The Challenge

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Portland, OR

ABSTRACT: We have reached a major turning point in city-making! It is now widely recognized that sprawling, auto-dependent development and abandonment of the inner city have helped cause not only an ecological crisis, but also a social and health crisis. Children are the first to suffer – and they suffer more deeply. Physical health, social and emotional health, and all aspects of child development are negatively affected.

Sixteen percent of children in the US and Canada are now obese – in large part because they cannot walk to school or play outside. In some states childhood obesity has soared to 30%. Obesity leads to chronic diseases – high cholesterol and blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, sleep apnea, asthma and liver disease – never associated with childhood before. Volume and speed of traffic, lack of sidewalks and safe bike lanes, and absence of familiar adults make streets dangerous for children. Automobile accidents are the leading cause of accidental child death. Children need to develop independence. Denying children free mobility leads to frustration and anger, and failure to develop spatial skills.

There is increasing evidence that nature promotes good health and sound child development. Sprawling developments have obliterated nature, depriving children of physical exercise, adventure, sensory and cognitive development. For stimulation children turn to video games and the internet where they are increasingly exposed to violence.

There is no life on the streets in suburbia, and in inner city neighborhoods streets are often beset by crime. This prevents the development of community, reduces opportunities to practice social skills, and leads to paranoia about “stranger danger”. Children have fewer friends than ever before. Teens spend more time alone – 3 ½ hours per day – than with family or friends. This affects emotional development. One might say that children suffer from “Community Deficit Disorder”. Isolation and alienation are risk factors for physical and mental ill-health. Friends and face-to-face social networks are essential to buffer stress and improve coping. Community functions as a “social immune system”.

The ill health and developmental challenges children face today will shape their health, their careers, and quality of life for the rest of their lives, and may shorten their lives.

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