The Forgotten Child - Excerpt


Overview

In this book we are concerned with developments that have adversely affected the lives of children. Increasing awareness of these factors may, we hope, reverse their potential harmful long term effects!

The increasing isolation and segregation of children in our cities and suburbs is of special significance.  This has meant a loss of freedom for children to explore their neighborhood and city as they get older, their exclusion from varied contacts with diverse adults in a variety of settings, and their consequent inability to learn from personal experience and observation, so essential to social and emotional development...

Urban design and planning decisions are based on the premise that cities exist primarily for economic purposes.  Most city centers have been depleted of diverse activities except for commercial and administrative functions. These areas, often busy only from nine to five, become unsafe wastelands at dusk, unsuitable for the presence of most people, and especially children...

Images of cities as dangerous places,  and ordinary unfamiliar adults as dangerous and to be feared,  have a corrosive effect when they form the basis for the design of modern cities. The abandonment of the city, except for the security of sealed and protected office environments also contributed to these negative images...

Children’s need for autonomy and mobility are sacrificed to accommodate the car.  It is difficult for children to get around by themselves in many North American cities due to lack of public transportation. Children’s autonomy, mobility and access to their city’s resources have thus been increasingly diminished...

Everything that concerns the organization and design of cities, their legibility, beauty or ugliness, hospitality or brutality, accessibility or inaccessibility, has impact on all who inhabit them.  But unless a physical and social framework is provided for children to share in the social world of their community they will not develop into adults with affection and loyalty to their city.

Selections from

Effects of the Built Environment

Children grow up assuming that they are the kind of person that their physical environment tells them they are.  They experience their environment as a portrait of themselves.  This is helpful as long as the built environment reflects positive values;  but for those growing up in derelict inner cities, ugly urban peripheries, or monotonous suburbs, it becomes difficult for family members, school teachers or community leaders to counteract messages implicit in the physical setting and to instill a sense of pride and self worth in children and young people...

How can children develop a sense of being a good person, loved and respected by others, when they grow up in a public housing project designed with the expectation of crime and violence,  in a sea of potholed streets that the city does not care to fix,  surrounded by vacant lots and abandoned buildings that the owners may be waiting to develop...

The way in which buildings relate to each other in the city provides children with a model for how people relate to each other in the society.  This model may be internalized by the child as a “prescription” for how they should relate to others.  Buildings that are connected, contiguous, part of an ensemble, emphasize interdependence, communication, and sense of community...

A continuous urban fabric of buildings approximately the same height and scale, though perhaps built at different times and in different styles, represents a society in which cooperation and negotiation have taken place, and can continue to take place.

Throughout much of the Western world the primary building block of the livable city is the “shop/house” with shop, workshop or restaurant at street level and residential dwelling above.  The close proximity of the public and the private realms, of living, working, socializing, are what makes the public realm so hospitable, and the private dwelling so convenient. This arrangement makes a city that is not only socially healthy, but also ecologically sound,  eliminating unnecessary travel.

Abandoned and poorly maintained buildings convey to children that adults do not take responsibility for the physical environment.  The model for children is one of neglect and irresponsibility;  within such a context it is not worth caring about objects and possessions. Landlords and property owners neglecting their responsibility in maintaining a sufficient standard in low income housing, are creating an ugly urban environment which generates resentment in their young residents...

In an ugly, and fragmented neighborhood children “tune out” their environment and its messages.  The environment then has a deadening effect on emotional responsiveness and reactions.  This loss of sensitivity to the physical environment is reinforced when their social environment is also characterized by lack of caring, indifference, and often brutality of persons toward one another...

Beauty is not a purely subjective matter.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” means that it is up to the beholder to appreciate beauty, not that anything can be defined as beautiful.  But what are the characteristics of a beautiful city or town;  and is it possible that such beauty can have a benign influence on children?

We all believe that a rose, or a group of trees, or a horse is beautiful;  yet wherein lies this beauty?  Gregory Bateson, who pondered the characteristics of beauty more deeply than most, suggested certain principles  --  harmony in diversity,  proportion,  fit, and evidence of balanced growth.  These principles are as applicable to cities as they are to nature...

Cities aspiring to be “livable” must give priority to aesthetic considerations, and the creation of a meaningful physical environment.  The physical and social environment of cities are two aspects of the same reality.  Just as it was an error to maintain the body-mind dichotomy, so it is an error to think that city inhabitants can have a good, conflict-free civic and social life in an ugly and physically inhospitable city...

 

Accessibility, Mobility, Autonomy

Children have been increasingly excluded from the life of the city as traffic has made streets dangerous. Fear for their children’s safety prompts many parents to forbid them free mobility in the city.  The unwillingness to reduce speed limits, the lack of pedestrian routes, bicycle networks and public transportation send a signal to young people that their community does not care to make their city accessible  for them,  and restricts their autonomy in moving around their city until they reach driving age...

Any traffic policy that disrupts the easy flow of pedestrian movement limits a child’s opportunity to walk to school, to the playground, to the park, or to visit friends.  Very broad traffic arteries are especially dysfunctional because they are almost impossible for children to cross.  Over and over again we have watched children in Atlanta, Phoenix, San Jose and other American cities risk their lives trying to cross six and eight lane highways, where the widely dispersed traffic lights -- if they exist at all  --  are timed to traffic, not to pedestrian needs...

The greatest threat to children is from fast moving traffic.  Studies show that children have only a 50% survival rate when hit by a vehicle traveling at 30 mph.,  but a 90% survival rate if the vehicle is traveling at 18 mph...

A good system of bicycle lanes throughout the city permits fast and inexpensive access for young and old.  The bicycle lanes must be constructed as an interconnected network, carefully designed to avoid, as much as possible, crossing traffic lanes, and where this is inevitable, providing traffic lights and bicycle crossings that reduce the risk of accidents.  In the suburbs and at the city’s periphery,  where public transportation is not as frequent,  children are particularly dependent on their bicycle.

The safest streets for children are streets with many familiar adults,  and without automobiles.  To be usable for children the pedestrian network should be like a continuous spider’s web throughout the city, beginning at the door of the child’s home and extending throughout the city, uninterrupted by dangerous traffic crossings along pedestrian streets, alleys, wide sidewalks and squares.  Wherever possible this safe pedestrian network would run through mixed use areas.

Where traffic needs to cross this pedestrian network traffic lights should be timed to pedestrians, traffic speed limits should be reduced, sidewalks should be extended to reduce the number of traffic lanes to be crossed (“necking”), the pedestrian crossing should be distinctly different in colour and texture from the asphalt surface for vehicles, and should extend at the height of the sidewalk uninterrupted across traffic lanes, and gently ramped for traffic

Public Urban Places

The arrangement of a city’s public places,  it’s streets and squares, parks and organization of its neighborhoods influences the way in which people behave towards others.  Since children learn by observation and participation the social life that they observe in public teaches children how to relate to the full range of the city’s inhabitants.

In some cities public spaces are designed to accommodate sociable contact; in others they are designed with the clear expectation of destructive behavior.  In well designed, visually enclosed, safe and traffic calmed public spaces a rich and varied social life can take place;  the campi of Venice, the piazze of Siena, Padua, or dozens of other Italian cities, the market squares and traffic calmed streets throughout the Netherlands, Germany and Austria offer children the chance to observe how adults relate to each other, and practice in learning how to talk to people of different ages and from different walks of life.

By failing to create safe public spaces within multifunctional areas of the city where all inhabitants, old and young, poor and well-to-do may come together, children are denied the opportunity to observe and learn from varied models of adult relationships.  It is in the loss of shared experience that we lose the fundamentals of our humanity, our capacity for compassion.

The best public spaces for children and young people are multifunctional, large enough and articulated enough to host organized events such as farmers markets, impromptu events such as street performers, and adults and children in everyday social life.  The variety of people that one is likely to see on any one day, and the changing cast from day to day make the space fascinating for children, but also very instructive...

People are naturally gregarious and like to gather where others are present, but they need anchors, or focal points around which to cluster.  These focal points may be used by children as “home base”, or as a small private territory that they can make “theirs” for a while.

Free standing fountains, sculptures, planters, or bollards  --  objects that offer a place to sit, to lean, to play, to climb on  --  function well as magnets.  Water is always appealing, especially to young children:  it is important that fountains, pools and streams in the public space are accessible for children...

To encourage both adults and children to linger in the public space requires both formal and informal seating.  Many parents and grandparents take small children to a public space where the children can play within sight, while the adults meet friends and talk...

The social value of a public place derives from its ability to focus attention on the people and activities in the space, and to discourage the individual from “turning away” from others, whether to admire a view, or to hurry to another location.  This focusing of attention is facilitated by visual enclosure, by “walls” around the place that make it feel more like an outdoor room.  This creates a sense that one has arrived at one’s destination, that one need go no further...

It would seem logical to assume that the primary gathering places for all the city’s inhabitants would be in the city center, and that these places would, therefore, provide the greatest potential for social learning.  This is true for many European cities.  But in most North American cities the few public spaces that do exist in the city center are in purely commercial areas, or between office buildings:  at lunch time, they are filled only with adults, and they become deserted at night.  These spaces do not include children in the social life of the city...

For North American cities the task is complex:  to restore a mixed income residential population and a mixture of uses,  but also to carve out new public places to serve these social functions.  The omnipresent grid plan makes it difficult to create an enclosed urban space to serve as the city’s “heart”.  Moreover, there are generally few unused sites available where a public place is needed most -- at the city’s liveliest and most central location.

A city may, therefore, have no choice but to create a place out of a central street block.  This may mean that the main shopping street, or the street adjacent to city hall, the public library, or other historic landmark buildings must be selected to serve this social function.  In this case, not only must the problem of visual enclosure and traffic reduction be resolved, but also building uses may have to be adjusted to accommodate a residential population, including children, and the support services they need, to ensure the social success of the place.

Information Technology and Children

We know from past experience that every new technology is at first over promoted.  It should be obvious that new technologies always carry both benefits and risks.  There is always too little attention to the long term,  unintended, but nonetheless real consequences of each new technology.  Few anticipated that the automobile could damage the natural landscape and alter the life of city inhabitants, but the overwhelming accommodation to the needs of the automobile has been a major obstacle to making cities hospitable and livable. Nuclear technology is another example where initially, scientists did not anticipate the significant risks to humans and to the ecology as a consequence of radiation and problems of disposing of nuclear waste...

We mention these examples because the lesson still has not been learned that the effects of each new technology are more multiple and complex than initially assumed.  In the case of the new information technologies, these may involve a wide range of human functions and processes...

We all share a responsibility to consider seriously its social and even moral implications of information technology, especially when the technology is hailed as ushering in a new millennium in the history of mankind, and when it will affect every facet of our lives, and especially the lives of children...

What are some of the consequences that concern us?

Communication in cyberspace lacks the immediate authentic encounter of person to person where each experiences the presence of the other.  When we speak with people in face to face settings there is a great deal of information available to evaluate the meaning and intent of words. We observe facial expression, body posture and body movements.  We hear volume, inflection, timbre and tone of voice.  We receive many cues about social and cultural background;  and importantly, we overlap in real time -- that is, we witness a response while we speak, and can modify or adjust our communication accordingly...

It is conceivable that children and young people raised with the new technology will consequently become less skilled in the recognition of subtle forms of human communication, especially irony, sarcasm, and human communication, especially irony, sarcasm, and sometimes humor involve more than one communicational mode.  It is frequently the incongruity among these different modalities that conveys the more subtle message.  Will the expression and understanding of more subtle forms of human exchange diminish? ..

Love, affection, approval -- confirmation of self esteem -- are frequently communicated,  especially for children and young people,  by non-verbal means, by touch, facial expression, tone of voice, a smile, a pat, an embrace, a kind word softly spoken!

There are clear limits to computer communication as a substitute for conveying esteem, approbation, and confirmation of one’s worth, especially for younger children...

Social learning ordinarily occurs through observation and imitation of adults skilled in relating to other human beings...

Before the advent of information technology, Jane Jacobs, the wise student of city life, had pointed out that it is only in real life experience in shared public places that essential social learning may occur.  “In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn -- if they learn at all -- the first fundamentals of successful city life;  people must take a modicum of responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”..

It is in the “real” city that children become acculturated and full members of their community by participating in all aspects of the life of their city, by being with diverse people, young and old, similar and dissimilar from themselves.  They learn the human competencies, the social skills, through contact with diverse people;  and the value of caring, responsibility and trust by observing them enacted over and over again!..

In this chapter we have considered a few of the  broader consequences of a new technology, that affects the range of human behavior and social processes.

We do not question the many uses of the new technology for scientific and commercial purposes, for access to information and date bases.  But we are skeptical of those who pronounce cyberspace a virtual city world, capable of serving all of the human and social functions of a real city for its inhabitants, especially for its children.

Meaning in the Urban Environment

In studies of dysfunctional families words such as “impervious” occur frequently.  Lyman Wynne comments that in such families it is not customary to acknowledge or confirm each other.  Children are not responded to, but rather ignored.  Their initiatives and attempts at independence are discouraged.

Remarkably, descriptions of the contemporary urban environment are analogous to descriptions of dysfunctional families:  impervious family interaction is echoed by the impenetrability of buildings for children, their hard, unresponsive architecture,  the barriers to accessibility and mobility,  and the environmental restrictions and control exercised over children’s lives.

For too many children, life in many modern cities and towns might well be compared to growing up in a dysfunctional family.  Developers and architects construct buildings often irrespective of the character of adjacent buildings or local traditions.  The dialogue among buildings, that in traditional cityscapes echoed one another in scale, choice of materials and in building elements,  is now one of fragmentation and discontinuity.  Buildings and the spaces created between them rarely represent an “ensemble”;  they do not relate to each other in such a way as to make a meaningful whole...

Much of the urban environment of too many cities and towns represents a form of sensory deprivation for children, with little to engage their curiosity, fantasy or affection.  As the distinguished biologist Rene Dubos warned, “Young people raised in a featureless environment are likely to suffer from a kind of deprivation that will cripple them intellectually and emotionally.”. .

For life in the city to be a meaningful experience --  for adults as well as for children  --  the city’s built environment, it’s form and organization must be understandable.  The city as a whole must have a shape that is understandable;  each neighborhood within the city must be identifiable, and with its own characteristic physical landscape and landmarks.

How We See Each Other

What people assume about the nature and character of human beings, and how they perceive each other affects how they act towards each other.  These images and assumptions also have consequences for the quality of city life, and most especially influences the well-being of children...

Descriptions of persons then become prescriptions for behavior!  Descriptions of others as stupid,  dangerous or untrustworthy have implications for how we act towards them.  These descriptions become self-fulfilling prophesies.   They are reflected in planning and architecture that makes it possible for urban dwellers to avoid each other.  The media amplify negative images and portray cities as threatening and dangerous places.  Even when cities are relatively healthy they are not immune from disruptive effects of such negative images,  especially images of unfamiliar persons and strangers.  Fear of others has implications for the way cities are designed,  whether or not urban public spaces are encouraged,  whether street life is encouraged, and therefore whether city centers are populated or deserted…

The proliferation of segregated housing areas in America’s cities and suburbs, often with limited infrastructure, few cultural and social resources, has a damaging effect on children’s lives,  restricting their autonomy and their ability to participate in diverse forms of city life.  Parents are especially afraid for their children and figuratively or literally keep children on a leash.  As families withdraw into suburban communities or are forced into urban ghettos,  the life space of children diminishes even further...

We suggest that concern with dangers to children from adults is diminished whenever there is a great deal of contact among a city’s inhabitants;  where there are lively public places;  where the public domain offers many opportunities for a flourishing social life which children share with adults;  and where people are known, or at least are familiar to each other!...

We cannot conclude a discussion of images and values without calling attention to the idea of the “violent child”, that has become fashionable in the media and public policy discussion.

Children involved in such violent and destructive behavior are often described as “monsters”:  the public is outraged and demands severe penalties.  Public policy and professional discussions are focused on the violent child, and the phenomenon of “children killing children”.  Too often missing from reactions of outrage is any sense of who is responsible.  Unless we believe in “inborn evil”, in the “bad seed”, we must ask how such violence and destructiveness came about.

All that transforms an infant into a social human being is acquired through exposure to, and interaction with adults, and with the social and physical world that surrounds the child since birth...

All elements of the child’s environment, both social and physical, contribute to social learning.  The experience and observation of how adults act towards one another are crucial.  The behavior of adults to the child then becomes a model for the child.  A society that accepts adults who mistreat children, or who use violence towards them, cannot be surprised if children learn to act violently.  Communities that ignore, or neglect children, that are not a source of caring and affection for their young (as indeed, animal communities are) likewise cannot be surprised if children lack compassion for others.

Passages from The Forgotten Child : Cities for the Well-Being of Children

Henry L. Lennard
Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

A Gondolier Press Book
published by the
International Making Cities Livable Council

Copyright 1999
Henry L. Lennard & Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard