Last child in the street?

How can we build the movement to make neighbourhoods, towns and cities more child-friendly? I hereby propose that we steal a page from the playbook of Richard Louv.

Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods was published just seven years ago. Its rallying cry has led to government programmes in the USA at federal and state levels, campaigns by leading UK non-profits, education initiatives and collective action by parents – and by children and young people themselves – around the world. It has done this by focusing adult attention on the disappearance of nature from the everyday lives of children. And one key tactic has been Louv’s choice of the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’ to grab our eyes and ears.

This tactic has been criticised by commentators and academics. However, I have defended it, on the grounds that, in Louv’s hands at least, it was a canny metaphor, justifiably deployed to great effect. This debate has led me to the view that the child-friendly cities movement needs a similarly potent tool to spread its message. So here is the cover of what could become the latest must-read book on kids today.

Last Child in Street (mock up of richard louv book)

My proposed subtitle for the book alludes to what it is that children lose when they are deprived of the experience of day-to-day interactions with the people and places around them.

Richard Louv book with new title and subtitle

I first offered this playful reworking of Louv’s book at the Child Friendly Cities conference in Bendigo, Australia last week. Before I set too many hares running, let me be absolutely clear that I am not offering a new clinical diagnosis here. Social Agency Disorder is not a medical condition. But my suggestion, while mischievous, is not mere whimsy, far less satire. It was prompted by four trains of thought.

First, the child-friendly cities movement has so far underachieved, at least in the English-speaking world. It has stimulated revealing research, engaged children in worthwhile projects, given rise to some important publications, and led to improvements in a small number of areas (in Australia, from where I am writing this post, Bendigo – and also the work of Healthy Cities Illawarra – come to mind). Yet in the vast majority of cities in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia, the key decisions that shape the places where we live take no real account of children’s perspectives or needs. This has to change.

Second, there is symbolic value in starting with the streets outside children’s front doors. They are literally and figuratively the starting points of children’s journeys out into the wider world. If we sever their connection with these streets, we only make it harder for them to make the journey through to active, confident, capable, engaged adulthood (an argument that goes back to Jane Jacobs).

Third, a focus on streets opens up intriguing possibilities for alliances with other urban and environmental movements. For instance, tactical urbanists are coming up with all sorts of playful, provocative ideas about how streets can be rethought and reconfigured. There is no better time to develop these links, given the lively and growing debate about the future of cities.

Photo from FortWorthology.com

Finally, promoting a positive take on the presence of children in the street opens up great scope for powerful appeals to childhood memories, and neatly inverts some damaging media narratives about ‘feral children’. Many baby boomers like me need little reminding of the formative nature of the time we spent with our friends: building connections with our neighbourhoods, expanding our horizons, and pushing against adult boundaries as we roamed the streets where we lived. Yes, we got into trouble – but that was kind of the point, and moreover it was a reliable way to appreciate the everyday rules and conventions of our communities.

The dominant image conjured up by the phrase ‘kids in the street’ – one of vandalism and crime, not hopscotch and tricycles – can be challenged. The charity Sustrans has taken to flying the flag for child-friendliness with its Free Range Kids campaign. This has already gained an impressive amount of political support, with over 160 MPs signing up to a Parliamentary motion.

Sustrans child-shaped catflap image

The bottom line is that this generation of movers and shakers know all too well from their own childhoods that playing and hanging out in the streets where they lived helped to shape their sense of who they were. Can it really be so hard to get them to appreciate how much today’s children are missing out, and to see that by taking collective action to reclaim streets  for children, we could go a long way to making good those losses?

15 responses to “Last child in the street?

  1. I utterly ADORE this! Yessssss! Pish pisssshhh to the ‘NDD’ phrase naysayers – it was a milestone in the pubic understanding of the role of the natural world in children’s lives and hindsight should not be used to criticise it now.

    This post couldn’t be more timely – I’m writing a piece for parents, about overcoming the barriers to getting outdoors and was planning to quote you on children playing out as a sign of a healthy community. Also going to quote you from this, now, as well. BTW – I have called you, “Author and childhood researcher Tim Gill” – is that okay or can you offer a better description?

    Cheers,

    Jules PLL

  2. Fabulous post. SF is experimenting with this in a huge way to take back the streets for family friendly fun, been a huge success>> http://www.sundaystreetssf.com/ All about car-free, ‘get outside’ community engagement in the streets…In the burbs, we hosted a “glow in the dark” game of tag during Screen Free Week which works well in off-use enclosed areas at dark for wee ones, like tennis courts, dog parks, etc. Strongly believe we can still ‘get outside and play’ even in urban/eve environs!

  3. playeverything

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to reclaim the streets for children’s play – and in so doing, demonstrate that children are members of the public and so deserve access to public space!

    I wonder if part of adult hesitation in this is because we are so often afraid of these streets ourselves. 24 hour news cycles have given us skewed ideas of adult stranger-danger too, and grown-ups don’t know their neighbors any more than their children do.

    More opportunities for everyone to play in public space would help to change that trend. Did you ever see those bus stop swing sets that were briefly in London?

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  5. All – thanks for the comments. Jules – pleased to hear you like the tactic, and happy with that description of me. Amy – interesting to hear about the SF street reclaiming movement – will try to check that out. Morgan, I agree that adult attitudes about public space are part of the problem – that’s what I like about some of the tactical urbanism interventions I linked to (and yes I think I have met the guy behind the bus stop swing – genius.)

  6. How timely – Heard about the Bristol initiative on Radio 4 today. After our Jubilee Street Party, I’m sure me, my neighbours and probably many others are now beginning to re-think how we can make our streets less of a barrier and more of a link towards getting to know each other…

  7. I am totally with you. So glad to have found your blog through Lenore Skenazy’s (Free-Range Kids)

  8. I have to post a link in this thread to today’s Guardian (23 June 2012), which has a terrific piece on Playing Out. I plan to write a longer piece on it.

  9. Oh good! Glad to have found your site. So good to know there is a community of like-minded people–connected by our blogs if nothing else.

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