Social spaces of apartment-dwelling children

Vertical Living Kids, a new report out of Melbourne, Australia, got a lot of international media play today. Researchers Dana Mizrachi and (former Montrealer) Dr. Carolyn Whitzman look at how children living in apartment buildings interact with their surrounding environment. Mizrachi and Whitzman pursued this question because, like most urban apartment buildings, these homes were not designed with children in mind.

The preliminary report focuses on forty children, aged 8-12, living in public and private market apartment buildings over three stories tall. Children’s excursions were tracked using GPS devises, travel diaries and surveys of parents. Mimicking Photovoice methodologies, the children also used cameras over the course of a week to document parts of their neighbourhoods which they liked and disliked.

The children described their sense of ownership of public space, their comfort travelling across neighbourhoods and using public transit. Children in private and public housing showed some parallels (social natures of excursions) and some differences (range and proximity of areas visited). The researchers found all the children raised “legitimate concerns about amenity and maintenance” of these spaces.

More than half of the children in public housing complained about quality of the play areas, yet none felt comfortable enough to range further. For instance, the report describes

None of the 13 children we interviewed in Carlton housing estate walk 500 metres to Carlton Gardens, with its large and new adventure playground and the Melbourne Museum, both of which are free to children. Instead, they cluster in the rather tired playground equipment on their public housing estates and play in the leftover spaces between residential buildings.

In contrast, children in private market housing were more likely to list greater access to a broader range of play spaces, including pools, tennis courts, skate parks, commercial enterprises, and public libraries. Those who live further from school were more likely to feel isolated from their immediate neighbourhood and so, perhaps, were more likely to travel.

One of the principal findings of the study was how children viewed dedicated/designated play areas: for many of them, the attraction of these spaces is the presence of other children rather than the equipment provided. Playgrounds, playing fields and such places are primarily social spaces for children, and the authors recommend, rather than being hived off from the broader community, should be designed as such.

Mizrachi and Whitzman’s study is particularly relevant to Toronto urban planning for two reasons: One-third of our city population live in such apartment buildings and, two, the critique of many newly-built condominiums that are not child-friendly.

Playborhood, “Let your kids play outside…

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