This is a ‘guest post’ book review, by Alexendra Bonham. Alex is doing a PhD on Playful Cities at the University of Auckland and is a candidate for the Waitemata Local Board.
The full name of this book is “The Design of Childhood: how the material world shapes independent kids”, by Alexandra Lange.
To share or not to share? That is the question. Parents know that negotiating who has dibs on a favoured toy can be fraught. Some families insist that children share their toys, others uphold the primacy of individual ownership. Others may convey at length that while you don’t have to share your toys, you may be wise to, because then your brother will share his toys. And for goodness’ sake, Fred, you’re not using it, and you like playing with Michael, so don’t be difficult. It seems looking at this book that the challenge of maintaining one’s own individual space and agency, and the need for friends and collaboration, never quite goes away!
In this well-researched and engagingly written book, architectural journalist Alexandra Lange turns her professional and maternal eye on the world as experienced by children over the last 150 years. Her context is mainly American but there are multiple parallels with New Zealand. She illustrates how childhood is a dynamic state of developing competence, range and scope, which can be broadened or curtailed by the environment and tools at one’s disposal. Starting with the nursery and stretching outwards into the rest of the home, school, playground and the city at large, Lange draws on an analogy of building blocks, as the basic unit of development, that added to each other produce increasingly varied and complex structures over time. A good playground then offers graduated challenges to appeal to all ages, has flexible elements, and has something for adults too. A good city enables children to roam a little bit further each year to reach amenities like schools and pools and explore a little along the way.
Finding this balance between structure and improvisation is another theme that runs through the book, which is of concern to school architects (trying to create flexible but manageable new learning environments) and city planners (wanting to leave some space for tenants’ needs and desires as yet unknown). It is easy to cross-reference on Google the success stories like Lafayette Park, and False Creek Vancouver. How many of us dream of mid-density housing which flows outside onto shared spaces where kids can play in viewing distance, and that has safe walking routes to schools, shops and pools, and play spaces? It is very nice to know that it has been done, and that it works.
Balance seems hard to strike most of the time though – and particularly since the second world war and the dominance of the single-storey house. History suggests that if we are returning to balance it is not through measured steps, but through wild swinging between one extreme of isolated, dreary separation and the other: noisy, stressful high density. For architects reaching retirement the new open plan schools will seem remarkably similar to the modern learning environments of the 1970s. Women pushing for co-housing developments with shared spaces for kids to play, and communal dinners once a week may be interested, inspired and disheartened in equal measure to hear more about the late nineteenth century material feminists of the US, who pushed for communal laundries and kitchens in the suburbs, so that they could make their labour more congenial and efficient by working together. Their husbands quashed their plans, apparently, because they didn’t like the idea of other women doing their laundry nor their wives cooking for other men.
If progress has sometimes been quashed by the patriarchy, it has also been steered by political interests: the purpose of schools and playgrounds once taken over by the playground movement becomes less about joy and more about supporting public health and assimilation/segregation (chose accordingly depending on current regional policy); by economic ones – Parents magazine and trade shows have encouraged parents to buy in to new ways of living, as much for the benefit of their advertisers as readership; and insufficient resourcing. It is all very well creating a school with flexible spaces to promote creativity, if the teacher running the room isn’t supported in developing their pedagogical skills to work in the space, or if that space is overcrowded with more children than it was designed for. In these situations, sharing becomes equated with chaos.
Editor’s note: I learned how to pronounce pedagogy recently and am now very pleased with myself. The first ‘g’ is hard, the ‘o’ is like ‘orange’ and the second ‘g’ is a ‘j’ sound. Pee-da-god-gee. Greater Auckland, improving your pronunciation since just now.
Lange however, is incredibly balanced and measured. In her storytelling of designers, teachers and advocates and the projects they have worked on over the years shows clearly what works, and what falls short and why. Anyone wanting to find out about what makes a good toy, playground, school or neighbourhood will find many of the answers in here. The book also includes so many good references that it is easy to pursue a subject area further. For those who want a quick takeaway, though, it comes through again and again that less private space and more shared spaces can be great, as long as you have sufficient different spaces and it is possible to use these spaces without coming into conflict with others.
This absolutely has relevance in contemporary inner-city Auckland. A few weeks ago at a City Centre Residents Group meeting, a Plunket nurse reported that a big issue for families was the insufficient acoustic insulation that forced mothers to walk the streets with their babies lest they disturb the neighbours and lose their rental. She advocated for family rooms in apartment blocks where parents could meet, and share notes, and the kids could share toys and make some noise. It would give options and release family pressure.
Vancouver used to insist developers include shared indoor and safe outdoor spaces in their plans. If Auckland Council planners are serious about drawing families into a compact city, and I think they should, then they could do worse than starting with this book, because really Lange (and Gil Penalosa, who she cites) is persuasive. If a city works well for children and their carers, by providing more diverse spaces and ways of getting there safely, then it works better for all of us.