Footpaths are key for children

Built environment designs and research studies rarely consider children. At best, research singles out children for attention as needing special arrangements. The same happens for older people. However both generations often want or need the same things. Indeed, footpaths are key for children, older people and everyone else.

A research paper by Lisa Stafford focuses on children with disability – a group rarely considered in environmental planning and policy. That’s despite the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities including children.

It’s important to study everyday practice, actions, meanings and understandings children have about places and spaces.

A child wearing a pink jacket sits on a stone wall. A pair of crutches are propped up next to her. They have red and blue handles. Footpaths are key for children.

“Taken for granted” mundane activities of an individual’s life reveal how people use and act in everyday places. Conversely, it also shows how those places shape the lives of individuals – especially in what they cannot do. Stafford’s qualitative study reveals the everyday lives of children with disability and what they can and cannot do outside the home.

From the findings

Children with disability lacked freedom to move and engage in everyday activities. For example, driveways and disconnected footpaths meant this was as far as they could go. Cars going too fast meant that riding a bike did not feel safe. “I’d like to go over the road to say hi without having to worry about people speeding”, said one participant.

Stafford’s paper reports verbatim conversations with children which makes for interesting reading. Children had their movements constrained, not by disability, but by the design of the environment.

What a street looks like, the function it serves and the activities it permits are based on socio-cultural norms. Streets are full of assumptions about the people who use them.

Shows the street of a new housing development with driveways for cars but no footpath for people

Although footpaths are key for all pedestrians they are not consistently provided in local streets. Walkability continues to be measured by the road rather than the footpath.

The title of the article is, Bounded at the driveway’s edge: body-space tensions encountered by children with mobility impairments in moving about the neighbourhood street. The first part is very academic, but the second part reveals interesting ideas.

From the abstract

The neighbourhood is influential in encouraging children’s independent mobility and activity participation. However, its influence on the everyday experiences of children with disabilities is not well understood. This article is about the accounts of ten nine-12 year olds from south-east Queensland, Australia, who have diverse mobility impairments. The study reveals that mobility is a conditional act.

Conditionality is understood by the way social and spatial factors intersect to influence one’s mobility about the street – or in this case coerced immobility. The mismatch between children movement and the neighbourhood environment is revealed. It is intensified by the absent footpath, with repercussions for their activity participation.

The findings suggest the importance of understanding diverse body-space practices in mobility studies and the need to contest ableism in street design to create inclusive walkable neighbourhoods for all.

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