Josh Fullan on ‘The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children’ – For kids, the lure of the street isn’t what it used to be

My favourite line from Chapter 4 on assimilating children into the uses of sidewalks is not by Jacobs but from a 1928 report on city recreation by the Regional Plan Association of New York. The excerpted report tellingly describes one of the main challenges of keeping city children in parks and playgrounds, where planners would prefer they stay in their leisure time: “The lure of the street is a strong competitor.”  The carnival of the street and its gritty sidewalks, in the eyes of the report’s authors, are clearly a dangerous and dissolute place to be avoided by and spared from children. What good could possibly come from children playing on sidewalks?

The answer, of course, as Jacobs reveals in her observational-evidential style, is plenty of good. Little eyes on the street beget bigger eyes on the street. As children play on sidewalks, they naturally engage the attention of surrounding adults. It doesn’t matter whether the attention is watchful or incidental, adoring or disapproving, from a porch or through store window, just so long as the people giving the attention are there in the first place and “take a modicum of responsibility for each other.” The right sidewalk is a lively and protected place for even a city’s most vulnerable population—kids under the age of 15—while secluded, underpopulated parks and planned playgrounds are easily more threatening or illicit.

The problem with applying this to the behaviour of kids these days is, well, kids these days. They are no longer just squeezed out of street life by planners and engineers as Chapter 4 rightly tells us, but their leisure time is also much more heavily programmed, scheduled, and cybernated. The lure of the street now has a troupe of new competitors for kids’ time and attention in the form of lessons, sports, clubs, and social media.

Sisters Screen Time by Jeremy Hiebert

Indeed, the child’s world of 1950s New York that Jacobs describes at times feels closer to Oliver Twist than it does to 2012 Toronto. Threat and temptation lie around every corner and lurk in every park in Chapter 4, and children have heaps of unsupervised idle time to go exploring. How many modern kids or parents would recognize this world? Streets now are both less dangerous and less enticing as the busy lives of modern kids mimic the busy lives of their parents. And since a wall of technology has been erected between kids and the street, the precious time they do “waste” isn’t spent playing on sidewalks.

Muddy Fun in Dufferin Grove Park by Christine Urias

It’s also worth noting that progress has been made in the contrived and underused Garden City play spaces that Jacobs rails against in Chapter 4. We are doing a better job with these and other successful planned public play spaces in downtown Toronto. Dufferin Grove in the west end, Sibelius Park in the Annex, and Rose Avenue field in St. James Town are all safe and well-used by children.  They are justifiably celebrated for the vibrancy and mix of populations they attract.

Worth taking away from Chapter 4 are Jacobs’ broader points that children need a variety of places in which to play, including sidewalks, and that it is foolish to try to compartmentalize children’s play in parks and playgrounds. A sidewalk will always be the first best option for kids’ play, and a wide, well-used sidewalk is even better since if “sidewalks on a street are sufficiently wide, play flourishes mightily right along with other uses.” How wide is sufficiently wide? The upper end of the range of ideal sidewalk widths Jacobs describes (over 10 metres) are a fantasy for most of our streets, and would blow up a document like the City of Toronto’s Vibrant Streets Guidelines with its pedestrian clearways of a couple of metres. But a narrower sidewalk will do just fine provided it has those key Jacobsian elements of a successful neighbourhood—vibrancy, stability, and people who care even a little.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. I just wanted to say that I live near Dufferin Groves and used to live near Jean Sibelius Park, and I’m always amazed by the variety and intensity of uses at these locations. I find Dufferin Groves particularly impressive, given how large it feels. Admittedly, Jean Sibelius felt a bit secluded at night, but most parks do unless they have very nearby businesses open late.

    1. Josh Fullan says:

      Nathan,

      Thanks for your comments. Both of those parks are so well designed and programmed that they have become “desitnation parks” for people across the city. I met a mother from North Toronto who brings her kids to the Sibelius because there is nothing like it in her neighbourhood. I have also heard of Annex kids who prefer a trip to Sibelius to going to the movies when given the choice. Dufferin Grove draws even more people from further afield because of its size and multiple uses.

      Amazing what a good park can accomplish for a neighbourhood.

      Josh

  2. Tim Gill says:

    I agree with your points about how Jacobs’ analysis may need to be revised for the 21st century. But – as with your co-commenter for this chapter – for my money you don’t take enough notice of the impact of traffic. You say “streets now are… less dangerous” – I doubt that. There may be fewer children being hurt on them – but that’s largely because there are fewer children on them to be hurt. Road danger – in other words, the basic threat caused by the volume and speed of motor traffic – is undoubtedly higher than in Jacobs’ time. The really interesting question is this: can we create a better balance in streets between the needs of car drivers and others, especially children? For one inspirational answer to this question, take a look at this website.

    1. Josh Fullan says:

      Agreed with your points about traffic but there is almost no (perhaps even zero AFAIR) explicit mention of traffic in Chapter 4. This was likely intentional since there is a later very long chapter that deals with cars and traffic, including their impact on children’s play on sidewalks:

      Even for children the point may be less to segregate the cars than to reduce the domination by cars and combat the erosion of sidewalk play space by cars. It would, of course, be ideal to dispose of cars entirely on city streets where children play; but worse troubles still are harvested if this means disposing of the other utilitarian purposes of sidewalks, and along with them, supervision. (348)

      Your points about the volume and speed of traffic and their impact on street safety are also covered in Chapter 18. Again, I totally agree. My line about streets being safer now refers to declining crime rates rather than traffic safety. It might be interesting to revisit this discussion once the blog post goes up for Chapter 18. The topic is a bit of a political football over here since this chapter can easily be read as a manifesto for “The War on the Car.”

      Excellent website, btw.

      Josh

  3. Fascinating analysis of parenting/childhood changes since Jacobs wrote her masterpiece. I’ve been a huge fan of the book, despite having lived in a small-town/rural area this past decade. Even in small towns, kids aren’t exactly “free range” any more, and parents keep their leashes very short. Agreed that kids have more regimented lives now, with screen time filling in the limited gaps.

    I sure appreciate the clear photo credit and proper link back (people rarely do it right). It’s because of great posts like this that I put Creative Commons licenses on my pictures — it connects me in unexpected ways to interesting people and conversations.

    1. Thanks for giving your photo a Creative Commons license! It illustrated this post so well; we really appreciated it. 🙂

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