Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Childhood in the City

My 8 year old daughter asked if I could go with her outside so she could ride her new bike. I said she could go out by herself. “Mommy won't let me!” she whined. With the abduction and murder of Nurin just a few weeks ago, I didn't argue with my wife. But I wanted to!

We live in a cul-de-sac in a Kampung Melayu Ampang, free from fast moving traffic, with a playground just outside, and relatively free of outsiders. If it's not safe for my daughter to play outside by herself here, there is not many places in and around Kuala Lumpur that is safe.

Pity the children living in towns today. It's proper that parents want to protect their children from the traffic risk and stranger danger, but in doing so are our children are missing out an essential part of childhood? This was the point an open letter to the Daily Telegraph signed by 110 teachers, psychologists, children's authors and other experts call on the (British) Government to act to prevent “the death of childhood” due to , among other things, over-anxious and over-protective parents.

Is the golden childhood of our memories and Lat's cartoons forever gone? Do we have to accept that the modern city is just not a suitable place for children?

Girls playing

Boys playing

But perhaps our memories are too selective – we who survive only remember the good things. Despite the publicised cases of abductions and accidents, overall, hard statistics will surely tell us that mortality rate of children have reduced a great deal from 30-40 years ago. Children also experienced more poverty and fewer opportunities.

Turning back time is not an option, and neither is mass migration back to the country. Modern urban life is here to stay: most of the developed world is more than 80% urbanized and developing countries are fast catching up.

But we can choose to be rational rather than be driven by fear. There are policing and management measures that can be undertaken to make our towns and cities safer. There are the examples of cities with low crime rates (like Japanese ones) that we can learn from. There are examples also of cities almost on the brink of anarchy that have pulled back and lowered crime rates (New York).

Architects and planners have been working on housing designs and town layouts that can minimize the dangers from traffic and crime, and thus at the same time providing safe places to play just outside the home. An American, Oscar Newman, introduced the concept of Defensible Space over thirty years ago as a strategy to reduce crime, and at about the same time, Dutchman Niek De Boer pioneered Living Streets or “woonerf” that were designed to tame motor vehicles so that the streets became safe places for children to play in. They are the inspiration for the designs you find in this website.

Cul-de-sac court yard

Apartment Lobby

Communal Courtyard

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