Special Report: Walkable Streets

Child Friendly Cities

Despite airs of child-friendliness, the actual built environment of suburbia is extremely hostile to children's most basic needs.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 14, 2005

Our society makes a show of being child friendly, from playgrounds at fast food restaurants and furniture warehouses to the vast array of child-protection devices available to consumers. At the same time, our actual built environment is extremely hostile to children's most basic needs.

Richard Gilbert and Catherine O'Brien, writing for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation, have surveyed a huge body of research on how our built environment affects children, coming up with a list of 27 guidelines for creating safer, healthier communities.

According to Child- and Youth-Friendly Land-Use and Transport Planning Guidelines, children need fresh air, exercise, time to run and play, and a chance to move through neighbourhoods and interact with others. Instead, they are strapped into car seats and shuttled from destination to destination, missing exercise, breathing poisonous exhaust, and isolated from their communities. The low density development of "family friendly" subdivisions all but guarantees that parents must drive their children anywhere they need or want to go.

Children who do try to walk face automotive exhaust and the gauntlet of speeding cars if they want to get anywhere. The constant noise of traffic increases children's stress levels and the presence of cars forces children inside, where their opportunities to play and exercise are severely limited.

The results of sprawl development are clear: overweight children at higher lifetime risk of diabetes and heart disease, a significant increase in respiratory illness, even measurable effects on emotional development, concentration, and school performance.

These factors affect everyone's health, but children are especially susceptible, because their bodies are still developing and their lifestyle habits are still forming. Children also eat, drink, and breathe more by body weight than adults, increasing their rate of exposure to toxins.

Cars make low density development possible, and low density development requires cars. When buildings are spread out, distances between destinations are too far to walk and public transit systems can't operate efficiently. Further, the preponderance of cars on the road creates an unpleasant and unsafe environment for those people who do try to walk, further reinforcing car use.

Car travel varies with residential
density (note log scale for density)
Car travel varies with residential density (note log scale for density)

Amazingly, as bad as air pollution is for pedestrians, Gilbert and O'Brien found that levels of air pollution inside vehicles are several times worse than levels outside vehicles. School buses, in particular, expose children to high levels of pollution from diesel engines. Children who sit inside vehicles instead of walking face the double whammy of lost exercise and sharply increased air pollution.

Aside from the environmental dangers to children, traffic collisions provide a much more direct and immediate danger. Crashes are the leading cause of injury and death in Canada for children older than one year. For all the understandable fear parents have of attacks and abductions, cars are much more risky than strangers.

The risk of injury and death from traffic collisions increases exponentially with the speed of the cars.

The risk of serious injury or death
increases exponentially as vehicular speed increases (chart created based on data in the Report)
The risk of serious injury or death increases exponentially as vehicular speed increases (chart created based on data in the Report)

The authors' conclusion - and a recommendation that can be implemented immediately - is that speed limits in residential areas should be lowered to 25 km/h from the current 40 km/h. This would produce a number of simultaneous benefits:

Beyond this obvious step, the authors recommend a number of guidelines that support the development of a built environment that encourages pedestrian travel and provides safe streets for children to live and play. Their first guideline, "In transport and land-use planning, the needs of children and youth should receive as much priority as the needs of people of other ages and the requirements of business," leads naturally to the rest of the guidelines.

None of the guidelines state, "Communities should be built to a higher density", but few if any of these goals are possible where sprawl continues to dominate urban planning.

The Guidelines

Here are the guidelines. In the report, each guideline is supplemented by a detailed explanation and examples.

  1. In transport and land-use planning, the needs of children and youth should receive as much priority as the needs of people of other ages and the requirements of business.
  2. Within each municipality designate a staff member (and perhaps also a council member) as responsible for bringing a children's perspective to transport and land-use planning issues.
  3. As may be appropriate, establish or adapt one or more forums for children and youth to provide input as to the application of these guidelines.
  4. Identify where children and youth want to go or need to go and, to the extent possible, provide ways of getting there by foot.
  5. Explore pedestrian routes used or to be used by children to ensure that they are as usable by them as possible.
  6. Explore pedestrian routes to be used by children to ensure that they are as safe for them as possible.
  7. For younger children, arrange walking buses and other means of supervision.
  8. Separate sidewalks used by children and youth from heavily trafficked roads, particularly where traffic moves slowly or vehicles are stationary with engines idling for long periods.
  9. Ensure that sidewalks are always cleared of snow.
  10. For older children and youth, ensure that destinations that cannot be a walk away are no more than a bicycle ride away.
  11. For younger children, ensure that sidewalks are suitable for their tricycles and bicycles.
  12. For destinations to be reached by bicycle, provide separate bicycle paths, and install bicycle lanes on regular roads only as a last resort.
  13. Ensure that bicycle riders are well provided for at intersections and have sufficient priority for forward movement.
  14. At destinations, provide secure, convenient bicycle parking.
  15. Encourage the carriage of very young children by bicycle, in appropriate seats or attachments.
  16. Ensure that every part of a transit system is safe and welcoming to a child, and affordable.
  17. Avoid transfers by routing vehicles where children want to and need to go; make transfers easy where necessary.
  18. Keep fares for children low, so as to encourage their use of transit systems, with or without supervision.
  19. Examine every aspect of the system from the perspective of a parent with a child in a stroller, and make adjustments to meet such a traveller's needs.
  20. Reduce the time children spend in school buses to a maximum of no more than 40 minutes per day.
  21. Where destinations cannot be reached by foot, bicycle or transit, ensure nevertheless that they are as near as possible to reduce in-car time.
  22. When children must travel in vehicles, act to avoid poor in-vehicle air quality.
  23. Drive slowly, to be safe and to facilitate an interest in the passing show.
  24. Take all possible steps to reduce amounts of road traffic generally.
  25. In urban areas, post and enforce much lower speed limits.
  26. Use low-emission rather than regular diesel vehicles for urban transit or, where possible, electric vehicles.
  27. Where possible, encourage use of rail for freight, and use of electric vehicles, including hybrid vehicles, where road freight must be used.
Richard Gilbert and Catherine O'Brien, Child- and Youth-Friendly Land-Use and Transport Planning Guidelines, The Centre for Sustainable Transportation, March 28, 2005

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By R (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2006 at 08:14:39


I came accross your article and wish to contribute that I have been planning and designing child friendly early childhood care centres, schools, playgrounds and urban parks, and a child-friendly/low-trafic childrens's avenue in Iran which are now under construction as well as child friendly schools, spaces, and environments in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, Child Friendly Cities is a visionary concept which slowly-by-slowly is put into practice but perhaps not as fast in the Western world as you would wish. My advice....all it takes is to be patient, practical, and perseverant so, never give up.

All the best

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