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Think of the Children
How Memorable are the Places We Build for Kids?

Free-range children, such as this girl sneaking a peek at a painter’s work along the Ile St. Louis in Paris, are able to experience their worlds at a depth unknown to those who are tethered to their homes by electronic entertainments or the perceived peril of child abduction. Photo by Stephen A. Mouzon. All rights reserved.

Close your eyes for a moment and remember your childhood. What was your favorite place? Was it an aging apple tree? A discarded truck canopy in a vacant lot? A neighborhood park?

Clare Cooper Marcus, professor emerita of the University of California, Berkeley, posed that question to hundreds of her students from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, asking them to draw and describe their responses. The results were enlightening, to say the least.

"It is clear that the places most often remembered were predominantly outdoors and that they were nearly always in semi-wild or overgrown areas such as woods, ravines, creeks, ditches, mudflats, trees, vacant lots, left-over urban spaces, and spaces between buildings in public housing or apartment complexes," says Marcus. "Almost no one remembered a place specifically designed for children. Only one remembered a schoolyard as a favorite place, and none remembered a park."

Marcus' findings should be of particular interest to new urban practitioners, who often hang their marketing hats on the belief that mixed-use, traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) are superior to conventional suburban developments (CSDs) as environments in which to raise children. The reasons for this belief are numerous, and include:

. TND streets are designed to slow the speed of cars.

. On-street parking provides a buffer between the street and the sidewalks.

. Lots of "eyes on the streets" allow community policing.

. "Strangers" are easily identified.

. Most new urban communities offer parks and other play spaces of various sizes and scales.

. Since parents often don't need to drive their children to play, parents have more time to socialize with their neighbors and their children.

. Community playgrounds teach children the value of how to play with one another, while a typical CSD allows families to have their own play set in their own backyard with the Smiths trying to outdo the Joneses, rather than pooling money into one really good playground; this reinforces the need for civic space for all ages.

. Schools are often within walking distance of many residences.

But while TNDs may look good on paper and in practice, perhaps its proponents would do well to consider whether the places they're building for children will linger as fond memories when they are adults, or if they're simply building what they think children will enjoy.

Ask anyone what children need and you'll get a laundry list of obvious answers: food, shelter, clothing, safety. But recent discussions on the subject have added a new item to the list: nature.

In contrast to their CSD counterparts, many mixed-use neighborhoods attempt to help children reconnect with the natural world by providing corridors in the form of trails and bike paths -- and safer streets -- by which kids can safely navigate a larger portion of their worlds, becoming "free-range children."

Columnist Neal Peirce addressed the challenge of reconnecting children with nature in a May 8, 2005, article titled "Reclaiming childhood's freedoms -- and our regions." In it, Peirce wondered if it is possible to "give our children a way back -- past overdone fears and exaggerated safety rules, around today's electronic lures -- to the world of simple, free, contact with the natural world that lightened the childhood of all our past generations."

Peirce detailed the problem TNDs are attempting to address by discussing Richard Louv's book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" (Algonquin Books, 2006):

"Historically, Louv notes, kids learned about the natural world on farms, in gardens, and exploring woods ... swamps and ponds where they could observe nature first-hand and close-up. According to Louv, there's strong evidence that such independent play and exploration builds not just independence, but broad mental, physical and spiritual health.

"Today's children, however, are systematically cut off from natural play. 'Well-meaning public-school systems, media and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields,' he writes. The stated reasons seem endless, from Lyme Disease to ever-increasing park rules to the perceived perils of child abduction."

Although statistics show that rates of child abduction and sexual abuse have steadily decreased since the early 1990s, fear of these crimes is at an all-time high. According to the California Megan's Law Web site (, stranger abduction is rare and 90 percent of child sexual-abuse cases are committed by someone known to the child. For children aged 12 and older, that percentage falls only to 80 percent. Yet we still suffer a disconnect between perception of crime and its statistical reality. A child is almost as likely to be struck by lightning as kidnapped by a stranger, but it's not fear of lightning strikes that parents cite as the reason for keeping children indoors watching television instead of out on the sidewalk skipping rope or scrawling fanciful designs with fat sticks of chalk.

Peirce points to more contributing factors: With today's superhighways, traffic congestion, segregated uses and rigid control by community associations, fewer children get a chance to walk or bike to school. A study of three generations of 9-year-olds found that by 1990, the radius around the home in which children were allowed to play had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970.

In addition to safety considerations and an extended range of accessibility, the promise of improved physical and mental health among children living in TNDs is an important component of this discussion. A large and convincing body of research already associates mixed-use neighborhoods with higher levels of physical activity, which has been linked to lower incidence of disease. Expanding on the significant work relating mixed-use neighborhoods with better physical health, a new study published by the University of Miami Built Environment Research Team in the September 2006 issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology examines the effects of mixed-use neighborhood blocks on school adjustment. This study specifically analyzes at the effects of the built environment on children.

Researchers examined the impact of mixed-use blocks on children's conduct grades because school conduct grades are predictors of various future health, psychological and social outcomes, including school drop-out, substance abuse, delinquency and unsafe sexual behavior. Relating block use to conduct grades for the 2,857 public school children who lived on 403 contiguous blocks in a poor, inner-ring neighborhood, researchers found that children living on mixed-use blocks had higher conduct grades than children living on residential-only blocks. Interestingly, the effect was stronger for boys.

The team speculates that the benefits of greater adult supervision through the corner stores may account for the generally positive effect and that cultural morés that permit boys greater freedom outside the home may account for the bump in the effect on boys' grades. When this finding is considered from the other side -- that is, how living on a residential-only block might adversely affect children -- the data shows that a youth living on a residential-only block had 74 percent greater odds of being in the lowest 10 percent of conduct grades, compared to a youth living on a mixed-use block. If the adverse impact of the residential only blocks could be mitigated, then conduct grades would improve by 38 percent in the total population.

While the conventional suburban model of residential-only blocks is commonly thought to be an ideal neighborhood for children, these findings suggest that mixed-use blocks may offer distinct benefits for children living in poor, inner-ring neighborhoods. Mixed-use neighborhoods not only induce adults to walk, and therefore benefit from the positive health effects of increased physical activity, but through increased supervision of the streets also offer children an environment conducive to positive adjustment in school.

Many well-executed, mixed-use, new urban neighborhoods address the majority of children's needs admirably. When New Towns asked dozens of TNDs across the United States to tell us how they were doing so, we were flooded with responses. Here are a few of the standouts.

High Point, the former slum in West Seattle that is being transformed into a desirable neighborhood, is an excellent example of a community that is child-friendly and more healthful for kids on many levels.

Much of High Point's success can be chalked up to the depth of front-end planning undertaken by Seattle-based Mithun, which served as the community's architectural and design firm. Mithun representatives talked with the existing residents about what they wanted in a new home and neighborhood, and translated planning materials into a dozen languages to better communicate with all the residents. The result was a community all could embrace.

Mithun's communication brought to light one key problem at the old High Point: Parents were afraid to let their kids play outside because they couldn't see them. This led to development of a series of pocket parks, all encircled by homes so there would be constant surveillance on the parks.

High Point is 130 acres, half of which has been rebuilt, and which houses between 700 and 800 kids. At build-out there will be 1,600 homes and about 1,400 to 1,600 kids.

Where will they play? Mithun left a hundred mature trees, so the new High Point doesn't have the scalped look so common in the suburbs -- and kids have trees they can climb. The streets are narrow to slow traffic; this allows for more street play. One of the larger parks has a large pond that is actually designed for storm water retention, but which kids treat as simply a pond in the neighborhood for exploration and play. And Longfellow Creek -- one of four major salmon-bearing streams in Seattle -- borders one side of the neighborhood, allowing children to see salmon spawning late each year.

Finally, High Point is actually more healthful for some kids with asthma because of its inclusion of "breathe easy" homes.

When a group of 10 High Point children was asked recently how they liked living at the new High Point compared to the old, all but one said they preferred the new neighborhood.

Roy Finley, this neighborhood's designer and one of three partners that comprise the Cherry Hill Group (Cherry Hill's developer), says the interaction of children with the community has been a positive experience and what developers had hoped for.

"The alleys provide some good play areas, and the narrow streets with slow-moving traffic and wide sidewalks make for safe bicycling and walking. Young parents spend time on nice days with baby strollers and tots playing in the town square and enjoying the waterfall and fish pond," says Finley.

"My favorite child benefit is watching what the kids can do on their own, without parents shuttling them in cars. It's great to see the bikes parked in front of the bakery, the swimming pool and the video store. I also see them walking to the dentists, doctors and salons. All of this is a taste of what many of us grown-ups had as children, but is denied to most suburban youth."

One mile south of Pacific Beach, Wash., the new beach town of Seabrook is quickly maturing and offering favorite places for kids to gather, says Stephen Poulakos, director of town development for the Seabrook Land Company.

"The most popular places in Seabrook are the Crescent Park fire pits (see New Towns, Sept./Oct. 2006). That's where kids are always hanging out. Younger kids roast marshmallows and teens hang out under the watchful eye of Mom and Dad," says Poulakos.

"We have a couple one-way streets, too, that kids absolutely love playing on -- everything from skating to biking to street parties and theme parades. The cars have to crawl down those streets.

"And easy access to the beach opens up the town to a favorite Pacific Northwest pastime: clam digging."

John Van Fossen in the Celebration Studio of Looney Ricks Kiss has plenty of points to make about how good children have it in one of the nation's better-known TNDs:

. The community parks and recreation group hosts aquatics programs for swimmers of all levels.

. Friday Night Live for teens, held at the high school gym, gives teens a spot to play games and hang out with friends.

. Family Game Nights for board games and Trivial Pursuit.

. Soccer, cheerleading and pom pom classes for ages 3 to 8 years and 9 to 15 years.

. Junior Team tennis, basketball, soccer, football and baseball.

. Spring Breakout sessions during the school spring break, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., where kids can participate in games, art programs and more.

"The energy created in the community through these and other events takes on a life of its own," says Van Fossen. "Not a week goes by without an event sponsored by a church or other organization. We have free outdoor movies sponsored by a local video store. Huge community events often begin with a "hey, wouldn't it be fun if ..." grassroots effort, such as the Celebration Games -- a community-wide 'Olympics.'

"All of these things are possible because of the small-town feel and close-knit sense of community, in a well-defined area with a unique sense of identity -- things that you can't feel in a sprawling, suburban neighborhood."

"Mt Laurel is surrounded by trees and nature and trails and parks," says Annette McGuire Davis, Mt Laurel resident and headmistress of the McGuire Davis Christian Academy. "Parents don't have yard work, so they have more time to spend with their kids. I see kids who want to be outside, who want to go to the lake and skip rocks across the water, and who have parents with more time to do those things with them."

Mt Laurel is tucked into a particularly beautiful corner of the United States, but aside from the aesthetics, the most striking feature of Mt Laurel is the communication and interaction between its residents and children. The neighborhood seems to have pinned down that intangible and elusive quality of community.

Mt Laurel residents and their children mingle daily, a level of interaction that is becoming increasingly rare in child development. Mary Peters, resident and mother of two, says that in Mt Laurel, children are able to play freely outdoors with one another.

"Instead of mom looking out the kitchen window and keeping a watchful and worried eye on her children, she just opens the front door and lets them come and go as they please. I see all sorts of kids playing out front with their neighbors, waiting for their mom and dad to come home from work. You don't see that often in this age," says Peters.

The children of Mt Laurel not only have a rare opportunity to communicate with one another, but also have the chance to watch their parents indulge in daily interaction. Parents know one another, stop to talk to one another and make it a point to become involved in the community. Children grow up seeing their parents as social, personable community members -- and learn from their actions.

Issaquah Highlands was created as an urban village as a response to the greater Seattle area's pattern of sprawling suburban and cul-de-sac communities. The urban village land plan is one that is inspired by those "good time to be a kid" days of America's small towns and villages pre-suburbia. Elements of those communities that are repeated at Issaquah Highlands are narrow tree-lined streets that are safe for walkers and bicyclers, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods linked by wide sidewalks and trails, playgrounds and parks.

The homes are oriented toward the sidewalks with an emphasis on front porches, which results in more "eyes on the street." An active community association with the large Blakely Hall community center building provided as a gathering place means more activities, clubs and services for all ages, including children and teens. The active community association sponsors children's activities like Easter egg hunts, harvest festivals and more.

Other notable achievements include:

. All current homes at Issaquah Highlands are built to a Built GreenTM 4-Star level of efficiency and certified as ENERGY STAR® Homes or equivalent.

. A "bark park" off-leash dog park lets kids play with their pooches and features a picnic table, benches, separate water fountains for pups and their human companions, and a message board for rules and notices.

. More than 1,500 acres are dedicated to parks and open space within Issaquah Highlands; going from front door to deep woods is an easy transition with the combination of sidewalks, the network of community parks, then wide open trails leading into the wild.

These neighborhoods raise the bar for similar-minded communities, but they should never lose sight of children's need to make something their own. Formal parks artfully arranged every half mile might look good on paper, and may even look lovely to adults at build-out, but do the children prefer them to places that allow them to exercise their imaginations? Better question: Are they and other planned places actually feeding children's souls by becoming a part of each child's most memorable moments? What would happen if a new urban town planner intentionally included a -- perish the thought! -- vacant lot in his/her design?

As new urbanists continue to design and build better places to live, they should consider taking more of their cues from the worlds of children, where a stick is a sword, a stump is a throne, a snowman is Gandalf the White, and a plastic lamb can be Aslan. Our new towns -- especially those elements designed for children -- should exhibit an equal measure of imagination.


Room for Improvement?

By their design, new urban neighborhoods are usually far better environments for children. But where might they improve? Stephen Poulakos, director of town development for Seabrook Land Company, has a few ideas:

. Design recreation areas to meet use, play age and gender needs; e.g., tot lots, skateboard parks, ball fields, etc.

. Include more small-scale public schools, rather than mega schools that require most parents to drive children to them.

. Include flexible-use, multi-purpose community buildings or recreation halls.

. Include day care and/or baby-sitting services.

. For more generational overlap, encourage programs that allow grandparents to interact with their grandchildren during the one or two hours after school lets out until parents get home, or include programs that allow young and old to learn from each other; e.g., art classes, craft classes for seasonal holidays, etc.


Out of the Mouths.

New Towns asked kids from age 2 to 17 about TNDs in general, their own neighborhoods and favorite play spots, and what makes them great. We also asked them which was better: a formal park or playground, or a vacant lot. Here's what we learned.

"I like playing in my backyard because I feel safe there."

-- Trey, age 2
(quoted with help from big sister)

"I like being able to go to the hardware store and pick out a piece of gum. I also love to walk down the street to see my friends."

-- Jake, age 3
(quoted with help from Mom)

"I love Jimbo's [ice cream store]."

-- Alastair, age 3

"I like the playground, the pool and to feed the fish at the lake."

-- Maggie, age 4

"I like my friends, being outside and all the houses."

-- Jake, age 4

"I have a lot of friends in this neighborhood, and I like my school and all the shops, and I like to ride around in my golf cart."

-- Logan, age 6

"I love swimming to the dock at the lake."

-- Grace, age 7

"I like the little park with the b-ball hoop, because it's fun. I like a playground more than a vacant lot because you can do everything you want like playing soccer and going on the slide."

-- Nate, age 8

"I like the smaller park with the b-ball hoop, because that is my favorite sport. But I'd also rather play in a vacant lot because you can do whatever you want there."

-- Amelia, age 11

"I like playing in the park that has a football field because I like football. But if given a choice I would choose an empty lot because you can do more things there, including playing soccer."

-- Cecil, age 11

"I like the park by the pond because I like the ducks and geese there."

-- Brandi, age 14*

"I like the bigger park by the pond. It's a nice place to 'kick it' with friends."

-- Ebony, age 15*

"What I miss about Seaside when I am home in Miami is the connectedness. In Seaside, I feel as if I can decide whatever I want to do and I can just walk over to the store or the beach, or meet friends."

-- Dorothy, age 17

*Both Ebony and Brandi (note their ages) said they prefer a playground to a vacant lot because there is more stuff to do and a vacant lot is "boring."


The Cul-de-sac Conundrum

Frowned upon by many -- if not most -- new urbanist town planners, cul-de-sacs nonetheless continue to play a role in the hearts and minds of American families. Compared with through-streets, cul-de-sacs are viewed as safer places for children to play. The arrangement of houses around them are perceived to provide a greater level of surveillance over children also.

But are kids safer in cul-de-sac subdivisions? And if so, safer than ... what? Perhaps through-streets are the target here; perhaps cul-de-sac proponents are fearful that young children will run out into traffic and be struck by a car.

There appears little research to debunk this fear, but some of it is summarized by William Lucy and David Phillips in "Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs" (APA Planner's Press, 2006). Only a fraction of 1 percent of the total annual traffic fatalities are due to children darting into traffic; about the same number of fatalities are due to children being backed over in their driveways by a family member. The much greater risk is from children spending so much time in vehicles: The more time a child spends in a vehicle, the greater their exposure to collision risk.

Since cul-de-sac subdivisions typically contain only houses, children must be driven to their destinations. This would seem to place them in harm's way far more than a through-street would.

There's also the argument that cul-de-sacs inevitably degrade into poverty-stricken slums, driving up crime rates and generally transforming into decidedly child-unfriendly environments.

And yet, cul-de-sacs are still being built, and the people who choose to live in them are still convinced that they are safer, regardless of what the statistics indicate. They're still popular with the kids, too, since many of their games require a paved surface.

In the end, cul-de-sacs are a classic example of human perception trumping hard numbers. And, sadly, most parents won't make the connection between their cul-de-sac living environment and the car crash that just injured their child.

But cul-de-sacs aren't entirely evil, says Clare Cooper Marcus. Though not her first choice, cul-de-sacs could be a reasonable alternative if they abutted a greenway, with bike and walking trails connecting one cul-de-sac end to another across the greenway, and other trails and paths following the greenway leading to schools, shops, etc. "This is essentially the pattern in much of Davis, Calif.," she says.

Joanna Lombard, professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture; Laurence Aurbach, New Towns Web editor; and Sarah Magargee of Cerebellum Media contributed to this article.