Where Have All the Children Gone? Community, Nature and the Child Friendly City
McAllister, Catherine Anne
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Most parents aspire to raise children who are independent, healthy and productive members of society. In this pursuit, parents struggle to balance freedom and safety. Current theory and research suggests that North American society has gone too far in the quest for safety and control, shielding children from necessary experiences. While confined in backyards and schools and spending increasing amounts of time in front of televisions and computers, children fail to build connections with the natural world and the wider community. In 1991, Canada ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention grants children specific rights, ranging from the right to clean water to the right to be heard on issues that affect them. While Canadian children fare well on many of the requirements, they are rarely consulted on decisions that affect their well-being. Public spaces, beyond schools and playgrounds, are not designed for or with children. Children’s free time is restricted, and outdoor play takes place within confined areas. Children have limited access to natural areas, and are trained to fear and avoid these spaces. These trends are disturbing from physical, social and mental health perspectives, as well as that of long-term environmental sustainability. The UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) program, Child Friendly Cities, offers guidelines for improving the way children are addressed at the municipal level. This research uses the City of Waterloo, Ontario, as a case study to document these issues and offer possible solutions. The research was designed to answer the following questions: “How do urban children perceive and interact with their communities?” “What is the relationship between children and the natural environment within urban settings?” “To what extent are children consulted or considered in community planning and decision-making?” and “Can the Child Friendly City model be used to re-connect children with the natural environment?” Fifty-four elementary school students were interviewed, asked to draw pictures of their neighbourhoods and to rate a series of local images. Results were combined with teacher and city official interviews, as well as analyses of strategy and policy documents. This study identifies ways in which Waterloo can help children connect with the natural world and become more active members of their communities. Overall, the research indicated that there are three main areas of concern: the child-nature interaction, the nature-community interaction and the child-community interaction. First, the child-nature interaction could be nurtured through improved access to nature. Children’s access to and use of nature in Waterloo is limited. Only 58.53% of students included a green element in neighbourhood drawings. Many children fear or are banned from natural green spaces. Outdoor education is decreasing, with some teachers avoiding field trips entirely. According to government procedures, children are not considered stakeholders of natural green spaces. Second, the nature-community interaction would improve with more consistent conservation and restoration efforts. While some city policies promote the acquisition and conservation or restoration of urban natural areas, others conflict with their intentions. Rapid development has led to a loss of opportunities for green space development. Third, the child-community interaction can be promoted by involving children in decision-making processes. There are no venues for children to participate in government. While older youth may participate in the Youth Recreation Council, there are no opportunities for younger children. Outreach is limited. Attention to these three main interactions would help the City of Waterloo become more child-, nature- and community- friendly. The UNICEF Child Friendly City program describes a set of goals and a framework that would support these interactions.