Kids, actually

I’m relatively new to Twitter, and most of my tweets get (and deserve) very little attention. I’m happy if I get a handful of likes, and retweets are unexpected. But a couple of my recent tweets have gone out of control.

This one was retweeted over 240 times:

which felt like a lot, until this one, which has had over 1,300 likes and nearly 800 retweets:

The common denominator in each tweet? Street design and children’s independence. I think that touched a nerve, in both instances. It’s certainly an issue that has touched a nerve in me.

I took the top photo of the Cutester and her friend after we had travelled between the girls’ streets, which are about a mile apart but connected by the lovely new infrastructure on the A105, to go to the park and the shops. This was not, I hasten to add, my idea. The friend had been given a new bike for Christmas and was desperate to try it out. They both had pocket money they wanted to spend on tat on the high street, so why not? I came along to make sure they were cycling safely, but I was a bit of a spare part. We’ve since had a (free) cycling skills session from an Enfield cycling instructor, and after their next session (on roads), I will be happy for them to hit the cycle lanes without my help.

So my tweet simply made the point that the cycle lanes are granting a 10 and 11-year-old some freedom that they didn’t have before. No way would it have occured to either of them to pootle up and down Enfield’s A105 in its previous manifestation. Here’s the same section of the A105 on Palmers Green as in the photo of the girls above, before the scheme was constructed.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 17.13.51

Where would you like a couple of 10-year-olds to cycle in this picture? On the pavement? Not welcome. In the ‘door zone’ alongside the parked cars? No thanks. In primary position on the road? Not likely!

I’m sure you’d like to see the updated version of the high street again:

Ffion Daisy on bikes

That’s more like it. Less space for driving (keeps speeds down, has not caused congestion), space for parking, space for pedestrians, and space for two girls who just want a bit of freedom to ride their bikes.

This vision of two British kids on what looks like Dutch-style infrastructure – riding without helmets – attracted a lot of love on Twitter. Is this really possible in the UK? Look what we can do in our own town or country! (tagging in various local authorities). Look how great it is for children’s freedom!

Then a couple of days ago I fired off the other tweet because I was exasperated. Children’s obesity levels were in the news again – following last year’s revelations that ONE IN THREE UK 11-year-olds are overweight or obese – and once again the press focused exclusively on diet. Yes, I know there is a connection between what you eat and how much you weigh. I know our diets are unhealthy in this country. But there was nothing I could find discussing another great big root of the problem: traffic and street design. Our streets are ‘obesogenic’ (isn’t that a great word?) – even more so if you live in a deprived part of the country or are living on a low income. They generate obesity, because so much space is given to traffic to the exclusion of walking or cycling. Especially for children.

Of course street design isn’t the only source of the problem, but it’s the most ignored one. I did a very brief Google search about obesity rates across Europe. Lo and behold, Dutch youngsters are the least obese of them all. Could there be any connection between Dutch street design, which allows kids to walk, cycle and play independently from a young age, and low childhood obesity?

Unlike the 12-year-old data I hastily tweeted, the following stats are 8 years old:

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 12.11.49 NLD stands for Netherlands. Their kids were still the least overweight in Europe in 2010.

Yes, you can give me lots of reasons for that. But the fact is, this is how the vast majority of Dutch secondary school kids get to school:

Dutch school run…because the design of Dutch streets makes cycling the natural choice for those journeys. How many journeys can we say that about in the UK, especially when we’re talking about school children?


And yet, to add insult to injury, this is what Dutch kids have for breakfast:

Dutch chocolate sprinkles

Thank you to @eddebeket for this image

(I’ve learnt a lot about chocolate sprinkles over the last 48 hours, much of which I’ve spent trying to say hagelslag with a Dutch accent).

– Side note from daughter: you don’t want to hear it! –

Thank you, Redster, that’ll teach me to leave my laptop unattended.

All this interest in what good street design can achieve – independence for kids, healthy active travel, reduced risk of childhood obesity – has reminded me why I got into this campaigning lark in the first place. It was the kids, actually. It was listening to Mayer Hillman at a London Play conference at City Hall in 2014 say those devastating words: children have lost their freedom. It was standing on the Millennium Bridge afterwards, facing the lit-up dome of St Paul’s in the dark, and sensing that the heartache I felt over how children are ignored, devalued on the streets of this great city – I can’t think how else to put this – was an even greater ache in the heart of God.

Later I read a report that linked children’s freedom to travel independently with their well-being. Children’s Independent Mobility: An International Comparison (Policy Studies Institute, 2015) surveyed 16 countries and found that “there is a positive correlation between Unicef well-being scores and the rank scores measuring children’s degree of freedom to travel and play without adult supervision in these countries”.

I love the report’s recommendations (Mayer Hillman was a contributing author). I put the first three into a slide, for a seminar I’m taking part in next week:

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 21.10.06

Number three, in particular, should be tattooed on the retinas of all Department for Transport staff. It might more accurately say ‘Put the needs of children *not cars* at the heart of spatial planning’. Imagine a city where that was actually put into practice. Or read this article by the wonderful Laura Laker, on cities that have put that into practice in various ways (the first example, Tirana, made me cry).

This week’s experience has re-focused my campaigning thoughts back onto children. This is who it’s all for – those too young to come to shouty public meetings or fill in consultations or write to the local paper. And as an ‘indicator species’ for healthy streets, focusing on children is the way to benefit the rest of us: ‘Public spaces that work for children, work for everyone.’

5 thoughts on “Kids, actually

  1. I feel the same. It reminds me of the Pied Piper fairy tale. We are a much reduced culturally and socially when kids can no longer play and grow on our streets. It is a form of nihilism when children are not at the heart of our cities. Because children ARE our future.

  2. Enjoy your lovely children and the campaigning. Good luck. It’s worse in the country, the lanes are death traps and there are no pavements, it looks good from a car but try and walk or cycle and it is a very different story.

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