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Stop Sprawl
Walkable Communities

by Dan Burden

What follows is a brief synopsis of newly developing techniques I am using to engage children in creating walkable communities. During the past two weeks I have had the opportunity of using kids in four walkability projects. In the 7,000 population town of Waynesville, NC we worked with two groups, sixth graders, and eighth graders (morning/afternoon). With the sixth graders only one child walked or rode a bike to school. I had the children draw maps of their home to school trip. Only the child that walked had trees or any purposeful information in the map. Most of the adults I later showed the prints to picked out the kid that walked to school.

In the afternoon I went to a centrally located school and met with an eighth grade class of 28. None of the children on this perfect weather day walked or bicycled to school. This is a first out of the forty of the classes I have met with where a zero walk/bike class was found. Not surprisingly we were told earlier in the week that North Carolina places 49th out of 50 in fitness of children. The school was 2.5 blocks from the town center. A nearly total lack of sidewalks and other geographic constraints exist.

Side note: NCDOT has some of the most antiquated sidewalk and multi-modal policies in the nation. I personally met and spoke with the NCDOT Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Transportation later in my travels (at a Charlotte Walkable Communities conference). Forget a top-down approach. A grass roots swell to action is the only hope to bring change to this troubled state.

In this Waynesville class we used a fun new activity drawing on the group of students to identify what they most wanted in their town for themselves. After the usual mall, food court and arcade games, parks, etc, we discussed why they needed these things....then we put up a list of five items, including a mall, food court/arcade game package, trails and greenways and a place to hang out. The loser was the vote, the winner was a place to hang out. The teacher in this school told us that the students come from different neighborhoods, have no time in the school schedule to meet with other kids, have no place in town to go to....and are even considered a nuisance at the library by the librarian when they go inside on rainy days to wait for their parents. I am coming to the conclusion that children in America are truly in crisis not because of bad guys hanging out.....or drugs, or the other things we are doing to protect them...but based on the conditions we impose due to increased isolation of land use, increased traffic, etc. These children are not getting the time, attention and opportunity to socialize that we once did. These children expressed a need to be able to just go places and hang out.....a place where not everything is organized for them. Children are driven everywhere. The program we presented that night was a real eye opener for the community.

In the next town, Charlotte, NC (population 500,000) we had the most organized class of students ever. Two weeks before I arrived, second year geography teacher at Piedmont Middle School, Susan Bush, had the 8th grade children go out and photograph walkability in their individual neighborhoods. Children wrote captions for the photos. The class put their work into a display. When I arrived we had an hour long series of questions for the students. I first had them take out a paper and write down "List the three most important things that you want for yourselves to be built in your neighborhood or town". "After listing the three, circle the one that is most important." We talked about these outcomes. I then asked the students to list the three most important items for a six, seven or eight year old......and then asked for a list of the most important thing for their grandparents. We talked about these outcomes.

What followed was a very healthy discussion of the real needs of their community. The children were exceptionally altruistic. They wanted sidewalks, trees, slower speed traffic and nearby parks and water parks for themselves. Rarely did these children have items that only boys or girls would want. They never mentioned malls, food courts, etc. I had six of these children come to the evening town meeting. They delivered an epic powerful presentation of their needs to 80 adults, including many developers. The children came the following night to a second town meeting. The session was sent out on cable TV. One girl who was quiet standing on the stage was singled out by a member of the audience and asked, "If you had a park what would you want in it?" The girl brought tears to many people's eyes when she paused momentarily and gave a one word reply, "People". Such brevity and eloquence.

Then yesterday in Brevard County Florida we again worked with 8th graders. I used the three question format of "what do you most want in your neighborhood?" as used above. We also had the children fill large (20 foot long) aerial maps of their neighborhood, and write policies and needs on the white borders as a permanent record of a project. Same great results. We had the children come and present to an evening meeting. Through a series of statements then rounds of questions by the audience we filled 30 minutes with edge on seats material for the adults. We need to further explore and expand these techniques. Children are heart stealers. They can move insensitive people to action.

We need to have a formal workbook created to guide teachers, planners and others in these methods. Linda, are you up for pulling this together? I will see if we can get a grant to do this important work. We can write articles for popular magazines. We need to awaken adults to the conditions they have created for their children.

Let me know if you are willing to do this? We can brainstorm, and come up with a handy guide. Children are in the best position to unlock the dilemma that faces them. Often when these children are asked to come to the evening town hall meetings they ask "Will people listen to us?" Teachers ask the same questions related to not having an audience with people who can make a difference. They know that the children most often go unheard. Children feel unempowered. I believe these exercises can be beneficial to the towns, the leaders, and the children themselves. But we need some way to format and tap into these outcomes.

Side note: Other problems emerge from these sessions. Rarely are the parents who bring these children to these events interested enough in the children's role, ideas and the honor of presenting to the community to do anything more than bring them, dump them off, and come back 45-60 minutes later. The event appears to have no more meaning to most of these parents than a soccer game practice. The two parents that came to Brevard last night dropped the six kids off, went home and came back an hour later to pick them up. When they arrived on the second trip the parents were displeased to wait the 10 minutes until the children were finished with their presentations. When the person greeting the parents explained what the children were doing or saying, further explained why the parents should be proud and how well their children were being received .....then tried to get the parents to leave their cars and come down to the auditorium, both parents individually brushed the importance of their children's public presentation aside, came in and tried to hurry the children to the door. America has become too busy, too isolated, too diluted in purpose and mission to recognize gold when holding it in the palm of their hands.

Recommended additional reading: The Future of Childhood, by Richard Lowe.

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