Writing: How far were you allowed to travel on your own at age eight?

Posted on October 18th, 2009 at 3:49 pm by in News

Writing: How far were you allowed to travel on your own at age eight?

Want to see the original article and comments? Click (here)


How far were you allowed to travel alone when you were a kid?

Are you per chance Vicky Thomas, from Sheffield?

If by some very unusual fluke you are from Sheffield, England and your name is Vicky, you are now in your late thirties, married and have a lovely son named Ed. Most of your extended family has lived in Sheffield for the entirety of their lives; the Thomas’ are Sheffield through and through. When you were eight years old your parents let you walk a half a mile by yourself to the local pool. At the very same tender age of eight, your father was allowed to walk a mile to the woods, while your great grandfather walked unattended six miles to the local pond. For a host of complicated reasons ranging from dangerous streets to a lack of nearby play spaces to a largely media induced fear of many things, I am sorry to report, that you only feel comfortable letting your son walk by himself to the end of the block. Otherwise, you drive Ed to the football pitch and the entire family drives to the countryside for bike rides.
The Thomas’ are just one of many extended families in Sheffield, England extensively queried as part of a study conducted in 2006 examining how childhood mobility has changed since the early part of the Twentieth Century. The findings and the map pictured to the right are startling, if not downright scary. And it is unfortunate that I probably don’t need to tell you the Sheffield Study findings are not particularly unique. In fact, most of us could be perfect stand-ins for Vicky.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

For better or for worse, the landscape of childhood, and parenthood has changed dramatically over the years. The reasons for these changes are many but the implications are huge, particularly in the realm of public health where, among other things, we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. And although there have been numerous studies linking sprawl to significant statistical increases in such things as susceptibility to high blood pressure or BMI (body mass index), we rarely talk about the design of our streets and cities as tools for tackling some of these problems. That’s right, largely by design, people (not just children) tend to be on average at least six pounds heavier in car centric or suburban-esque areas.

Why aren’t we talking about how the design of the places we live can reduce health care costs?

To properly set the ‘table’ for imagining how Austin’s streets and public spaces might be different or how we might address the implications of the Sheffield Study through design, do you mind if we take a step back for a moment?

Better yet, I need your help setting the table, err scene, for this to be a really good conversation.
Where did you most enjoy playing when you were 8 years old?
How far were you allowed to travel on your own?
Post your experiences here or if you are resistant to registering to post, feel free to email them to me and with your permission I will post them. Not from Austin? That’s a-ok, share your stories and experiences anyway- I can’t wait to read them. I will be posting my own later today.
Want to read more about some of the people, places and ideas discussed in this article?
The Sheffield Study-

John Thackara on the study and its implications (here)

A Daily Mail article on the study (here)

One organization and a few people who are beginning to challenge the culture of a risk management focused approach to childhood-

Common Good (here)

Lenore Skenaszy (here)

Tim Gill (here)

A brief cultural history of attitudes towards obesity-

An entertaining summation of Atlantic Monthly articles on obesity and culture (here)

Good bedtime stories-

The Dangerous Book For Boys (or Girls) by Conn and Hal Iggulden


Want to talk more about these topics in person?
Next Tuesday (October 20th) at 7.00 pm at 501 Studios at E. 5th and Brushy Street, I will be presenting brand new research on the role of play spaces in cities as part of a symposium entitled, Building A Healthier Austin. It’s free and there are some great people presenting from a variety of different local organizations and backgrounds.

You can find more information on the event by clicking (here)


The Weekly What If? is a weekly column by Alex Gilliam. Alex Gilliam is the founder of Public Workshop, an organization dedicated to helping individuals, schools, and communities achieve great things through design. The Weekly What If? focuses on re-imagining various aspects of how Austin, as a city, functions and feels. The goal is to foster a larger conversation about the present and future shape of our City.

Do you have a suggestion for something that needs to be re-imagined in Austin? Please email your suggestions to Alex:

alex (at) publicworkshop.us