Heather Ann Kaldeway on ‘The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children’

The lesson that city dwellers have to take responsibility for what goes on in city streets is taught again and again to children on sidewalks which enjoy a local public life. They can absorb it astonishingly early. They show they have absorbed it by taking it for granted that they, too, are part of the management. They volunteer (before they are asked) directions to people who are lost; they tell a man he will get a ticket if he parks where he thinks he is going to park; they offer unsolicited advice to the building superintendent to use rock salt instead of a chopper to attack the ice. The presence or absence of this kind of street bossiness in city children is a fairly good tip-off to the presence or absence of responsible adult behavior toward the sidewalk and the children who use it.

— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Chapter 4: The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children

In September 2010, my partner and I travelled to the Balkans and quite unexpectedly fell deeply in love with Sarajevo. It was walkable, friendly, and had the most reliably amazing coffee, ice cream, and cake I had tasted in quite some time. I highly recommend it.

One of the most startling things that Sarajevo showed me about Toronto was how deeply “stranger danger” and fears for our children’s safety has affected our sidewalk cultures. In Sarajevo, I could not detect this fear which I have come to take for granted.

'Sebilj Fountain' by Tracy Ma

Sarajevo is the type of city that turns your head, slows your step, and asks you to sit for a while — preferably with an espresso. One afternoon, I spent a long while sitting at Sebilj Fountain, a public water fountain nicknamed “the pigeon square”, watching street dogs romp and play and the crowds ebb and flow.

I was surprised to see parents let their toddlers run across the square through a crowd to play with the dogs. I fully expected the parents to run along behind them, calling to be careful on the cobblestone street. I expected cautions about playing with strange dogs and strange men. These cautions never came. In fact, the parents seemed entirely unconcerned about it.

'feeding pigeons in Sebilj Square (Pigeon Square)' by Jennifer Boyer

Instead, I saw children who felt at home in the streets. I saw strangers who were able to help a child who had fallen, without fear that they shouldn’t be interacting with a stranger’s child. I saw parents let their young children wander a long way, aware that the strangers around them would come to the child’s aid if needed.

I do not have children myself, but my partner and I have the privilege of spending time each week with two young Torontonians. Here is my partner with our friend Ada (now five years old) in Toronto’s Kensington Market:

When I returned home from Sarajevo, I remember walking through Toronto Pearson International Airport and thinking “Well, we certainly couldn’t let Ada run around freely here. It’s much too busy!” But I quickly realised that the square in Sarajevo was just as busy, just as full of strangers. Not only that, many Sarajevans my age survived a 3-year siege in the early 90s — my childhood was much safer than theirs. My city’s parks have not been converted into cemeteries as theirs have.

So what is it about my neighbourhood that makes me reluctant to let Ada run on our sidewalks? My local park is full of well-socialized dogs romping and playing, owners watching closely, and I would still be nervous to let her play freely with them as I saw children do in Sarajevo.

Originally, I suspected that this was a town/city difference and that I was nervous because I grew up in a village and am now in a city. In Chapter 2, Jane writes,

“[Cities] differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers…  The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among these strangers. He must not feel automatically menaced by them.”

As I mentioned in my post about Chapter 2, I feel safe in my neighbourhood due to the intensity of the ‘eyes on the street’ effect here. As I thought about this chapter, I realised that I don’t think about ‘stranger danger’ for myself most of the time in Toronto — just for kids. Sarajevo showed me that this is not a default thing: it is possible to feel safe enough in a city to let kids run around a bit in a crowd of strangers. Emma Williams also wrote about the effect of varying levels of stranger danger as she raised her kids in New York City, Senegal, Jerusalem, and Belgrade. Toronto is not more dangerous than any of these places, but it is more wary.

Here are some questions this chapter sparked for me:

  • What is the effect of this wariness on children? How does it affect their sense of ownership of the city, or their knowledge of adjacent neighbourhoods?
  • What is the effect on us as parents? Does this wariness isolate us at a time when we need support?
  • Jane writes that “The myth that … city streets, filled with ordinary people, are innately evil for children boils down to a deep contempt for ordinary people.” How does this affect our capacity for civic pride and civic engagement?

I think these are the kinds of questions Jane is pointing at when she writes,

In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn—if they learn it at all—the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public responsibility for you…

It is a lesson that parents, by themselves, are powerless to teach. If parents take minor public responsibility for strangers or neighbors in a society where nobody else does, this simply means that the parents are embarrassingly different and meddlesome, not that this is the proper way to behave. Such instruction must come from the society itself, and in cities, if it comes, it comes almost entirely during the time children spend at incidental play on the sidewalks.

This ties extremely strongly to the importance of casual contact on our sidewalks, but it requires something more: the inclusion of children in that casual contact. How can we encourage this in our cities, particularly when we have such strong fears for their safety?

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Kristin says:

    I find that my worries are not about stranger danger – I know how unlikely it is that any stranger will harm my kid – rather I worry about other people swooping in and at the very least judging me, and at the worst taking it upon themselves to interfere. My experience in our local ‘hoods in Toronto is that people are usually looking out for your kids, especially if they’ve made some connection.

    Teaching your kids not to speak to strangers prevents them from connecting them with helpful and caring adults in public places. For every person I’ve met who was rude or inconsiderate I’ve met 100 that were friendly and kind. If we didn’t strike up conversations with strangers I would not have had that experience.

  2. Auntie Anne says:

    I wrote a great load , but it all got lost because I did something wrong. I am tired and cannot get it together now to repeat my comment. Sorry! XX

  3. David Tittle says:

    It’s interesting that you find Sarajevo so much more free for chidren. When we are in Toronto I just marvel that there are schools whereby the grounds are open and just merge seemlessly into a park or that in Old Stockholm I saw a primary schoool whose playground was just open to the street. Here in the UK all schools have now been surroundde by 6ft high spiky metal fencing with because of paranioa about attacks on children.

    1. I marvel at those porous schoolyards too, particularly because they are disappearing. We have quite a few schools in my neighbourhood which are beside public parks, but which have a fence between the playground and the park. There’s a junior school up the road from me which has No Trespassing signs all over it. We also have several parks with one fenced-off area for dogs and another fenced-off area for kids.

      My partner grew up in a small town in Ontario and is hearing from former classmates who are now teachers at the same elementary school about the new rules about picking kids up from the school. Adults need to sign in and be on the list of people allowed to pick the child up, and they must document why they’re doing so if it’s not the usual pick-up time. Lots of regulations that didn’t exist when we were kids! Clearly this is needed sometimes (e.g. your kid’s father is abusive and doesn’t have custody for good reasons), but it locks everything down and everyone is viewed as a potential threat. It also means that I could not pick up my friend’s kid if she was sick — I’m not on the list.

      I feel like we’re painting ourselves into a corner here by letting stranger danger determine our policies, but I have no idea what we should do instead.

  4. JPaulson says:

    For those of you that think that perhaps “Stranger Danger” has become an over-blown cultural phenomenon I highly recommend the Free Range Kids blog. It was started by a mother who let her 9 year old son ride the subway home alone, and was subsequently dubbed “America’s Worst Mom”:

    Read the FAQ, and subscribe to the email list.

    1. I thought about that story a lot when writing this. I first discovered it on MetaFilter, and found the comments there really interesting. It was striking to me how many people shared stories of taking risks as kids and figuring their way out of it, and how much they value the opportunity to develop keen street smarts.

      I particularly liked this comment, which illustrates the need for eyes on the street so well:

      One of the things I remember from my childhood was the abundance of kids running around doing whatever they pleased. Sometimes we played by ourselves but usually had a sibling or friends to take along. And also, you could be 100% certain that if you were doing something wrong the nosy neighbor lady would be on the phone to your parents somewhere down the line.

      What I think makes people feel like the world is less safe is a lack of community. It’s hard to know your neighbors in a lot of cities. It seems like people keep to themselves much more than they did when I was younger.

      And if you are the type to let your kids go “free range”, sometimes there aren’t very many other kids for them to roam around with. That also takes away one of the things that probably kept us safer. The bigger kids looked out for the smaller kids and we were also being watched by the adults who were around, even if we didn’t know it.

  5. Tim Gill says:

    Your post nicely picked out some highlights in what is for me a seminal piece of writing on children and cities. However, I am surprised you do not discuss the impact of traffic (a key concern of Jacobs herself, of course). I believe that traffic growth and car dependence are the key factors that have led to the loss of children’s independent mobility. The car culture directly and indirectly feeds fear and anxiety about children’s presence in streets and public spaces. I expand on this theme in this blog post of mine. Other factors come into play too. But if you look at international comparisons with cities like those in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany (where it is still common to see children walking or cycling without adults even at the age of 6 or 7) it is clear that these cities have been designed to strike a beter balance between the needs of car drivers and others.

    1. Interesting, thanks for pointing that out! Traffic completely slipped my mind, and I’m not sure why. In fact, that street in Sarajevo where I observed kids playing was a pedestrian-only street, a factor which I hadn’t considered until now.

      My friends with kids here generally don’t have cars, and I don’t either, but I also don’t bike much. (Many Torontonians do bike, but I’m a scaredy-cat!) In the Netherlands, I would be much more comfortable with it — both for myself and for kids.

  6. Tom Cohen says:

    I too just went (back) to Sarajevo, a wonderful place where, long ago, wandering the Balkans alone, in 1962, I first heard a muezzin call, a real human without a mike, from a minaret. Sarajevo was lovely, and still is, even if horridly scarred. I did not notice the kid street life but believe it well, and certainly have seen the seven-year-olds, hand in hand, in Helsinki, walking down a city street. I brought up 2 kids in Toronto in the seventies and they roamed the street with friends, traffic or no; it was still natural, despite the cars. I cycle and walk Toronto now, and am amazed by the disappearance of children, from parks, from sidewalks, from front yards, from back yards, from the super market, from, well, just everything. But kids have also vanished from the countryside, from small towns, from farms, from the entire outdoors. I look for them, just to see if it is so. I took the train from New York to Boston and played a game: spot a child, anywhere besides inside a car. There were some on a beach in Connecticut, but otherwise, only one, the whole trip. My university students have grown up indoors. A class of mine could not tell me the colour of starlings. I swear. Some of this is stranger danger, some of it a weird disconnect between young persons and their real, as versus virtual, surroundings; even when out, so many are plugged in to elsewhere. I chair a very activist residents’ association, EPRA, at Yonge and Eglinton, where developers are keen to build big buildings, condos, and commercial complexes, and we are pushing “kid-friendly” as one of several criteria for good design, alongside “green” and “memorious” and “ergonomic” and “disabled-friendly” and “interesting and stimulating to the mind” and so on. Amidst stranger-danger, we also have also a kind of oblivion, re kids, in the design of private spaces for general public use. So fear of public spaces (stranger danger) and “risk management” — developers fearing a lawsuit if a kid scrapes a knee in the mall — both inhibit creative thinking about making the city into a space where small humans can learn to be citizens, members of society, and observers, testers, and controllers of their real surroundings. All solutions are welcome!

    1. Oh, I am so jealous that you got to see Sarajevo before the siege — I would have loved to have visited before then. And the muezzin calls: Such a lovely way to mark the stages of the day. I need to go back there again someday.

      I too wonder where the children have gone. When I started preparing to write this post, back in early January, I decided to go for a walk to find some (unsupervised) kids under 12 out and about in my neighbourhood. Two hours later, I had only spotted one — and he was in the park, with two teenagers (a brother?) watching over him.

      My 5-year-old friend Ada lives in Roncesvalles and there are tons of kids out and about there. I really started noticing the lack of kids on my neighbourhood’s streets by noticing their constant presence in Roncy.

      EPRA’s criteria for good design sound fantastic!

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