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Public Spaces

Urbanism is good for everyone, especially kids

We assume that kids belong in the suburbs, where they've got yards to play in and great schools to learn in. But good, urban neighborhoods can produce good kids as well.

Photo by the author.

Twenty years ago, sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote in The Great, Good Place that teenagers are a litmus test for a neighborhood's "vitality":

The adolescent houseguest, I would suggest, is probably the best and quickest test of the vitality of the neighborhood; the visiting teenager in the subdivision soon acts like an animal in a cage. He or she paces, looks unhappy or uncomfortable, and by the second day is putting heavy pressure on the parents to leave. There is no place to which they can escape and join their own kind. There is nothing for them to do on their own.

What do teenagers need? The ability to get around without a driver's license, for starters. A 15-year-old who can get around town on foot, on transit, or by bike or skateboard isn't just a convenience for their parents, who don't have to shuttle them around after school. They're given the tools for their own independence and self-discovery.

So the ideal place for a teenager is probably a neighborhood with sidewalks and bike lanes, ample public transit, and one which has schools, shops, and hangouts located within close range to home. That sounds a lot like Takoma Park, Bethesda, or below-the-Beltway Silver Spring. Rockville, with its new town center and excellent bike network, isn't far behind.

Scott Doyon at the PlaceShakers blog also notes that these places give kids the valuable opportunity to make mistakes:

For a child, having increasing opportunities to navigate the world around them, explore, invent, fall down, scrape knees, make decisions, screw up, get into—and solve—conflicts and, ultimately, achieve a sense of personal identity and self-sufficiency is a good thing. The right thing.
Of course, kids who can actually get around on their own two feet might do some unsavory things. Some of the kids who walk to downtown Bethesda, for instance, might've gone to buy drugs at the movie theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. But it's not like the car-bound kids in Germantown and Olney weren't doing that, and it's a lot harder to hide destructive behaviors when you're not in a two-ton vehicle.

Five Skater Boys, All Talking But Not To Each Other, On Chestertown Street
Kids talking on a stoop in Kentlands. Photo by the author.

The first time I was allowed to go anywhere by myself was at age 8, when my family lived in Georgian Towers in downtown Silver Spring. I was only taking the elevator from our apartment to the lobby, but I was so excited I screamed the whole way down. Pretty soon, I could walk to my friends' apartments, across the street to Woodside Park, around the corner to 7-Eleven, and so on. This ended a few years later when we moved to Calverton, where there's very little within walking distance. But I still knew that I had the power to do things on my own.

My 12-year-old brother, meanwhile, has spent his entire life in Calverton. When he's not at school, he's at home playing video games, but I've noticed he doesn't have a close group of friends because they don't live nearby. Last year, I took him to walk with my former boss, Councilmember Leventhal in a parade in Kentlands, one of Montgomery County's few truly walkable neighborhoods.

"Isn't this great, Tyler?" I asked as I took him around Kentlands' Main Street, where we could see kids ducking into shops and hanging out in a little green. "Kids your age who live in this neighborhood can walk to school, to friends' houses, and to the movies! Wouldn't you like that?"

Tyler looked at me like I'd said the sky was green. "Why would I want to walk?" he replied. "Mom and Dad can just drive me there."

This Kid Will End Up On The Hood Of My Car (edited)
Outside Blair High School on University Boulevard. Kids who have to walk in a place like this likely can't wait to drive. Photo by the author.

As a result, I tend to see most of the issues I write about, from better bike trails and infill development to skateparks and curfews, from the perspective of kids like my brother. I don't just think that good urbanism can make better communities. I think it makes better kids: confident, independent, and more aware of the world around them.

We talk about how urban neighborhoods are drawing young adults and senior citizens alike. But they have a lot to offer kids and teenagers, as well. That's the great part about good urbanism: it can work for everyone, regardless of age or situation.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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We assume that kids belong in the suburbs, where they've got yards to play in and great schools to learn in. But good, urban neighborhoods can produce good kids as well.

You raise two issues: urban design, and school quality. You then address the urban design issue, but not the school quality one.

I think stating that 'we assume' is too strong, but you're also conflating those two factors. How much of that assumption is based on form? How much on school quality? I'd argue the latter is more of a factor.

by Alex B. on Nov 23, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

Growing up on a farm is pretty darn great too...

by @SamuelMoore on Nov 23, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

I grew up in a streetcar suburb... kind of a perfect mix of what you're describing and the features that make the suburbs attractive to families.

by cbishop on Nov 23, 2011 10:40 am • linkreport

Neil Peart wrote about this 30 years ago, one of my favorite RUSH songs - "Subdivisions."

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone
Subdivisions --
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Subdivisions --
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight

Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights...

by Jay on Nov 23, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

Wait, we still assume that kids belong in the suburbs? Is that still a thing? Admittedly, I'm not in touch with suburban people much....

by Tim Krepp on Nov 23, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

@Alex B., I think it's actually three issues:

1. yards
2. schools
3. car- (or non-car-) dependence

by Miriam on Nov 23, 2011 11:12 am • linkreport

I don't have kids so maybe I am not qualified to comment, but I have friends who are raising smart, successful, well educated children who have attended DC public schools and gone on to highly rated universities. With parental involvement, I think kids can get a good education in our public schools.

These kids have also benefited from the ability to get around the city on their own, without having to be driven everywhere, because they live in walkable neighborhoods and have access to transit. Formal education isn't everything. You learn a lot about life by be able to have the sort of graduated levels of independence that are easier to have in an urban or small town environment. I've always thought of the suburbs as not urban, not small town, but the worst of both worlds.

by Christine on Nov 23, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

Cosigned x 100, Dan. Our little dude is just a year and a half old, so there's no question of letting him go anywhere by himself yet. But we do take family walks in our neighborhood and it's been a great opportunity to combine independence--he can run by himself as long as we're not near a crossing--with an opportunity to start teaching pedestrian skills. Already he knows that we hold hands at street crossings and understands that we "wait" until a parent says "let's go". (Not coincidentally, these are the same commands I use for my dog. Efficiency!) There are a lot more opportunities to teach these good habits in the city than in the suburbs.

@Tim Krepp: Maybe we, the city-lovers who read this blog, no longer assume that kids belong in the suburbs. But my experience outside the cities suggests that we are still in the minority. My exurb-dwelling family regularly tell me they can't wait for us to leave our English basement and move into a "real house."

by Megan on Nov 23, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

@Megan, you're right of course. The statement "We assume kids belong in the suburbs" was ridiculous to me. I've had a steady trickle on neighbors decamp to the 'burbs, but the overriding reason was school, not space or yards. Many have been happier, but a sizable number found that the grass was not only not greener, but quite a bit browner on the other side. But either way, I don't come in daily contact with a lot of people who would agree with that statement.

But of course, we are a minority, as you pointed out.

It all depends on who the "we" Dan is referring to, I guess.

by Tim Krepp on Nov 23, 2011 11:22 am • linkreport

I couldn't agree more. At age 17, I couldn't be more fortunately to grow up in the District of Columbia. I've been able to transport myself around the city since I was 13, I ride either Metro or Metrobus almost everywhere, including school (Yes, I actually go to DCPS), my job, and to see friends. The District's superior quality of public transportation has made it day for me to be independent, which is not possible in most places in this country without a driver's license and a car. I turn 18 next week, and feel no need to drive.

by arm on Nov 23, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

As a parent of two teenagers and two toddlers I can say that the city definately provides advantages. My teens can actually help out with errands (going to the grocery store, picking up the toddlers at daycare, etc.) that they couldn't do if we lived in a car-dependent suburb. They can also go to and from school and after-school activities on their own. That frees up me and the wife from constant taxi duties, allowing us as a family to actually eat breakfast and dinner together, etc. Good article Dan!

by dc denizen on Nov 23, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

Good article. I think there are some legitimate advantages to suburbs for toddler-age kids, but they are absolutely horrible places for kids older than about 10.

When I was that age I used to walk from my parents house in suburban Gaithersburg to the nearest strip mall. It was about a mile. I spent hours there, every week. If it had not been within walking distance, I'd have spent my childhood in the basement.

by BeyondDC on Nov 23, 2011 11:40 am • linkreport


Quoting significant passages of Rush lyrics has got to be against the GGW posting guidelines. If not, it should be.


by oboe on Nov 23, 2011 12:00 pm • linkreport

Thank god I grew up in Arlington, where schools, transit, shops, parks, and friends houses were all within walking distance of my old house. The 38B went to Georgetown, Metro rail destinations were often in DC or other places in Arlington like Pentagon City. Most kids stared riding public transit independently by junior high if not before.

Arlington's current reconstruction of the three county high schools is making them more urban and pedestrian friendly. The architect for the new Washington-Lee High School broke up the huge megablock by inserting a public walkway that crosses the site. About half the kids (maybe more) walk or bike to school in Arlington. It's unfortunate that Blair moved from it's old location close to downtown Silver Spring to Woodmoor.

by JP on Nov 23, 2011 12:03 pm • linkreport

Now for a separate post on the merits of playing video games vs Legos!

And having grown up in the 'burbs of Buffalo, I think getting to build tunnels though 6-ft snow drifts in our front yard was a good influence, as was biking in summertime to the local parks. Cities have parks too, but natural parks have advantages over landscaped gardens. (Old photo FWIW: And, hm, on the topic of kids playing in city parks, consider - actually a rare scene, to see unsupervised children playing (like I did ages ago). See too

by YouStreet on Nov 23, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

Such debates are merely forums for advocates of each to argue the superiority of their choice. They settle nothing. I'd say some proponents of one have at times argued strenuously for the opposite, depending on where they were in life. Meanwhile, rural folk remain convinced that both sides are woefully negligent for keeping our children away from the restorative powers of regular interaction with unsullied nature (and entirely too much communion with the dangerous hedonists thronging urban areas).

by Crickey7 on Nov 23, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

@SamuelMoore - good point, farm based adolescence teaches its own high-quality independence and self reliance, and shouldn't be discounted (though I would also add that animal husbandry is an important component of this)

@arm - great to hear about a young person's experience as a teenager in the District. I grew up in Las Vegas, and by age 15, if you didn't have someone helping you out driving around, you definitely could not engage in many of the expected teenage and high school activities. It was a pretty big burden to place on families. The city had barely any transit to speak of at the time.

I spent a great deal of time in the developing burbs of Northern and Southern Nevada, and while it wasn't everyone's experience, having a bike and an adventurous circle of friends provided a fair amount of independence between ages 8 - 14. We still had a lot of undeveloped desert to explore, catching lizards and scorpions, later setting off fireworks and Estes rockets to our hearts content. Of course, when I go back now, there are very few undeveloped desert tracts close to housing, and I think that speaks to the importance of unstructured open land.

Perhaps its showing my age, but I worry about young people now, and the highly isolating, yet stimulating things they can find online and on their gaming consoles. We had Mario and Zelda, but the quality of the games was primitive compared to drug-like hyper-reality of current games. So long as kids are still asking for bikes for birthdays and holiday presents, I'll have faith in the future.

by Will on Nov 23, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

Dan, glad to hear this fundamental point that I wrote about over two years ago:

It's not possible to overstate that walkable urban places are better for everyone as they're humanity's natural habitat.

The same is true for seniors:

by Cavan on Nov 23, 2011 12:33 pm • linkreport

I grew up in a rural area, and could raise kids in a urban or rural area. I don't think one should argue that urban kids are better but for a long time its been assumed (in the USA at least) that kids are raised to their detriment in the city whereas Dan lays out some facts as to why kids (especially Teens) can thrive in urban areas.

by Canaan on Nov 23, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

Dan Reed makes some good points on the benefits of an urban environment for raising kids.

Other commenters make some bad points arguing that urban environments (or any environment for that matter) are unequivocally "the best".

Every environment has its pros and cons. Cities provide more opportunities for independence. Suburbs provide more opportunities for parents to influence/control their kids and what they come into contact with. Some kids do great with independence. Some kids really need more boundaries, supervision, and control.

I'd also argue that environments with high homeownership rates (DC's rate is 42% vs. Fairfax at 70%) benefit kids because homeowners are more likely to take an interest in the neighborhood and the kids in them. This is just one example of the many factors you have to consider before glibly proclaiming that any one environment is "best".

With parental involvement, I think kids can get a good education in our public schools.

And, with parental involvement, I think kids can learn independence and be perfectly happy in the burbs.

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

It's unfortunate that Blair moved from it's old location close to downtown Silver Spring to Woodmoor.

It's interesting that in the intense debate, political controversy, student protests, community opposition, and accusations of racism related to the fight to re-build Blair at Woodmoor, the issues Dan Reed raises were never even voiced. The closest thing to a land use implication that was considered was increased traffic at 4 Corners but the impact of the change of built environment was never considered by the students, parents, or community.

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

LOVED this post! Spot on. Growing up in the suburbs is so boring.

by kevin on Nov 23, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

A bit of a tangent but an interesting piece of history regarding the fight to build the new Blair. Brings back some great memories:

Students Protest for New School; Teachers Cheer Rally At Montgomery Blair
The Washington Post
The Washington Post
November 24, 1993 | Stephen Buckley | Copyright

Most of the students at Montgomery Blair High School walked out of classes for two hours yesterday to protest the County Council's refusal to build a school at a site nearby in Silver Spring.

At a boisterous rally in the school gymnasium, students, surrounded by cheering teachers, ripped council members who voted last spring to renovate the 60-year-old school rather than build one on the so-called Kay Tract at Four Corners, about a half-mile from the county's most populated school.

Waving posters with messages such as "Kay Tract or Bust" and chanting "Be Fair to Blair," about 2,000 students jammed the gym.

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

One last thing...ever seen the movie "Kids"? Obviously, raising kids in most parts of DC is nothing like this fictional movie but I think this movie reviewer correctly notes how the movie accurately portrays some of the dark sides to urban teenage life:

A Film Review by James Berardinelli
The vision presented in Larry Clark's Kids is as bleak as things get -- an ugly portrait of amoral youths who resort to drugs and sex not as a form of rebellion, but to fill the void of otherwise empty and meaningless lives. Unfortunately, Kids is an accurate portrayal of how certain inner city children live out their existences. Take a look at the documentary Teen Dreams if you doubt how dangerously close to reality this fictional presentation comes.

Kids is shot like a documentary and, in its uncompromising depiction of every aspect of the characters' social and sexual interactions, it seems almost too raw for fiction. Clark has meticulously designed this movie to blur the lines between reality and scripted story, hiring 20 year old Harmony Korine to write a screenplay that reflects what's really going on in the streets.

Kids follows the activities of a small group of teenagers over a twenty-four hour period (a little time frame cheating, by way of flashbacks, occurs). And what a twenty-four hours it is... Kids will likely shock some viewers, but even those expecting this kind of grueling expose will be disturbed by the casual manner in which the most heinous acts are carried out. If people lose their souls as children, what happens when they grow up? This is a tragedy without a last act -- a wrenching experience that offers no catharsis.

One of the ironies surrounding Kids is that the MPAA wanted to slap it with an NC-17, which would have disallowed anyone under 17 from seeing it. Yet, despite the graphic nature of the material, this is the sort of thing many teenagers live with every day -- so, apparently, the message is that they can experience it outside theaters, but not view it on the screen.

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 2:03 pm • linkreport

It's not possible to overstate that walkable urban places are better for everyone as they're humanity's natural habitat.

Actually, history does not support this statement. Here are the facts:

Through most of history, the human population has lived a rural lifestyle, dependent on agriculture and hunting for survival. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas. By 1900, almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, 30 percent of the world's population resided in urban centers. The number of cities with over 1 million people had grown to 83.

The world has experienced unprecedented urban growth in recent decades. In 2008, for the first time, the world's population was evenly split between urban and rural areas.

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church -I think you're fooling yourself if you think the same dark sides to... teenage life are not found in suburban places.

by Tina on Nov 23, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church

Perhaps that sentence should be amended to omit the word urban, because then it's correct.

by MLD on Nov 23, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

@falls church - I read the passage you quoted and focused on

walkable... places as the important concept, with the implied meaning taken from the context, "as juxtaposed to un-walkable/car-dependent places".

With that in mind the evidence you provide supports walkable places as humanity's natural habitat compared to un-walkable places.

by Tina on Nov 23, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

@MLD -you beat me to it...

by Tina on Nov 23, 2011 2:36 pm • linkreport

Many studies in recent years have shown that the sort of thing Falls Church describes from "Kids" is more common in the suburbs than the city. To think that drugs, sex, and gangs aren't alive and well in the suburban environment is to live in a dream world.

by BeyondDC on Nov 23, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport

@BeyondDC Anecdotally, I've found that the experience displayed in "Kids" to be typical of my peers in upper-middle class suburban America. In fact, when I saw it many years ago, I was struck by how much my peers were into destructive behavior not as recreation, but out of boredom and lack of meaning in their lives. It was only when I re-watched several years later that I noticed it was set in an urban setting.

by Tim Krepp on Nov 23, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport

I was going to say, BeyondDC, suburban life can be just as nasty as city life. I was a teen in the 90s in a very car-dependent suburb in San Diego and my school was a pit of people who got drunk in fields near the reservation, used meth, were white supremacists, and so on. (There was even a school shooting in 2001, woo.) So I got all the crime, and the hate for "nerds/schoolgirls" that is supposedly the realm of urban schools without any of the benefits of the city. I think the general benefits of the DC suburbs within the Beltway and on the Tysons-Dulles corridor let us ignore the worst of the suburbs a bit...

by Jen on Nov 23, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure that I'd agree that walkable places are humanity's natural habitat, either. What kind of walkable places (the way we currently conceive of walkable places) are there on the savannah?

Certainly walking is one of humanity's natural forms of locomotion, in addition to running. Though, again, it is true that "natural" is not a synonym for "good".

by Miriam on Nov 23, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

Regarding the comments on a rural upbringing: I grew up on 30 acres outside a town of 3000 people (without cable TV, video games and the internet). I wouldn't wish that on any kid - even if all the electronic diversions were available.

Any pros (learning how to drive a tractor as a pre-teen, perhaps??) were more than canceled out by the isolation and sheer boredom.

by rogerwilco on Nov 23, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

I think you're fooling yourself if you think the same dark sides to... teenage life are not found in suburban places.

While there are exceptions to every generalization, most people would characterize teenage life in the suburbs as "boring" rather than bordering on anything like what's depicted in "Kids" (which is pretty much the opposite of boring).

To think that drugs, sex, and gangs aren't alive and well in the suburban environment is to live in a dream world.

I'm not saying that drugs, sex, and delinquent behavior aren't prevalent in subrubia but it's very different. Have you ever seen the movie Dazed and Confused? It's about teens living in suburban Texas throwing massive beer bashes, smoking reefer like there's no tomorrow, having sex, and engaging in all manner of delinquency and destruction. Yet any casual observer can see that it's on a totally different plane than what's going on in "Kids".

With that in mind the evidence you provide supports walkable places as humanity's natural habitat compared to un-walkable places.

Ok, so for most of human existence, walking was pretty much the only form of transportation, so by YOUR definition humans lived in walkable places because they had no choice but to walk (unless they were going to sit or lie down). However, below is a more commonly accepted definition of "walkability" (from wikipedia). I don't think you can characterize the rural places where most of human existence has taken place as meeting this definition:

One proposed definition for walkability is: "The extent to which the built environment is friendly to the presence of people living, shopping, visiting, enjoying or spending time in an area".[3] Factors affecting walkability include, but are not limited to: street connectivity; land use mix; residential density (residential units per area of residential use); "transparency" which includes amount of glass in windows and doors, as well as orientation and proximity of homes and buildings to watch over the street; plenty of places to go to near the majority of homes; placemaking, street designs that work for people, not just cars and retail floor area ratio.[4] Major infrastructural factors include access to mass transit, presence and quality of footpaths, buffers to moving traffic (planter strips, on-street parking or bike lanes) and pedestrian crossings, aesthetics, nearby local destinations, air quality, shade or sun in appropriate seasons, street furniture, traffic volume and speed.[1][5] and wind conditions. One of the best ways to quickly determine the walkability of a block, corridor or neighborhood is to count the number of people walking, lingering and engaging in optional activities within a space.[6]

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 3:48 pm • linkreport

One other thing that makes the "drugs, sex, and gangs" in suburbia much different than in the city. You're not likely to come across it walking down the street...mainly because people don't walk in suburbia. That is, you have to make more of an effort to seek out those things in suburbia...just like you have to make more of an effort to seek out anything that's further than your driveway in suburbia. So while those things may exist in suburbia, it's far easier to stay sheltered from them.

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 3:53 pm • linkreport

@Mirriam - What kind of walkable places (the way we currently conceive of walkable places) are there on the savannah?


savannas are areas with both grass and trees but where trees don't form a canopy and have a rainy or wet season/dry season. The NJ Pine Barrens and other areas of of the US are considered savannas.

Maybe you want to think of some other type of ecosystem as a proxy for a climate thats natural but harsh for human habitation.

But a natural biome not suitable for human habitation is not "bad", as you imply. It just "is". Thats a bias your expressing - "not good for people" is not a synonym for "not good".

I can imagine walking for days on a natural savvana -indeed thousands of people do:

by Tina on Nov 23, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

Maybe I shouldn't have said urban environments are "the ideal" for teenagers. Maybe "an ideal" would be better. I certainly think there are upsides to every kind of community, but as @Tim Krepp and @Megan mentioned, there's a large contingent that sees auto-dependent suburban communities as the be-all end-all.

I don't really like Rush, but I love the song "Subdivisions":

Those little suburban houses outside Toronto shown in the video are rather dense compared to much of the newer suburbs outside DC. Throw in some sidewalks, good transit and maybe a little shopping area and they might be pretty decent.

by dan reed! on Nov 23, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church -it sounds like you're getting your information about adolescent life in America from movies and stereotypes. Maybe you need another source of data.

Regarding 'walkable'-the definition you linked emphasizes "the built environmnet" and how a built environment is walkable, or not. Indeed its the difference between a walkable built envirnoment and an un-walkable one that Dan Reed describes.

If you agree that walking is a natural human behavior then certainly you must see how a built environemnt that allows humans to walk is one that more closely resembles the natural environmnet in which we evolved walking.

by Tina on Nov 23, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

^...than one that creates significant barriers to walking".

by Tina on Nov 23, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport

@Tina -- It's not that you can't walk around on savannahs. Humans evolved as walkers (and runners), on the savannah, so of course humans walked around on savannahs. It's that a savannah is not a "place", the way modern English-speakers (and especially modern English-speaking urbanists) typically use the word.

Also, in saying that "natural" is not a synonym for "good", I was not intending to imply anything about my personal opinion of savannahs, or any other ecosystem. I was just acknowledging the naturalistic fallacy.

by Miriam on Nov 23, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

Well, I know all about 1950s/21st century American urban/suburban life -- because I've seen the movie/tv series entitled [fill in the blank].

Anyway, great piece. Thank you Dan Reed!

by Sydney on Nov 23, 2011 4:57 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church. You're right, you don't see the sex and drugs walking around in suburbia. In fact, most of my "friends" (in the Facebook sense, not real ones) back home don't notice it either and still think they're safer than in cities. To them, they're a series of one off instances, and not a trend.

Bob, who shot off his gun and was beaten to death at a college party. Joe who OD'd. Tom who was really drunk and got stuck on the train tracks. Ed who wrapped his car around a light pole. Names obviously changed, but all kids from my school (grad class approx 300). And this list could go on...

All kids from "good" backgrounds. None of them were rebels, they were just bored and without direction. Perhaps you need to re-watch Kids. It's the very boredom of their existence that drove the dysfunctional behavior.

And suburbs can have a whole lot of boring. (not all of them, of course)

by Tim Krepp on Nov 23, 2011 5:01 pm • linkreport

@Miriam-I completely disgaree. If I said I was going "walking on the savanna" to anyone I know they would recognise I was talking about a place.

by Tina on Nov 23, 2011 5:17 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church

I grew up in Fairfax County, but I can assure you that, circa 2000, kids I knew from George Mason High School (including some whose parents never suspected) were doing TONS of bad stuff. And then driving around under the influence.

by Anonymous on Nov 23, 2011 6:23 pm • linkreport

Excellent post, I hope it influences our place makers like the department of Transportation, public schools, and zoning. Unfortunatley what I can see from recent experience in the State of Maryland at least, is that the head doesn't talk to the hand, from the politicians up high who prostyletize smart growth, down to the day to day beaurocrats, who guard their fiefdoms against any change, lest it should diminish their standing or turf.

The lack of synergy is also a shame. For example, when they advocate for our children's health while continuing to develope land in a car dependant pattern through zoning and transportation policies. We have increasing obesity, depression, and social isolation in our younger population while our ever evolving technology gives us more options to relieve the boredom.

You could grow up disfunctional or flourish in any environment, but there's a reason we try to give our children the best chances to succeed. Why not make smarter decisions with the money we'll spend anyway, and try to get some of our agencies to work in concert for ideals they already proport to uphold. There are so many economies of scale to be capitalized on, if only we could get good leadership. It could be that during these tough economic times we might be forced to act smarter rather than just talk smarter while continuing to bicker about semantics, ideology, and style.

by Thayer-D on Nov 23, 2011 7:46 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church -it sounds like you're getting your information about adolescent life in America from movies and stereotypes. Maybe you need another source of data.

No, of course movies are not my primary sources of data. But, both of those movies (Kids and Dazed and Confused) are widely recognized for their realism and people's ability to identify with them. They're a shorthand for describing how activities that sound the same (sex, drugs, and delinquent behavior) can take on very different forms and actually be quite different in different contexts.

I grew up in Fairfax County, but I can assure you that, circa 2000, kids I knew from George Mason High School (including some whose parents never suspected) were doing TONS of bad stuff. And then driving around under the influence.

I grew up in Montgomery County in the 90s and my high school had an undercover cop who patrolled the halls and and a gun once went off in the student parking lot, and one kid died in a drag race, and many were people were doing other kinds of bad stuff. But,it was still nothing like what I hear from friends who work as teachers in NYC public schools, or stats/stories like the below from DCPS:

In the 2010-2011 school year, students assaulted teachers and administrators on 48 occasions. Not to be outdone, the teachers themselves attacked students 64 times, a notable increase from the 36 substantiated attacks during the 2009-2010 school year.

Enough of the numbers, let's hear some details.

In June, Saunders wrote a letter to Mayor Vincent Gray, Chancellor Kaya Henderson and other school officials describing a Springarn Senior High School teacher attacked so violently by a student that she 'will likely need reconstructive surgery to repair the damage done to her face.'

But not all teachers are saints, either:

In one incident, Pamela Ransome, the principal of Johnson Middle School in Southeast, was removed from the school system this year after an investigation proved she committed corporal punishment. The mother of a victim told the Washington Post that Ransome grabbed her daughter's arm, pushed her against the blackboard, grabbed her by the hair, and punched her in the face — all because the girl refused to surrender her cell phone.

by Falls Church on Nov 23, 2011 10:13 pm • linkreport

I HATED being trapped in the suburbs - or large tracts of Navy Housing - nowhere near anything and my mother did not drive.

by Capt. Hilts on Nov 24, 2011 10:32 pm • linkreport

Thanks, Dan, for starting a lively line of discussion. I agree with you that children 8-14 need to find their way around independently and safely - "way finding" it's called.

This is the main reason I love the Georgetown Branch trail just the way it is, connecting Bethesda and Silver Spring in a safe, beautiful nature-based way. Children can use that trail to get all sorts of places without too many highways. Keep the Tunnel!

Thayer-D is right on--get the policy makers to work together to plan good environments that children (and others) can get around in. We talk about childhood obesity in our area but ignore the fact that the Georgetown Branch connects 6 schools--all of which could be walked or biked to with a safe, many-accessed trail. Research shows that if an exercise facility is within 1/2 mile of a person, the person is more likely to use it. How many people would you estimate live or work within 1/2 mile of the Georgetown Branch? We will never get another nature trail if this one falls under the light rail tracks of the Purple Line--there is no land for it.

by c.eduRivkin on Nov 25, 2011 10:31 pm • linkreport

Another exercise in wishful thinking from someone who hasn't had his own kids yet. The fact that some kids outgrow suburbs doesn't mean, at least in this area, that parents are going to live in urban neighborhoods where the public schools are lousy, drunks urinate in the alleys and older teenagers hang out on street corners smoking weed. If the point is that kids who live in Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase do well, it's hardly news that such kids lead a charmed life. Otherwise, actual parents, rather than graduate students in urban studies, have voted with their feet.

by Dan on Nov 26, 2011 9:17 am • linkreport


I agree with the gist of your statement, but I wouldn't call the Capital Crescent Trail the "last nature trail" in the county. The MoCo parks department lists no fewer than 33 nature trails, not including the Capital Crescent. And don't kids use public transit (with their parents when younger, and by themselves when older)? Certainly, the Purple Line would be a benefit to them as well.


Not all urban neighborhoods are great, but some are, and there's demand for more. Maybe you should look at Chris Leinberger's op-ed in the New York Times today, which suggests I'm not the only one exercising "wishful thinking." I happen to live in an urban neighborhood (University City in Philadelphia) that's got plenty of kids, top-rated schools and as far as I know minimal public urination (it helps that many blocks don't have alleys.) So I may just be a graduate student, but I know plenty of classmates and neighbors who have kids and have voted with their feet to live in an urban setting. It's not for everyone. And that's why you live where you do, and other people don't.

by dan reed! on Nov 26, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

I'm don't think teenage frustration relates to urban density, but rather connectivity without cars. I grew up in a suburb (Vienna) where most of the neighborhoods connected with bike trails and sidewalks despite being predominantly single family homes and I felt those connections afforded me great freedom when a pre-teen and early teen. It also depends on the neighborhoods themselves...I lived in a denser walk-up condo community of 300 units with sidewalks in Fairfax City, and now live in a single family neighborhood of about 300 without sidewalks, but I find people actually walk, talk, and visit their neighbors INFINITELY more in the single family neighborhood. On Halloween here we had perhaps 60 kids come to our door, where before almost no kids would trick or treat despite there being close to an equal number of children in the neighborhood. Long story short, I think logically there should be benefits to denser environments for teenagers, but I'm not sure the reality reflects this.

by stevek_fairfax on Nov 27, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

I realize there is more to an urban fabric than density (mixing uses etc...) but I am just trying to bring up the point that observations do not quite match the logical assumptions.

by stevek_fairfax on Nov 27, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

@Falls Church:

So while those things may exist in suburbia, it's far easier to stay sheltered from them.

Just to jump in late: there's a difference between sheltering oneself from negative influences, and sheltering one's kids from those influences.

While you're correct that it's probably easier for parents to ignore things like drugs and violence in the suburbs, it ain't so easy for kids to do so. Particularly when they actively seek these things out.

One thing that's not really subject to debate: we're seeing a epochal change in tastes. Generation X is living in urban settings to a degree that dwarfs the Baby Boomers. Gen Y is choosing urban living to a degree that dwarfs Gen X. And the trend appears to be continuing.

Most of my urban neighbors grew up in a suburban cul-de-sac, and the recurring theme is that they will try--if it's at all possible--to avoid visiting that fate on *their* kids.

So rural or urban it is.

by oboe on Nov 28, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

"So the ideal place for a teenager is probably a neighborhood with sidewalks and bike lanes, ample public transit, and one which has schools, shops, and hangouts located within close range to home. That sounds a lot like Takoma Park, Bethesda, or below-the-Beltway Silver Spring. Rockville, with its new town center and excellent bike network, isn't far behind." mention of Washington, D.C?

by kcash on Nov 29, 2011 12:03 pm • linkreport

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