Thursday, 21 March 2013

Where have all the children gone?

Posted on National Trust Outdoor Nation blog on 21 March 2013

I’m not yet 40, but when I was growing up I fondly remember playing in the street with my neighbours, kicking a ball, running around, riding our bikes – even splashing in puddles. I’m not being nostalgic – everyday wasn’t summer, but we did have carefree play; we had a taste of freedom, independence and risk. We could leave the house from our front door straight into our own playground.

My children do not play on the street, even though we live in a quite cul-de-sac. As a parent I am scared.

What’s changed? Well the pictures below – the same street from a Valleys community in Wales half a century apart – tell a better story than any words can.

The first thing that strikes me is that there are no children in the modern pictures. Come to think of it how often do we see children playing in the street? Do you hear them laughing?

What’s changed? Cars, plenty of them, moving quickly. Our communities are no longer places where people, and children, come first - instead the car has become king. Speeding traffic now blights many of our residential communities, meaning parents feel the need to keep their children inside and occupied with television or computer games.

Childhood obesity is costing the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds every year and our lack of physical activity increases the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and some cancers.

Whereas once we used our local shops on an almost daily basis, we now load up at the supermarket, which is bad for our high streets and the local economy, including local farmers.

This change doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of modern life. Of course, we won’t go back to how things were in the 50s and 60s, but we can change our streets for the better to make them places where children can feel safe to play, to ride a bike and to meet their neighbours.

Already we are seeing more communities calling for 20mph limits across residential communities. A child hit by a car at 20mph has a 95% chance of surviving, but hit at 35mph and there is an over 50% chance they’ll die. This one change alone could make our streets safer for play once again.

However, these lower limits must be enforced by the police. Giving evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Enquiry to ‘Get Britain Cycling’, the Association of Chief Police Officers said they weren’t minded to enforce 20mph. Over the coming days they tried to clarify their position, but the worry for many communities is that the police aren’t on their side when it comes to speeding traffic. That will need to change.

We can also redesign our streets. Sustrans’ own DIY Streets programme is just one example of how communities come together to reallocate space in their area, adding greenery, benches and new road markings to show that the street is a place for people – and for play.
We must also make sure we have safe routes for walking and cycling linking local communities and linking people from where they live to the places they need to go: local shops, schools, jobs, leisure centres. Here Wales is leading the way, with the publication this year of the Active Travel Bill, which will place a legal duty on local authorities to provide a safe network of routes.

But across the UK as a whole too little is being done and our communities are poorer for it. We can change our streets for the better. If we don’t, we’ll never hear the sound of children playing on the street again.

Lee Waters is the National Director of Sustrans Cymru. He has two young children who he wishes could play outside more than they currently do. Previously he worked for ITV Wales as Chief Political Correspondent and prior to that as a BBC Producer.

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