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 have been looking at how kids fit in to the city. In the first I looked into the state of play for kids today in New Zealand, with a particular focus on Auckland. In the second I considered how to make public spaces more appealing for young and old, and in this last post I will look at what older children and teenagers need as they expand their horizons.

In a word: access.

Children of eight years and above want and benefit from the freedom to access a variety of play spaces by themselves. In the last thirty years the roaming range of children has diminished substantially. In the 1930s it was not uncommon for a ten-year-old child to walk six miles to go fishing; in the ‘60s it was normal to roam a mile or so to explore the woods; in the ‘80s/early ‘90s the neighbourhood was within reach. Now, according to Tim Gill, many kids cannot get beyond their front gates.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. The disappearance of Kirsa Jensen in 1983 put a police focus on stranger danger (a strategy since dropped, as children are far more likely to be hurt by people they know). The introduction of compulsory bike helmet legislation in 1994, after a determined campaign by mother of accident victim Rebecca Oaten who “lambasted children” about the dangers of cycling without a helmet, led to a huge reduction in cycling altogether in New Zealand, and reduced the percentage of school children who cycled to school from 12% (5-12 year-olds) and 19% (13-18 year-olds) in 1989/90, to 2% and 3% respectively in 2015. In 2002 ACC adopted a strategy to reduce the number of accidents, and police advice on children’s mobility continues to be very cautious, advising pre-teen children to travel in pairs. When accidents have happened to children travelling by themselves, geographer Christine Ergler notes, parents are often the first to be blamed by the police, the media and/or other members of the public.

It is not surprising that many parents feel they are in a “trap” (Tranter, 2006). On the one hand they recognise that “persistent chauffeuring interferes with children’s environmental learning, reduces physical activity and robs them of independence” (Kearns & Collins, 2017); on the other side, they do not want to be, or be judged to be, bad parents. While there is still a diversity of parenting styles, the trend across the board is to keep children close (Carroll et al, 2015).

Breaking the trap requires three things:

  • Safe streets within walkable neighbourhoods
  • Reliable and reasonably frequent off-peak transit, along a network that connects residential areas to amenities.
  • Communications – so that kids know what is going on, how much it costs, how to get there and how to get help if required.

Safe Streets

Safe streets are designed to privilege active transport modes like walking and/or cycling. Car speeds are slow, and cycle lanes are separated from both traffic and pedestrians. There are regular safe crossings, clear signage and appealing features: perhaps interesting building frontages, gardens or street art, to attract regular pedestrian usage. Safe streets are most valuable between residential areas and schools, playgrounds and parks.

These streets are about 50 metres away from a school and two playgrounds. I used the same photograph from an inner suburb of Copenhagen in my last post, but the best transport planner is a land use planner. Everything is connected.

That positive economic, social and environmental effects flowed together was understood in Freiburg, Germany, when they looked to accommodate a growing population in the new suburb of Vauban.

Vauban was planned as, and is judged to be, a successful environmentally sustainable settlement (Coates) that is mixed-use, mid-height, and mid- density – with lots of gardens, solar panels, and easy access to amenities. The little houses in the background on the flat roof sit above the supermarket among other things.* The council owned the land, the sale of which paid for the infrastructure at no extra cost for ratepayers.  “Vauban grew from the grass roots up and was largely designed and developed (within city guidelines and with technical assistance provided by the city) by many Baugruppen, small ecologically and socially progressive homeowner cooperatives” (Coates).

There are limited residential car parks, and no through traffic (not even buses), except for a tram going direct to central Freiburg. The pedestrian takes priority, and cars and bikes must slow down to a walking pace.  Buses on the edge of the suburb connect it to the wider regional area, and season passes encourage regular use, which has facilitated the transit network’s expansion. All the amenities of medieval car-free Freiburg, with its festivals and markets, are easy for young people in the suburbs to access. The result is what Tim Gill reckons is the most child-friendly city in the world.

Retrofitting a city to be child-friendly is more expensive but possible. Ghent is installing a playful overlayer to its streets while those of Amsterdam and Copenhagen are lined with separated cycleways and numerous playgrounds. This is an approach that could be taken in Auckland.

In 2017, as a way to start a conversation on children’s mobilities, I chalked in a potential children’s path across Auckland’s CBD from Myers Park down to the new community centre in Freyberg Place via the Aotea Centre and the library. A safe route, with good signage, extended to Freeman’s Bay School and Victoria Park could help facilitate children and youth’s access to the city and the activities that are on offer.

For older children across the city good transit is necessary. However good one’s home neighbourhood is, there are resources that young people have a right to access, that are not duplicated: including beaches, museums, and public events. The survey of Auckland’s youth by Auckland Council in 2012 demonstrated how much young people wanted this. One of the goals then of the I Am Auckland strategy document was to increase the number of households within walking access of frequent public transit stops from 14% in 2011 to 32% by 2040. This still leaves more than two-thirds of households reliant on cars. Making room for bicycle/scooter storage on trains and buses would help, as would focusing on providing a quantity of quality housing choices around high-frequency transport nodes.

Season passes, subsidised or free for youth, are offered in Vienna, Fribourg and London. In Tel Aviv the city goes a step further. By registering one’s transit card one also gets email updates on special offers and information of interest to one’s demographic from babies to the elderly (even dogs). Everyone is kept in the loop of what is going on. Everyone can join in. And, as everyone who has ever been excluded will tell you, being able to join in matters. It matters profoundly to all of us.

* Supermarket planners use the phrase “food desert” to indicate areas that have insufficient population to support a store. The same principle applies to all amenities, including fun stuff and including transit. That is why even when land prices, say in a greenfield site, do not demand height or density it is still a good idea, because it facilitates complete neighbourhoods. It is also a good idea because cities are often located where they are because the countryside around them is particularly good for growing food. 48% of Rodney soils are prime growing land and, while making up only 10% of NZ’s market gardening land, produce 25% of its profits. It seems utterly perverse to then build on it.

Further Reading

Auckland Council (2012). I Am Auckland: Strategy for Children and Youth.

Carroll, P., Witten, K., Kearns, R., & Donovan, P. (2015). Kids in the City: Children’s Use and Experiences of Urban Neighbourhoods in Auckland, New Zealand. Journal of Urban Design, 20(4), 417-436.

Coates, G. (2013). THE SUSTAINABLE URBAN DISTRICT OF VAUBAN IN FREIBURG, GERMANY. International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics.

Tranter, P. (2006). Overcoming Social Traps: A key to creating child friendly cities. In B. Gleeson (Ed.), Creating Child Friendly Cities (pp. 121-135). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Kearns, R & Collins, D. (2006). Children in the intensifying city: lessons from Auckland’s walking school buses. In B. Gleeson (Ed.), Creating Child Friendly Cities (pp. 121-135). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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    1. Excellent posts. Behaviour and attitudes installed in childhood are remarkably resistant for both good and bad. I had a free roaming childhood, as a preschooler a tricycle gave about 2k of range, foot and cycle at school a 10k range, and while still at primary school I would make unaccompanied journies 30k from the suburbs into the city by train and then tram or bus.
      Children who have been driven everywhere have a point to point existence dependant on both the availability of the car and someone to drive it, this dependancy that will probably persit for the rest of their life. A real problem for them to comfront when old age removes their ability to drive. Us free rangers are more likely to choose to live in a walkable neighbourhood with public transport options.
      Making cities much nicer for children now, will drive an attitudinal change that will persist for a lifetime. The necessary changes will of course make these cities much nicer for adults as well but especially for those with mobility issues, that will be all of us sometime in our future.

      1. Interestingly and disturbingly, what is only now being revealed is that many children in our town at the time of my childhood were actually exposed to serial paedophiles, but not on the way to school, or their sports clubs but at those venues.

        1. I heard last week of a second girl who was abused after being targeted by a paedophile on the internet. In the end this girl was able to understand what was happening and assisted the police in catching the man at Coyle Park. I haven’t heard – but who knows? – of any local children being abused by strangers from being out and about in the suburb or the local parks.

          Only anecdotal experience, of course, but as a parent, I rate the dangers of the internet higher than the dangers of being out and about. Which is why I’m particularly annoyed the Council has a thing about removing lights from parks – supposedly on the basis that they don’t want to encourage people to go into dangerous places.

          I imagine there’s no way to educate the parents about the dangers of driving kids everywhere and making them stay home, though. They’ll just put it in the ‘yet another thing we have to worry about’ basket. Whereas providing safe infrastructure and having community and council organisations encouraging the children to use that infrastructure will surely renormalise it.

  1. Great series of posts. And we certainly have to recognise the damage done by scaremongering. Last week my daughter’s friend ( 11 yrs old) had her mother put out a fb request – she wasnt allowed a dog but loved them and so was offering her services as a dog walker. The first response was an attack on the mother for being irresponsible enough to let an 11 yr old walk around our suburb without adult supervision.

  2. Thank you Alex. Fantastic series of posts.

    I believe that using greenfield areas in my city Greater Christchurch is ok if they are transit oriented development.

    Do you think a minimum height allowance should be imposed for these greenfield developments? Say all new dwellings must be at least 2 or 3 stories high?

    It would minimise the effect ‘sprawl’ has on consuming quality soils and allow dense communities to be established that can easily pay for the high frequency rapid transit service.

    1. I think so. Some clear design rules with joined up thinking for the things that matter and some flexibility with regards how would help.

    2. Greenfield development is obviously not “evil” – I am working on too many of them to think that way without self-loathing even if it was ( 😉

      But the point is: Greenfield is in almost all cases *much further away from everything*. So even IF it has good public transport, that public transport is much more expensive to construct, to operate and takes longer to travel to where things are. All these are issues that can, effectively, never be overcome – until the greenfields areas have the density of inner areas where more of such much-needed housing development should have occurred in the first place.

      And there’s the rub, coming back to the freedom to roam – if your greenfields development has little to nothing EXCEPT green fields for your kids, and maybe a primary school if they are lucky, then even with good transport design and “free range parenting”, you child may have to travel 10-30km to where it needs to or wants to go. That’s generally not feasible except by car or by very good PT – leading to underuse of even well-designed active mode networks.

      So in my view, they (children) may have more green fields and space available on the outskirst (though compared to Europe, much of that green space is privatised and inaccessible – in Europe you literally can walk through the fields and forests!) – but greenfields will always carry some issues for children that development within the city does not have to any of the same degree…

      1. In Greater Christchurch we have potential greenfield TOD areas that would be 10 to 15 km from the centre of Christchurch. Similar to the distance that Lower Hutt Hutt and Porirua is. Hopefully new TODs will have learnt from these older TODs to make even better developments.

  3. If we made the street safe, children could walk and cycle to school. That will remove the necessaries for parents to drive the kids to school.

    That along would make the road less congested. We already know the traffic congestion difference between a school holiday and march madness.

    1. The congestion cause is a bit more complex than that. A lot more people take annual leave during school holidays than other times of the year, which helps reduce congestion.

      You are right though, we should be making our streets safer for walking and cycling to school.

    2. “If we made the street safe, children could walk and cycle to school. ”

      Totally agree – but I’d also be interested whether the changed (lower) densities of the last 50 years have ensured that most children live further away from their schools. The further away, the less feasible walk/cycle becomes, no matter how good the transport environment. Which of course is another argument for density, as I have already discussed in my response earlier above.

  4. I’m loving this series of articles. Always great content and the writing style is wonderful.

    I’m so glad to see the statement below backed by actual research as I have personally believed it for a long time!
    “persistent chauffeuring interferes with children’s environmental learning, reduces physical activity and robs them of independence” (Kearns & Collins, 2017);

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