial distress of their parents and wish they weren’t such a burden. Cheaper housing often has fewer good transit options. The lack of tenure has meant that families may shift five times in as many years, destabilising academic achievement, friendships and the informal social networks that can be so useful for the spread of local knowledge.
There is a feeling that the very littlest children aged 0-4 are OK in the central city apartments, but will need a place to play later on. I would argue against this. It is when children are starting to walk that a garden is the most valuable. They like to explore, to climb, and it is easier to fall on grass than concrete, tile or even timber. Children are the great losers when it comes to the ‘missing middle’ housing of which Brendan Harre and David Lupton speak. A private yard is terrific for children, but single storey dwellings waste space. Where are tall skinny terrace houses with private gardens?
Where are the courtyard developments with shared, varied play areas, safe from traffic and overlooked by the kitchen window? If we want our children to play, and we do, housing options like this should be in the mix. Plus, they should be close to employment areas or rapid frequent transit links, so their parents can get home quick to play with their children too.