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May 4, 2011

Children should play out on the street

How we design and build our houses and use the public space around them largely determines how resilient a community will be in the face of challenges. This is the conclusion of Michael Ungar at American based Resilience Research Centre when observing the relaxed approach of parents to children playing on the streets of Bilbao as compared to the gated, ‘safe’ communities of the States

Michael Ungar, Ph.D. in Nurturing Resilience

I recently spent a few days in Bilbao, Spain, and was amazed to walk on streets full of children. Is there a population explosion in Spain? In the middle-class community where I was staying, I was reassured that the birth rate is below that of most parts of North America and yet the streets vibrate with life. There is no need for long SUV commutes to get the little ones to soccer practice as the children wander from their apartments after school and play in the city squares. There are always adults nearby, often sitting with neighbours drinking coffee, or a glass of wine. What looks like chaos is actually a careful dance by which a community raises its children together.

Why do we love to vacation in places like Bilbao, Paris, Savannah, and San Juan? Traffic controlled roads and pedestrian streets are people friendly. Small shops let us buy the basics as we need them. The small apartments that drape both sides of the narrow streets are havens for an eclectic mix of young professionals, young families, seniors and students.

And yet we keep building ugly mono-use suburbs. We create homes where we cloister and do everything: we have our large screen TVs in rooms big enough to seat 20, and backyards where our children only play with those whose parents drive them to our homes. We romanticize those exotic streetscapes we love to visit, but then build exactly what we and our children DON’T need. Our suburbs not only threaten our social capital (our ability to form trusting, organic, relationships with others), they also put our physical and emotional health at risk. Long commutes, less time with family, all that money we have to earn, then spend, to keep two cars on the road… Have we all lost our minds?

A community’s resilience is its social capital, which includes the physical infrastructure, and culturally embedded patterns of interdependence that keep people connected. As we’ve see in Japan, and as we didn’t see in Haiti, what we build before a crisis makes a big difference to what happens afterwards.

Gated communities make all of us less safe. Poorly funded schools endanger us for generations to come. And building more jails actually makes our society more dangerous. Every study of criminals and crime around the world shows exactly the same results but politicians ignore the facts. When we rip apart the social fabric that keeps us connected, we are all endangered. When we leave people with few choices they are forced into patterns of coping that are maladaptive.

In February, I was in Singapore where I saw public housing projects that ensure every family gets a first house, usually a condominium, at an affordable price. The purchase is subsidized, and the racial and ethnic mix of each public development is carefully balanced to ensure no group is marginalized into a ghetto. One project, the Pinnacle@Duxton, is in Singapore’s financial district and at 50 storeys high, is the tallest public housing project in the world. The towers, I was impressed to see, are connected by grassy terraces at different levels, creating parks in the sky where neighbours have a place to sit outside and meet. These housing developments are actually desirable places to live because they are closer to the city and transportation links. After five years, should people decide to sell their subsidized unit, they have the money to buy what they want, where they want. Plumbers can live next to teachers, bus drivers next to accountants. Too much social engineering? Perhaps…but there are lessons to
be learned from Spain and Singapore about creating safe communities for our children and ourselves.

So what’s gone wrong in North America? Is anyone else curious why almost 1% of Americans are incarcerated at any one time. And how did so many people lose their homes in the last two years? Why, amid so much wealth, do we still see so much poverty? While social capital is a great thing to have, research from Israel shows that it can be destroyed if there is prolonged exposure to violence. As people become more fearful, and incapable of stopping violence, mistrust and frustration grows. People withdraw from one another. Maybe this is what has happened. We’ve inadvertently been designing our cities in ways that are putting our well-being at risk. Our communities have become islands of isolated individuals who stubbornly refuse to admit that we’re all wrong. Our children have stopped playing on the streets, which, like the proverbial canary in the mine, is telling us something important.

Without even a catastrophic event like a nuclear disaster, we are edging our way to creating the post-apocalyptic world we see in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Or so it seems some days. I just don’t see how building more suburbs or knowing that car and truck sales are again healthy is something to celebrate when we could be putting our energy into thinking about future solutions to the very problems that are threatening our well-being. Subjectively, we are not happy. And a lot of that unhappiness has to do with something as simple as how we build our houses, where we build them, and the social policies that influence who our neighbours are.

If we want to live afraid, we can keep building our suburbs and vacationing in the quaint alleys of the world’s most beautiful cities. If we want to live free of fear, and feel the connections of community, let’s embrace a new urbanism and work towards integrated mixed use developments and quality public transit. Detroit needs to send every one of its city councillors to Bilbao. And Regina needs to visit Singapore.

My views aren’t ideological. I could care less about political parties. I prefer research and what it tells us about how to create communities that we have seen work. In most cases, what works is also what we intuitively know is better for us. Increasing community resilience by building in ways that promote social capital make us much better prepared to be resilient when crises, big or small, happen to us and our children. After all, what do we think our children really want? A pretty fenced backyard and endless drives to soccer games played under the watchful eye of a coach, or the freedom to play in a city square and make friends of their own choosing?