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Dangers of a risk-free childhood

There are some pitfalls in Camden’s efforts to create a Healthy School Street plan for Hampstead, argues veteran campaigner Mayer Hillman

15 October, 2019 — By Mayer Hillman

From Camden Council’s Neighbour­hoods of the Future – Ideas for School Streets

TODAY’S children are more fortunate in many respects than children of previous generations.

Witness the rising numbers who now have a bedroom like a mini- “bed-sit” with a TV games computer and a mobile phone, and the availability of an effortless parent-chauff­eured means of travel in the family car.

A growing downside to these benefits of material affluence is the steady, albeit unwitting, erosion of their rights to a safe environment outside the home. Their lives are now more circumscribed, evolving in ways that in some key respects mirror life in prison.

Just reflect: children, in common with convicts, have a roof over their heads, regular meals and entertainment but their waking hours are spent under adult surveillance and they are not allowed out on their own. This seriously diminishes the quality of their lives.

The most obviously undesirable outcome of this process can be seen in the impact on their travel. Although totally reliant on walking and cycling for getting about on their own or with friends, the priorities attached to the different travel methods have led to their exposure to a more dangerous, polluted and unpleasant environment.

Camden’s transport policy is trying to reverse this trend. To this end, it is consulting with the public to establish the degree of support for a Healthy School Street (HSS) zone within the Frognal and Fitzjohn’s area. As it points out, complaints over the years have been made about traffic in school rush hours. Many initiatives, notably by implementing school travel plans, have been taken, but they have been disappointing in terms of reducing this traffic.

The proposal to be trialled for 12 months is aimed at reclaiming streets nearby schools to make it possible for children to walk, scoot or cycle in a much safer, less polluted environment.

Mayer Hillman

Roads will be closed to traffic, other than to residents’ and electric vehicles, at school opening and closing times. The restriction will operate for an hour and a quarter on mornings and afternoons of term time using Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras followed by drivers breaking the law being issued with a Penalty Charge Notice.

The street, together with adjacent open spaces, used to act as children’s outdoor informal classroom where they could practise what they had learned in school and at home. But there are now fewer opportunities to develop invaluable coping skills from direct experience, extend their physical and social capabilities and enlarge their geographical boundaries. Telling them not to speak to “strangers” inculcates in their impressionable minds a grossly misleading view that molestation by strangers is not uncommon and a perception that they should distrust people they do not know.

Children are far more at risk from their parents or someone known to them than they are from strangers (unless the strangers are behind a steering wheel!).

In reality children have been made more vulnerable by reducing their exposure to any harm. It may be questioned whether society should be aiming to create a sanitised way of life that is free of risk.

It could be observed that taking risks has been a key element in evolution. How else will children learn how to deal with the outside world on their own and to think for themselves if they are deprived of this basic learning in their formative years?

The other significant adverse consequence is that children are getting less regular exercise leading to the rise in obesity.

A strategy to reflect their rights to a safe environment requires the adoption of policies to withdraw danger from children. Minimising parental fears and the perceived need to accompany children on their journeys wherever possible have been translated instead into withdrawing children from danger, instilling in them the need to watch out for traffic at all times.

Making them distrustful of adults they do not know could be seen as disturbingly effective ways of inducing alienation, disaffection and anti-social behaviour. We have condoned a fundamental infringement of their rights.

The effect of Camden’s proposal will go some small way towards reversing the damage that the car has caused to children, no less important simply because it has been so carelessly overlooked.

It will lead to an improvement in local air quality and encourage the adoption of healthy lifestyles by promoting walking, cycling and the use of public transport.


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