Sixteen percent of children in the U.S. are obese. Too many now suffer from chronic diseases – type two diabetes and heart disease. The conference contention was that these diseases should be avoided through environmental design. Speakers from fields of design, planning, disease prevention and elected officials were united against the current situation where many conditions, such as shyness and loneliness, are medicalised rather than prevented. To overcome the current unhealthy exclusion of children from cities will require the development of places to interact with community and nature, and a recognised role for children in public spaces. Long-term urban design leadership will enable cities to change.
Children can safely learn how to interact with strangers with access to public space and the support of a web of sustained adult relationships. Places to gather that are not mono-cultural are crucial. At the conference, children raised in comfortable backyards with hovering parents structuring their play were likened to battery hens: prevented from realising their full potential by environmental factors. Children need to have independent mobility close to home between the places of their interests. To develop independence and exercise responsibility children need to be enabled to walk, bike and take public transport alone. For those uncomfortable with this idea – consider the repercussions of the alternative, and that ‘stranger-danger’ is largely a myth.
Children need to be allowed to participate
To take part in city life children need to be allowed to participate in their way: to climb sculptures, to play in fountains, to dance along with buskers, to take part in festivals. These requirements will alter cities, suburbs and towns.
A relationship with nature is central to active living and healthy eating. Advocates of biophilic design argued that a connection with nature is related to intellectual development. An environment with elements of nature allows for unsupervised explorative play, which is crucial to the development of tacit knowledge. The gradual disappearance of this kind of learning has been linked, amongst other things, to poor performance in science subjects.
The exemplars showcased long-term vision and long serving patrons. Charleston’s Mayor, Joe Riley, has served the city for thirty-five years and sees himself as “Chief Urban Designer”. The long-serving former Governor of South Baden, Germany, Sven von Ungern-Sternberg, described the stabilisation of car use over ten years through an investment in a bike network through Freiburg. Randy Wade, Director of Pedestrian Projects Group, NYC described the recent transformation of road space to useable public space made possible by a supportive patron and ten years of work.
Considering the obesity epidemic, urban design has a legitimate social engineering role. Children’s needs will modify cities, not unlike the transformations made for accessibility. An accredited scheme for places that meet the needs of children, similar to Green Star rating, is being developed by IMCL, more details on the website soon. http://www.livablecities.org/home.html