Opinion: Car-Centric Cities Hurt Kids

Designing neighborhoods with children in mind could reduce traffic fatalities and improve the health and well-being of kids.

2 minute read

September 27, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Bikes and Kids

japansaninlook / Shutterstock

"Kids today aren’t lazy," argues Scott Berson. "They aren’t addicted to screens, at least not any more than adults. But the way we’ve built our modern environment restricts, with almost authoritarian precision, the ability of kids to do anything independently — including play outside." 

Berson argues that our built environment traps kids in car-dependent, sedentary lifestyles, "About 52% of families say they live in suburbs, though this definition is a little hazy. Let’s think of the suburb as a car-focused area, usually on the outskirts of a larger city, with houses separated from offices separated from stores by miles and miles of roads. There are few sidewalks, and few bike trails or lanes. There is no real bus or transit system." These environments, Berson says, are "agonizingly boring to kids — and an area in which it is impossible for them to act on their need to 'try out' independence as they get older." It's impossible to exercise independence in "an environment designed to be driven and only to be driven." Meanwhile, despite the perception of suburban safety, "[t]raffic deaths — and child fatalities — are far more common in suburbs than in cities."

Berson believes "[w]e need to think of kids as full members of society and we need to design our neighborhoods for kids to have full, rich childhoods that let them grow into well-rounded members of our communities." He recommends three "simple to remember, but agonizingly difficult to implement" actions: "Connect the streets, mix the uses, and shrink the schools." Berson describes steps that cities can take to work toward these goals. "It will take creative thinkers and public leaders across the nation to begin to see the harm the environment we’ve built is doing to kids, and it will take bravery to implement even small changes."

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