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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009 11:45 am

Why did the children not cross the road?

They no longer enjoy the freedom of their city

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A developer leads a planning group through a “walkable” neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Md.
PHOTO BY DAN Z. JOHNSON/MCT

The setting was breakfast, the mood nostalgic. I and three aging friends sat talking about mobility. No, not our corroded knees or where to buy replacement tips for our canes. We were recalling our youths, when — each growing up in a separate Midwestern town — our city was really ours.

One — the spinach omelette — told of how, when she was 11, she used to take the city bus alone from East St. Louis into downtown St. Louis, there to browse the shops until her working aunt could join her for lunch. Another described the streetcar trip she took at 8 to meet her father at his downtown Indianapolis office. A third remembered how he and his savvy pals were lords of the trolleys when they were kids in Chicago, having figured out how to get free rides from discarded transfers.

Me, I recounted how my 11-year-old self used to ride my bike to downtown Springfield from 25th and Cook to shop for stamps or model kits, and how we pedaled to Strike ’n’ Spare on Stevenson Drive (it might still have been Linn Avenue then) to go bowling, clutching coupons clipped from Meadow Gold milk cartons redeemable for a free game.

We were not unusual in our enjoying a grownup’s right to the city. Ah, but kids today…. They don’t walk to school, or much of anywhere else. They do their exploring on computers, not on buses. It is not until they are 16 that the license to drive gives them the freedom that their parents and grandparents enjoyed at 8 or 9.

Kids are not different animals compared to us geezers, but they do lead very different and, I believe, poorer lives. I will not here explore the larger social forces that compel so many U.S. parents to, in effect, keep their children under house arrest by denying them the freedom of the streets. However, there are factors that aggravate the physical and social isolation of our young people that are wholly within the power of local governments to remedy.

Here’s one example. British town planner Mayer Hillman, coauthor of the 1991 book One False Move: A Study Of Children’s Independent Mobility, has pointed a damning finger at modern traffic engineering. Moving cars efficiently has raised speeds, so that a kid moving from one side of the street to the other looks like a soldier dodging mortar shells in no-man’s land. Those streets that once were playgrounds are now seen as too dangerous for kids even to cross except when they are in a car with Mom.

Local building codes play a part too. Kids have always used sidewalks as a surrogate road system. The problem is that while new subdivisions are walked, and thus offer children safe passage within their subdivision, there often are no walks connecting free-standing subdivisions that have been plopped down at random along what remain country lanes.

More problematic is the fact that even when kids have a means to escape postwar neighborhoods there are no places for them to go. Parks, which are planners’ gifts to children in new neighborhoods, strike children as the Christmas presents that grownups think you want. They bore kids older than seven, mainly because they are designed to please mothers of young children, not children. Better to require developers to leave a bit of waste land for kids to mess about in.

Where I grew up on Springfield’s east side in the 1950s and ’60s, there were two public elementary schools within five blocks of my house. Very few mothers had a car, and kids had to walk. We still have neighborhood schools, but these days the neighbors in them all drive cars, and the schools’ enrollment areas are scaled accordingly.

Just for fun — well, to prove a point — I visited the Web site of Walk Score (www.walkscore.com/) which directs house hunters and renters to walkable neighborhoods by calculating their walkability on a scale of 1-100. I entered the address of the new Lindsay Elementary School, which opened in 2000 at 3600 Fielding Drive in the heart of New Springfield. Walk Score gave it 48 points out of 100, which, Walk Score said, made it “car-dependent.” Lindsay was built to replace doddering Hay-Edwards at 400 West Lawrence Avenue in the heart of Old Springfield; Walk Score gave that address a score of 72 out of 100, calling it “very walkable.”

There is no mystery about how to fix, or better yet, to avoid municipal governments abetting this isolation of our young. Organizations such as Walkable Communities (www.walkable.org/) — a nonprofit consulting firm advising communities on how to become more pedestrian-friendly — or any of the “smart growth” advocates, such as www.smartgrowth.org/, are eager to share. And you don’t even have to cross a street to get there.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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