Friday, May 6, 2011

Where do the children play?

   Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
                              But will you keep building higher, till there’s no room up there
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry
                    Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?
Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (1970)

Are compact cities healthy cities?
One argument for compact cities is that they are good for our health.  The New Zealand Public Health Advisory Committee in 2008, for example, cited four principles for healthy urban planning based on the density of development: urban regeneration; compact growth; focused decentralisation; and linear concentration.  The aim is less time in cars and more use of active transport.

One objective of Auckland’s Regional Growth Strategy, with its emphasis on CBD and centre-focused residential growth is “safe and healthy communities”.  But how far can that be achieved through residential intensification?  Does regulating for a compact city work for everyone?  Everywhere? 
Kids and consolidation
Research by Penelope Carroll and Karen Witten of Massey University, summarised here and in a recent article in The Aucklander, highlights the disadvantages for children in the inner city. 

Witten and Carroll suggest that traffic volumes, strangers on the street, and lack of outdoor play space mean that children in central city environments are likely to be confined indoors.  And that raises the disadvantages of high density dwellings: insufficient space, internal noise, lack of natural light, lack of privacy, inadequate parking, inadequate indoor play space, and the potentially hazardous nature of balconies.  Poor health outcomes is a major concern.

A key issue for children in compact parts of the compact city is lack of opportunity for outdoor activity.  Heavily trafficked streets are not good for bike riding, or even walking alone.  Auckland’s centre is devoid of segregated cycleways or play areas.  Getting to school or the park is a major mission, and may well need a car trip. 

Even the Auckland Domain, a splendid sprawling park on the CBD fringe, is surrounded by high intensity streets, remote from most central apartments, and is hardly child-friendly.  The much smaller Victoria Park is similarly difficult to access, isolated by major arterial roads.  Albert Park is about the only central green space of note, but this is a throughway between university and town, not an ideal area for children to play. 

Auckland CBD Green Space
Perhaps the well-being of children is not a major issue here, because only around 600 (aged under 15) lived in the CBD in 2006.  But it was up 130% over a decade.  And they do count.

Anyway, the limits of central city living for children – and families – flag more general issues:
  • The need to think seriously about how we cater for families in higher density living generally, in the CBD, in other centres, and in suburbs targeted for intensification;
  • How we provide safe, public green space, areas for play, and ease of movement in high density, mixed use environments; and
  • Just how healthy is the inner city residential for living generally?
CBD living – not so healthy?
The factors potentially stressing children in the CBD impact on adults too.  Research for Auckland City in 2003 (CBD Metadata Analysis by No Doubt Research) suggested dissatisfaction with inner city apartment living came from a diminished sense of security and safety, noise nuisance, small units, absence of outdoor living spaces, and lack of a sense of community. 

In the absence of outdoor recreation space adult residents may get some exercise in the burgeoning gymnasium sector (for between $1,000 and $2,500 a year).  But for many recreational and social activities a car is a necessity.  Simply to take advantage of the key benefits cited for living in Auckland – access to outdoor recreation opportunities, organised sports, beaches, bush and countryside – residential Intensification around centres means more time- and fuel-consuming car trips.

On top of a lack of open useable space the latest State of the Region Report documents the heaviest concentration of air pollutants in and around central Auckland, hardly a healthy living environment.
Central Auckland Haze

 Source: Auckland Regional Council, State of the Region, 2010

Community in the central city
Research by Larry Murphy of the University of Auckland (“Third-wave gentrification in New Zealand: the case of Auckland” Urban Studies 2008, Volume 45) described different communities in the CBD: the well-to-do with their spacious harbour edge apartments (and quite possibly a second home – a beach cottage or lifestyle block – outside the city); the student-dominated quarter to the east; and the low income population to the west.  Families may end up in the latter area, in cramped apartments in featureless apartment blocks, simply for reasons of affordability.

These are transient populations, some 52% of residents in the Central East and Central West Census Area Units had been in their current dwellings for less than a year in 2006.  This compares with 23% in Auckland as a whole.  These particularly high residential mobility figures contradict any suggestion that high density living might create a strong sense of community cohesion.
Okay for some, for some of the time
The CBD works for some people.  The proliferation of downtown bars and entertainment caters particularly for the young and well-to-do.  Gentrification of the harbour-edge works for the professional couple, the wealthy, and out-of-towners.  But the central city is not right for middle or low income households, or families. 

Two key ingredients of a compact city strategy are increasing residential densities and boosting inner city living.  But these raise health and equity issues.  At the least, they call for investment in the quantity and quality of public space in areas targeted for intensification, making potentially big demands on the public purse given the value of land in the CBD and other commercial centres. 

We may just have to acknowledge the benefits of suburban living for some time to come.  And seek opportunities for sustainable development that don’t oblige less well-off families to dwell in small apartments and featureless blocks around busy commercial areas for lack of affordable alternatives.


Mark said...

The real problem with the "compact" city model, is that if it spreads too much eg into the desirable suburbs, eg ponsonby/Mt Eden/remuera etc, it will just speed up the brain drain....

I only stay here becasue of the life style. I came back from inner london, to move to leafy heritage villa Mt Eden, and raise our kids. if that goes or is down graded, then I might as well head to where at least I get paid better for the same lifestyle.....

Anonymous said...

I remember watching a small article about children in New York. Their teachers were getting them to periodically jump up and down in class so as to strengthen their bones, because they were so vulnerable to breaking from a lack of exercise. Can't be healthy. When I was growing up the need for those type of exercises would have been intepreted as perverse. The kids could play normally.

Andrew Atkin

Anonymous said...

How come the so-called "compact city" model does exist in any particular urban area around the globe, incuding Auckland (NZ), to make it attractive for some people?

I just need more actual proof of what is the difference between an inner city and a suburban area. Thanks, Phil McDermott.

P.S.: Can you tell me, also, about the true consequences of secular humanism/atheism, current pop culture and other related stuff have on family life? Thanks again, Mr. McDermott. I hope you will answer my questions soon.

Anonymous said...

Having spent 4 weeks in New York I have seen this concept in action. Green spaces and parks are vibrant community areas. I wish this could be possible for cities in NZ but suspect we missed the chance to plan better and were spoiled with lots of space to spread out in.

Jean Paul Katigbak said...

I wonder how does the idea of rebuilding cities and suburban areas in different parts of the world complete with green spaces, parks, public transport systems, high-rise residential & commercial buildings, shopping districts, etc.?

There has to have a real proof in rebuilding such places appropriately suited to cultural and social situations in various parts of the globe.

The question that needs to be understandable to people like me is this: does the New York revitalisation model really appropriate to varying situations around the world?

There has to have a better understanding of how appropriate the actions are to rebuild a particular city or suburban area to genuflect the sincere public attitude towards what I call "greening the city" or "greening the suburb".

Let the good conscience be our guide, Ladies and Gentlemen, for making things better for us, ordinary people around the globe, to bring meaningful discussions on how really APPROPRIATE the rebuilding process takes place in a particular city or suburb APPROPRIATE to particular circumstances.

Finally, it is time to do what is right and what is really appropriate to different circumstances in different cities and suburban areas around the globe - and it is not only applicable to developed nations. Developing nations need to find better ideas in solving various problems that affect both the societies and economies of these countries mentioned.

Time to roll up the sleeves, Ladies and Gentlemen.