URBS 4/581—Selected Topics:  Growing Up in Cities


Buildings for  Children

So, what have we done to children with the spaces we have created?

Holme & Massie compared the behavior of children who were growing up in planned, medium density housing and in old, very dense central city housing near London.  They found

               “In the new, planned medium density pedestrian-segregated environment of Elm Green in Stevenage the play

               tended to be individual, passive, and home oriented….  In the Heygate area of Southwark, on the other hand,

               which is old and unplanned with bad, overcrowded housing and traffic-congested streets, children appear to

               play away from home and in groups; their play was more active and included games of a traditional nature.”

(Holme & Massie, 1970, p. 58)

While their study is drawn on the British experience, which includes a tradition of much higher housing density than is typical in the United States, their findings are at least relevant to children raised in the higher-density American central cities.  They also reviewed studies of the effect of high-rise living on children.  Curiously, they found that the negative effects were not as strong as they had expected.  It appears that living high up off the ground (ie, above the fifth story) results in less time playing outside and greater restrictions on children’s movement, even into older ages.

            Following the 1981 consent decree in the case of Gautreaux vs. Chicago Housing Authority, HUD instituted a demonstration project in 1992 called “Moving to Opportunity.”  In this program, some low-income families with children were provided with housing vouchers which were only good in census tracts which had low poverty rates (less than 10%).  The study showed (Ladd & Ludwig, 1977) that children’s educational performance improved under these conditions, although the generalizability of the results are limited because more families dropped out of the study because they could not find housing than did families who were permitted to relocate anywhere.  Nonetheless, the study does at least suggest that part of the problem with raising children in poverty may be due at least in part to locating poor families together in close concentration.

One could look at the built environment for children as a collection of settings with their own design considerations—the home, the street, the school (and daycare center), the playground, as well as a residual category for the “undesigned” spaces that are so important to children.  There are a great number of “rules of thumb” for the design of these spaces—ballusters on porches should be no further apart than 6” (to prevent children from slipping through them) and should be vertical rather than horizontal (to prevent children from climbing them).  Glass enclosures (doors, low windows, etc.) should have horizontal bars at about a child’s shoulder-height to prevent them from pushing on (and through) the glass.  Curbs should be cut down to the grade of the road at corners, to permit strollers and tricycles to cross.  Children’s play areas should permit adults to observe the children, but at a discreet distance to encourage the children’s independence.  And so on.  Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 9503, spells out in detail the furnishings and the physical facility required for day care centers which house infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children (see http://nrc.uchsc.edu/STATES/MN/mn_2.htm ) and the facilities required for a licensed day care (see http://nrc.uchsc.edu/STATES/MN/mn2.htm ).

But the major findings underscore the importance of access, networking, and self-determination.  AE Parr (1967) points out that, while adult mobility has been greatly increased, there is little discussion of the correlate—children’s mobility has been greatly reduced as a result of the hazards created by adult transportation.  Further, he claims, children have lost the opportunity to observe adult speech and behavior as they all, adult and child, walked to work/school in the morning.  John Dean, in Housing Design & Family Values, argued that the “greatest influence of housing design is the way it modifies the numbers and kinds of social environments to which family members are exposed.” (p. 132).  Dorothy Smith, in Household Space and Family Organization, wrote that “…spatial arrangements structure the ways in which people become directly accessible to one another.” (p. 55).  Robin Moore (1980) argued that the ultimate design for children is “anarchic,” a completely self-regulated place which does not distinguish between work/play or education/recreation.  He was echoing the work of Simon Nicholson (1970), who argued for what he called a “theory of loose parts.”  Undesigned spaces which are stocked with raw materials permit the children to engage in what Nicholson called “environmental education”—they can learn to create their own spaces and explore their own interests.  He concluded that it was important to give top priority to where children are (rather than building spaces for them somewhere apart, give them the opportunity to transform the spaces they already occupy) and to let children play a part in the design process. Ten years after Nicholson, Paul Davidoff (1980) also called for full participation by children in designing spaces for themselves.


Mumford, L.  (1968)  “Planning for the Phases of Life,” The Urban Prospect.  NY:  Harcourt, Brace & World.

Fowler, E.  (1992)  “Children,” pp. 99-114 in Building Cities That Work.  Montreal:  McGill-Queens University Press.

Friedman, A & D. Krawitz.  (2002)  “Living with Kids,” Throuh the Keyhole.  Montreal:  McGill-Queens University Press.

Childress, H.  (1993)  “No Loitering,  Small Town,1993 (Sept-Oct), 20-25.

Editor.  (2004)  “School Construction Special,” Scholastic Administrator, 2004, 3(6), 18-26.

State of Minnesota (1999)  Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 9503  Child Care Centers  available at http://nrc.uchsc.edu/STATES/MN/mn_2.htm



© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 2 May 2005