Cities Aren’t Built for Kids

To the east of Amsterdam’s city center sits Funenpark, a peaceful little quarter shaped like a triangle. Its edges are lined with stores and public spaces, including a day care, a bookstore, and a primary school next to a large playground. Sprinkled across the enclave, apartment buildings sit amid plots of grass that blend into smooth stone walkways. There are no private yards or driveways in Funenpark, and no cars. On a bright afternoon in early June, I left my daughters at the jungle gym with their dad while I biked around.

The green space between buildings was dotted with people, young and old, picnicking in the afternoon sun. As I cycled past a group of kids playing soccer, one of them overshot the goal and chased the ball across the walkway. No drivers honked. No brakes squealed. No parents shouted to mind the street. No parents were watching the game at all. Winding my way back, I passed a preteen wandering with an off-leash dog, and a little girl about the size of my 5-year-old drawing a figure on the path with chalk. As I headed into the playground again, a lone boy who couldn’t have been older than 6 sprinted out, jumped onto a tiny blue bike with bright-red wheels, and sped off.

The scene unfolding before me felt strangely familiar: a version of urban childhood I’d heard about but never experienced, in which parents were more relaxed and kids were free to roam their neighborhood unsupervised until the streetlights came on and they rushed home for dinner. I sometimes hear my elders lament the passing of this hands-off approach to parenting, but something like it is alive in Amsterdam. Not because time has stood still there, but because the city has created the infrastructure that allows for it. Unfortunately, most major cities don’t.

[Read: Why kids invent imaginary friends]

“Human habitats shape children in ways we don’t appreciate,” Tim Gill, the author of Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities, told me. Gill, who pointed me to Funenpark, first took an interest in child-friendly urban design in 1994. That’s when he started working for the London-based advocacy group Children’s Play Council—now called Play England—and began to realize how profoundly city infrastructure can disrupt childhood.

Consider what it takes for a child to develop into a grown-up. We enter our lives in a state of utter dependence on adults. Eventually, God willing, we become adults ourselves, capable of navigating daily life on our own. The journey from the former to the latter, Gill told me, ought to be one of gradually expanding independence. Parents shouldn’t just provide experiences for their kids, shepherding them between school and playdates and soccer practice; they should let their kids explore, and discover experiences for themselves.

But modern childhood, in America and elsewhere, is more and more constrained. Gill often cites as evidence a map depicting the “roaming ranges” of children across four generations of a family in Sheffield, England. In 1919, at the age of 8, the great-grandfather could wander as far as a fishing lake that was six miles from his home. By 2007, his 8-year-old great-grandson could walk only to the end of his street—and that’s more freedom than many 8-year-olds have these days.

It’s tempting to blame the highly surveilled nature of modern childhood on parents too neurotic to let their children out of sight. But according to Gill, the “gradual creeping lockdown” on kids is in part a reflection of the built environment they occupy. In his view, it’s wrong to blame parents for not letting their kids out when doing so is often not safe.

Some parental worries are overblown, Gill admitted, but traffic isn’t one of them. Motor-vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death among American children, killing thousands of kids every year. And although fewer young children die in car accidents in the U.S. now than did about half a century ago, Gill suspects that progress is partly because parents have massively restricted children’s freedoms. That trade-off results in something of a paradox: In cities full of danger, childhood can become too safe.

[Read: How to quit intensive parenting]

The challenges of child-rearing in a city aren’t limited to physical risks. According to Hannah Wright, an urban planner who’s studied kid-friendly design, the large majority of the public realm simply wasn’t built with kids in mind. During the rapid urbanization of the 20th century, many cities were designed for the people building them: able-bodied men who weren’t typically caring for children. This created all sorts of lingering obstacles for kids and their caregivers: Think metro platforms reachable only by descending a flight of stairs (not easy with a stroller), or bus routes that make no sense for someone doing a school drop-off on their way to work.

Alexandra Lange, a design critic and the author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, points to the fact that where she lives in Brooklyn, no extra buses run during the school rush hour as they often do for work rush hours; the bus that runs from the subway to her son’s high school is always full by the time he gets to it. “The routes aren’t set up to accommodate schoolchildren as regular commuters,” Lange told me. In New York City, that’s hundreds of thousands of kids.

The difficulty of raising a child in a city is not unique to the United States, but it mirrors the strain of American parenting in general: Kids are sidelined by policy makers, and that creates unnecessary burdens for parents. Most urban planners, Lange said, “don’t make streets safe for kids to cross on their own. They expect you, as a parent, to set aside time to walk your kids to school every day.” Because there are so few ways for kids to handle boredom and loneliness independently—other than on the internet—many parents must continually scramble to arrange playdates and register their kids for activities. “If it were restructured so that kids could find each other and then could create, like, pickup soccer games, we wouldn’t need to be signing them up for things all the time,” Lange said.

Lange rattled off ways to improve city life for families: Slow down cars, narrow streets, add more trees, especially in shade deserts. Placing family-oriented venues close together would help create easy routes between them—and it might allow them to feed off of one another. If a child can safely run around at a nearby playground while their parent does an exercise class at the community center, for example, then there’s no need to hire a babysitter.

[Read: America’s cities are staggeringly unequal]

In Gill’s view, the ideal child-friendly city would look something like Vauban, a district of Freiburg, Germany. Few of its 5,000 or so residents own a car, and those who do must park it in a lot on the outskirts of town. A tram and a dense network of paths for cycling and walking crisscross the neighborhood. Multifamily housing leaves plenty of space for recreation and socializing. And with little traffic, parents don’t need to corral children into gated playgrounds. Instead, play structures such as swings and slides are scattered throughout town, allowing children to rub shoulders with their fellow city dwellers.

Of course, bulldozing existing cities and erecting kid-friendly ones in their place isn’t feasible. But city planners have plenty of ways to work with what they’ve got. Gill suggests assessing individual neighborhoods for child-friendliness—are there plenty of places for children to go? Can they get to them safely?—and making changes accordingly. Cities can pilot interventions before implementing them more broadly. Rotterdam, a city some 50 miles southwest of Amsterdam, did exactly that. After a 2006 survey found it to be the worst place in the Netherlands to raise a child, the city launched Child Friendly Rotterdam; the intervention primarily focused on revamping a single neighborhood, Oude Noorden, by reconfiguring streets to slow or discourage traffic and making public spaces more playable. In the process, the organizers developed guidance for making the rest of Rotterdam kid-safe too.

Cities can also make gradual changes just by being opportunistic. “If you are already improving the piping or water infrastructure down the street or putting fiber-optic cables down, or whatever, you’re digging up the street anyway,” Wright told me. Why not reconfigure it with children in mind? With a little thought, run-of-the-mill city infrastructure can be reenvisioned for play. I encountered an exquisite example of such creativity on a day trip to Rotterdam: a flood-retention zone with a basketball court in its basin, and seating cut into its walls.

Even subtle enhancements can be transformative. With a 3-year-old who tumbles through life in a semiconscious dream state, getting anywhere in a city by foot is often a miserable slog spent snatching hands and barking orders. But our stroll around Oude Noorden was largely serene, even rejuvenating. We followed the kindvriendelijk, or “child-friendly,” route, where the car speed limit drops to about 19 miles an hour in some sections and is closed to cars in others. Flourishes of greenery sprouted off the buildings. I dropped my daughter’s hand. I chatted with my husband, and she collected flower petals with her sister. I let her cross the street on her own.