How Cars Destroy the Wilderness of Childhood

It’s the height of summer, the stretch of endless lazy days when — at least in the American dreamworld — kids hunt for adventure in packs through the shimmering heat. A time when they make their own fun. A time of bicycles and improvised games and ice cream, of luxuriant boredom and the discovery it makes possible.

Except that all around the country, from rural communities to tree-lined suburbs to city streets, parents are wary of letting their kids roam at all. Some adults fear the prospect of stranger abduction, a risk that is actually statistically tiny.

But many more keep their kids close by because of the threat posed by car traffic, which is is very real and virtually omnipresent. Today on the Streetsblog Network, member blog Sprawled Out, from Franklin, Wisconsin, talks about "The Lost Wilderness of Childhood," and the role of the automobile in its destruction:

25387704_16e7a0ea09_m.jpgReady for adventure. Photo from gregor_y via Flickr.

Another sad victim of suburban non-planning is the ability of our children to enjoy the freedom of wandering a "territory" of their own. Our children now need to be escorted via car to pretty much every event in their lives. Even the occasional decently sidewalked subdivision is enclosed by wall-of-China collector roads that are impassible and limit safe travel.

A few nights ago the local news featured the story of a child hit by a car in a nearby suburb. A neighbor pointed out the road it happened on: a typically winding, wide, pedal-to-the-metal subdivision speedway. The kid made the mistake of riding his bike a few hundred yards from his house in the hostile environment we currently embrace.

There was talk of an ice cream shop going into Andy’s on Rawson and 51st (still planned, as far as I know). Sadly, it’s a horrible idea — who would let their child travel there independently, crossing 51st or Rawson? Yet, there it will likely stand, beckoning for — cars. We will drive our children there, and they will have their ice cream under our sheltering eyes.

John Michlig, Sprawled Out’s author, quotes from a beautiful article by Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books this
month called "The Wilderness of Childhood," in which the writer talks about going for a bike ride with his daughter at the height of summer:

What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

I’m lucky to live on a block in New York where kids ride their scooters up and down the sidewalk late into the night. They form their own tribes. They’ve even convinced themselves that one of the houses is haunted. It’s a small stretch of childhood wilderness, but one that suffices for my seven-year-old — for now. The sad thing is how rare even this tiny slice of freedom is.

What’s sadder still is how many parents in cities — where living without a car is a relatively easy choice to make — lament the situation, then strap the kids into their carseats and turn the key in the ignition. And drive down streets where other kids are trying to play.

Want to explore the possibility of creating more safety and freedom for kids? Take a look at the Safe Routes to Schools website. It’s a place to start, anyway.

More highlights from the network: Grieve-Smith on Transportation finds a demotorized haven (well, almost) on New York’s Governors Island; DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner says we can’t blame China for air pollution on the West Coast; and Bike Blog NYC has a link to a story about Kenyans who charge their cellphones while they pedal.

  • I’m remembering that when I was a kid, a friend of mine who lived a block over had a little brother who was killed just playing in the street. Run over by a car. No one talked about it in terms of livable streets or ways to make sure this kind of thing didn’t happen. The discussion was quickly of how the motorist was not at fault–which may very well have been the case, but none of the adults I ever heard talk about it mentioned that it might have something to do with the way this technology is designed, unregulated, how the street is constructed..

    I’m reminded of an excellent though macabre poem by Seamus Heaney.

    – Justin

    Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney

    I sat all morning in the college sick bay
    Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
    At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

    In the porch I met my father crying–
    He had always taken funerals in his stride–
    And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

    The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
    When I came in, and I was embarrassed
    By old men standing up to shake my hand

    And tell me they were “sorry for my trouble,”
    Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
    Away at school, as my mother held my hand

    In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
    At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
    With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

    Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
    And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
    For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

    Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
    He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
    No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

    A four foot box, a foot for every year.

  • I \v/ NY

    i cant stop recommending the book “fighting traffic”, it is the story of how the auto stole the streets from all other uses, how the motoring industry redefined the role of the street and put the blame on pedestrians for being in the street. it is an absolute must read for anyone on this blog.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0262141000/

  • oscarfrye
  • There’s much more to this than just cars. I grew up in an entirely car-dependent neighborhood, but in the eighties it was still perfectly common to let your kids roam around town all day unsupervised, which is exactly what I did. I don’t know precisely why my generation, who are now raising young kids, have decided to overprotect them so much. But it can’t be (just) out of fear of automobile carnage.

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