Photo by VickyvS on Flickr.

The March edition of GQ features a 12-year-old budding food critic, David Fishman of New York, NY. One of Fishman’s favorite activities is to visit local restaurants and write critiques.  Due to his age, his parents limit him to restaurants within walking distance in his Upper West Side neighborhood. While such parental ground rules would amount to house arrest for children in car-dependent subdivisions, it provides David with a balance between safety and freedom while leaving plenty of restaurant options.

In conventional suburban neighborhoods, meanwhile, there is simply nowhere for a preteen or teenager can explore within walking distance. Fishman would While proponents of a car-dependent lifestyle often argue that the subdivision is a better environment for raising children, they forget that children’s needs change when they become pre-teens and need to socialize and explore their surroundings. Quite simply, David would not be able to explore his passion for critiquing restaurants if he did not live in a vibrant walkable urban place.

David’s story, while unique in its national magazine coverage, is not unique to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In downtown Wheaton, pre-teens and teenagers walk around, go to and from the Metro, eat at cafes, shop at the Westfield Wheaton mall, the local comic book store, or the grocery store. In neighboring Silver Spring or Bethesda, many pre-teens and carless teenagers shop at the stores and eat at the numerous restaurants. The same scene repeats itself in Tenleytown, Friendship Heights, Georgetown, and Ballston. In these walkable places, teens can learn valuable social skills and enjoy a measure of freedom.

I spent last Thanksgiving at a friend of a friend’s house. The host’s parents and their friends grew up in a walkable neighborhood in Norfolk. The boys could walk to the local ball field and see who was around for a pickup game. (At that time, I guess, girls weren’t welcome in the boys’ pickup games). If any of the kids made a misguided, immature decision, their neighbors would walk over and tell their parents. As much as they hated it then, they now wish they had raised their children in such an environment. Their raves about the old neighborhood sounded just like my dad and my aunts describing their old neighborhood on the South Side of Pittsburgh.

Now, the host’s parents own their “dream house” in a subdivision in Upper Marlboro. They can’t walk over to a local field for a pick-up game. It’s much harder to get to know your neighbors without a sidewalk leading to a local park or other destination where you might run into each other.  If they ever saw a neighbor’s child doing something they shouldn’t, would they even know whom to call?  It takes a village to raise a child.  What happens when there is no village?

The subdivision I grew up in had a couple other kids that were in my age range. I was lucky. Outside of the subdivision, there was nothing else in walking distance. The roads to get there had no shoulder, either.  As much as I liked the other guys in the subdivision, they weren’t my best friends.  If I wanted to see friends from school, my parents had to drive. Once again, I was lucky that my parents had time for frequent trips to friends’ houses, as long as I gave them ample notice and they talked to my friends’ parents. However, that’s a lot of big “ifs.”  It’s silly that a parent must devote time, energy, and money from gasoline, insurance and car depreciation every time two kids want to play video games or kick a soccer ball together. 

A pick-up soccer, football, or basketball game was even more complicated. We couldn’t just go down to the local field and play with whatever kids were hanging around looking for a game. Instead, we had to call guys who lived in distant subdivisions and talk to their parents about car transportation.  If anyone’s parents weren’t around, or were too busy to take an hour out of their day to drive their child to a pick-up football game, we couldn’t play. Since organizing required effort, we’d only call our friends. This deprived us and other adolescents of a major social lesson: getting along with people other than your friends.

Between college and graduate school, I taught ninth grade math. Many of my students would go home after school, fire up the video game console, eat dinner, and then play more video games until they went to bed. Would I have been any different if there weren’t other kids in the subdivision, I wasn’t into playing sports, or my parents couldn’t drive me to the games? Obviously, there are plenty of couch potatoes around the world who do live in walkable urban places. However, without other options, children have few alternatives to a sedentary lifestyle.

Car-dependent places design each area for one single land use. They also seem to design for single life stages, too. A large yard may make sense when a child is just learning to walk.  However, what happens when children outgrow the yard and want to interact with their peers and explore the world around them?  While it is clearly possible to raise children who become successful adults in car-dependent places, it clearly has its shortcomings for pre-teens and carless teenagers. Why does so much “conventional wisdom” claim that suburbia is inherently a better place to raise children? Suburbia has its advantages, but also more than its fair share of shortcomings. 

I’m probably going to get a lot of negative feedback in the comments for this, but I suggest that the myth about suburbia being a better environment for children arose from a combination of suburban marketing and our collective attempt to rationalize the divestment and abandonment of our cities and towns. Amazingly, our society continues to collectively embrace the idea of car-dependent suburbia being best for children while, simultaneously, the baby boomer generation pines for the walkable towns and neighborhoods of their youth.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.