Imagine Cities Designed for Children


Could restructuring the American city be one key to saving the American family? Could time off for parents to visit their kids in school lead to a revived citizen democracy?

Richard Louv, a San Diego Union columnist, believes so, and his new book, "Childhood's Future" (Houghton Mifflin), makes the case.

Today's American family, says Mr. Louv, is under siege. With parents working, overbooked and coming home exhausted, family time is Casualty No. 1. Many parents feel they're "on a fast track to nowhere." Kids get tossed into television's "electronic bubble," learning to absorb entertainment but not to invent and create. Family "quality time" becomes a kind of cruel joke.

"The small moments, the special family getaways, the cookies in the oven, the night fishing with the kids asleep next to the lantern, the weekend drives, the long dreamlike summers -- so much of this has been taken from us, or we have given it up," writes Mr. Louv. "For what? Hitachi stereos? Club Med? Company cars? Racquetball? For 15-hour days and lousy day care?"

Reconstructing childhood, expanding and deepening adult time with children, shaking off the high-tech diversions, won't come easy.

But it would help a lot, Mr. Louv suggests, if parents became more intimately involved with the biggest institution in their children's lives: the schools. When parents visit classrooms, get involved with school activities, it conveys to children the message that they're important, that parents really care.

Classroom involvement is so important, that corporations ought to give employees two to four hours a month off to visit their children's schools, Mr. Louv says. A corporate tax credit might even be appropriate for businesses that grant time off for school visits. Corporations are required to give employees paid time off for jury duty. If the criminal-justice system is that important, how about the educational-justice system?

Mr. Louv's idea of time off for school visits is appealing -- but maybe just a starter. The parent who visits his or her kid's classroom may get interested not only in the school's management, or the school budget, but may become involved in a network of other parents concerned about an array of issues. From there, civic involvement outside the schools becomes a logical step.

"In the same way we see the family being destroyed because people lack time with kids, the civic life of communities is being destroyed because people lack time to participate," says John Parr, president of the National Civic League. The league is considering a program to encourage corporations to allow time off for a variety of civic activities, including running for local office.

A big problem for today's children, Mr. Louv believes, is the unlivability of many American communities: "People are divorced from nature, they live in sprawling cities with no centers and few natural meeting places, neighborhoods that can barely be called neighborhoods -- an environment that no longer nurtures children and which drives family life deeper into itself."

The problem is intensified by excessive parental fear of kidnapping or other crimes. They keep their kids "safe" but rob them of the experience of venturing farther and farther from home on foot or bike, developing their own sense of independence.

It's time to re-imagine cities as family- and child-friendly places. Seattle has tried to do just that. Its KidsPlace program is an effort to make the city environment pro-child with sensitive design, and with restaurant and store window decals welcoming children.

"If kids planned" the city, an extensive survey in Sacramento revealed, "we'd have more bus service and bike lanes. Kids would build wide shaded sidewalks away from busy traffic, where they could walk, ride a bike or sit on a bench. These sidewalks would go from neighborhood to neighborhood so kids could visit their friends, go to shopping areas so kids could run errands, go to transportation centers so kids could lock their bikes and get on a bus or light-rail train."

We ought to create "magnet neighborhoods" for families, says Art Skolnick, a Seattle architect-planner. They'd feature "walk to" schools and libraries, and private spaces for children to build forts and tree houses.

In this family-friendly city, schools would be important community hubs by incorporating day care, counseling and parenting outreach programs. Big schools could be divided into clusters of 450 pupils or fewer, to create a sense of personalism and contact.

It's a heady order: to change the way schools work and what they offer, to change development patterns in cities and suburbs, to change habits and rules in the corporate workplace. None of it is likely to happen at all unless all manner of advocates -- parenting organizations, social service and civic groups, education reform forces -- start to see the connections.

The brilliant idea of Mr. Louv's book is that children and families fTC might be the wedge to open a much broader dialogue on how we live and the communities we live in.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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