Robin Kearns: Child-friendly city would let us ease up on cotton wool

Last week a driver – a parent herself – sadly missed seeing three children step out to cross the road. Their subsequent injuries were unquestionably tragic. I feel for them, their families and the driver.

But an additional sadness is revealed by the comment by one of the police officers responding to the crash. They said it was “unacceptable” for young children to be walking to school without adult supervision.

My question is: unacceptable to whom? Was this a personal opinion or that of the police? Regardless, this view adds to an informal policing of parents at large; an urging to chaperone children at all times.

But whose city is this? Does Auckland belong only to adults and motorists? Perhaps we all need to slow down and reconsider our priorities.

Faced with any tragedy it is human nature to want to level blame. In this case is it reasonable to implicitly blame parents who dare to let their children walk out the door unaccompanied?

To tacitly blame parents who grant freedoms to children places us in the same camp as those who vilified Lenore Skenazy in New York. Six years ago, she let her 9-year-old ride the New York subway alone. She was subsequently decried as “America’s worst mum”.

In a long list of subsequent cases, Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are accused of trusting their kids, aged 10 and 6, to walk home from the park. They got only halfway home before someone called the police.

Do we want to succumb to the paranoia reflected in these cases? Or do we want to insist that Auckland becomes a more child-friendly city? The former is the easy route. Fear is readily adopted, especially when spurred on by comments from trusted public figures such as the police. The tougher task is to work towards a child-friendly city. To do so risks being accused of being unrealistic. Yet any city that focuses only on roads, rates and rubbish risks losing its soul.

A more child-friendly city is a slower city that promotes walking and public transport. A child-friendly city benefits everyone. In our research, children persistently say they want a city with less traffic. Children are natural walkers until it is driven out of them by parental paranoia. Being chauffeured may alleviate parental anxieties and prevent relatively rare and tragic accidents. But persistent chauffeuring interferes with children’s environmental learning, reduces physical activity and robs them of independence.

Children may not yet be taxpayers but they are citizens. It is time to listen to their views before deeming their independent travel “unacceptable”.

Robin Kearns is professor of geography at the University of Auckland and a member of the NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities.

This piece was originally published in the New Zealand Herald,