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

Children’s use of space


Perez & Hart (1980) argue that the primary consideration for children’s use of and satisfaction with physical space is the issue of accessibility.  They are concerned with how far they can go (and what forces restrict them).  Within that range, they are concerned with the richness of the environment.  They further point out that accessibility increases with age.  First graders experience primarily restricted movement, being permitted to range away from home only with their parents.  Third graders experience a larger “free range,” but usually still within eyesight or hearing of the home.  By the fifth grade, boys range freely (girls remain at about the third-grade level).  Once into adolescence, the distance a child can travel alone increases, but the child is also less interested in exploring spaces and focuses more on getting from one destination to another.


Colin Ward (1978), in a rambling, discursive book, catalogued a wide range of urban children’s environments based on his observations of city children.  The names he gives to the experiences are as telling as his descriptions.  “Paradise Lost?” refers to his conclusion that childhood has remained fairly similar across the ages, despite our memories of how much better life used to be.  “Happy Habitat Revisited” describes how children can live in squalor and poverty, yet recall it (sometimes) with fondness.  He also points out that there are three ways that children (indeed all people) evaluate their environment—antiquarians (who prefer stability and constancy), explorers (who enjoy diversity, but come back home), and neophiliacs (who are always searching for the latest, newest thing).  He also notes that privacy and isolation are not the same thing.  Children need privacy, but flee isolation.  He also talks about homeless children (“Adrift in the City”) and the suburban children (“A Suburban Afternoon”).  He points out how children take advantage of small, forgotten corners of space (“Colonizing Small Spaces”) and using existing spaces for “other” purposes (“Adapting the Imposed Environment”)—like opening a fire hydrant to create water play.  He also points out that children who have a driving interest experience the city differently, because they learn how to use the city to pursue their avocation.  Children move around the city differently than adults—they tend to walk, or bike, or skateboard—or hitch rides on the back of trucks & busses.  School, of course, is a central part of the life of most children—even though some of them it is experienced as an alienating environment.  Also, by the time they reach mid-adolescence children are often participating in paid work (stocking the shelves of the supermarket, preparing and selling fast food, or working at a retail store).  The city-wise child, he claims,


Bruno Bettleheim, a child psychologist, uses his own memories of childhood to structure “the child’s perception of the city” (1981).  He argues that it is people who structure the urban experience, not the physical environment.  If those close to a child experience the city as exciting and enriching, so will the child.  While the city (necessarily) encompasses a great number of people in a (relatively) small space, it is a (relatively) few of them who are significant.  He quotes Shakespeare, who wrote “The people are the city.”  Bettleheim develops a parallel between the mother and the city (pointing out that cities are often referred to in the feminine), between the immediate neighborhood and the womb (both are a “matrix within which one lives”).  As the child identifies with the mother and the family of origin, the child also identifies with the neighborhood and the city.  Having said this, he then points out how the image of the city in much of the schoolbook reading is negative.  Usually, the city is just a cardboard background against which the real action of the story is played out.  While there are many examples of the pleasures of country living, there are few offered for city life.  When city life is portrayed, the children read it as empty & purposeless.  It is, he suggests, little wonder that Americans have so little respect for their cities and when they grow up aspire to suburban and country living!


Other researchers have developed different lists of key environments.  Clare Cooper Marcus evaluated 50 environmental biographies from students in her planning classes (Marcus, 1978).  She found that outdoor places figured heavily (only 3 students recalled only interior spaces), despite the fact that behavioral studies of children (Lynch, 1977) show that they spend the vast majority of their time indoors (65% on weekends, 90-95% on school days).  These outdoor spaces are often “special places” of childhood, and are often not the yard or patio that was their parents’ domain.  The environmental biographies often recalled “hiding places,” private spaces set apart from parents and even siblings and other children.  Some of these hiding places were manufactured (culverts, shacks, porches and closets); others were molded from the natural landscape; still others were custom-built (tree houses and forts).  Comparing the experiences of American children with those of international students, Marcus was struck by the narrowness of American—particularly suburban—children’s experiences.  They have little opportunity to observe adults in their work environment or to encounter the full range of a community’s life.  She argues that the suburban environment, selected because it is “good for the children,” may in fact be a deprived environment for children.  Charles Zerner (1977) did anthropological fieldwork among children in San Francisco, and from that developed a concept of the “street hearth” of play—a hearth place where children dwell together to meet and engage in their various pursuits.  It is a place “…in which the volume and speed of through traffic is greatly reduced.  It is a street whose buildings are no more than three stories high, permitting visual, acoustical, and immediate physical access to the life below.  It is a street in which children and parents know through experience that they are reasonably safe….” (Zerner, 1977, p. 21)   It has “a complex, differentiated contour created at the juncture of the dwelling and the sidewalk” (p. 23).  He points out that “…it is on the ‘dead ends,’ the cul-de-sacs and within the narrowest lanes—the marginal streets, the forgotten, hidden streets out of the swirling mainstream of city life—that the life of children is to be found” (p. 30).  Suzanne Keller confirms that, “…all that open space for which the parents left the crowded city is experienced by their children as too confining by its lack of activities, variety, and excitement.  By contrast, the cities left behind emerge in retrospect as havens of freedom and mobility” (Keller, 1981, p. 72).  She notes other research that found that children usually do not use the play areas that are designed into suburban communities.  They prefer their own or a neighbor’s yard, the streets, and the parking areas.  Comparing American and Swedish youth, Keller found similar complaints—too monotonous and boring.  The Swedish youth also mentioned the lack of transportation.  She concludes that there are three major problems—lack of access (transportation), lack of variety in activities, and lack of participation in the design (p. 73).   


Not all the environmental impacts are physical.  In a classic article, Dexter Dunphy (1963) described how the primary socialization of the child by the family is replaced by the peer group in adolescence, creating the conditions for the young adult to separate from the family of origin.  This proceeds in a series of stages.  In early adolescence, children run in isolated, single-sex “cliques.”  Over time, the cliques begin to interact across the gender divide (but only as a group).  Then the higher-status members in the cliques begin to form their own heterosexual clique (“crowds,” in Dunphy’s terms).  Eventually the cliques all become mixed gender “crowds” (or gangs or groups or…).  Finally, in late adolescence, the crowd disintegrates into a loosely associated group of couples. 



Boocock, S (1981)  Life space of children,” Building for Women, ed. S. Keller.  Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books.

Lukashok, A & K Lynch  (1956)  “Some childhood memories of the city,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 22(3), 142-152.

Loukaitou-Sideris, A.  (2003)  “Children’s common grounds,” American Planning Association Journal, 69(2), 130-143.

Barclay, D  (1959)  “Table of Contents,” Understanding the City Child.  NY:  Franklin & Watts.

VanVliet, W  (1983)  “Exploring the fourth environment,” Environment and Behavior, 15(5), 567-588.





© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 2 May 2005