Risk vs. Challenge

July 2, 2013

 

I heard a fascinating presentation by Lamine Madjoubi (Bristol University UK) at the International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland, OR last week.

http://www.livablecities.org/conferences/50th-conference-portland

Lamine studies the culture of childhood and has done research on children’s play in the UK. Using accelerometers and GPS monitoring, the research team is able to track children’s level of activity and their range over the course of a day. Given the interest in physical activity and obesity these days, the research is very important and helps us learn what factors in the built environment promote higher levels of activity.

The team compared intensity and duration of activity across formal to informal environments. Formal play environments would include playgrounds with equipment and some supervision and informal environments would include, of course, those in-between spaces that children love – alleys, streets, the spaces between buildings.

What the research demonstrated is that play in informal environments is more likely to be of higher intensity and longer duration. Those spaces that are informal but also allow for parental supervision (courtyards, for example) promote higher quality play but that unaccompanied children are more likely to play longer and choose informal areas over formal ones. Growing up in a small town 60 years ago with lots of independence, these findings are, to me, not surprising at all.

Dr. Mahdjoubi asks – “Can we take back the streets for children?”, knowing full well that the psychology of parenthood these days is very protective, often for legitimate reasons. Yet, have we gone too far?

Can we move the discussion from risk to challenge?

I think the same question would enervate our discussion of aging and frailty. As caregivers for elders we are often faced with the same dilemma. Certainly, in this age of litigation, the balance in institutions is shifted towards risk-reduction. Yet, in families too, the dreaded “Fall” is loaded with psychological burden and we have come to use the “Fall” as the marker (justification) for “placing” people in institutional environments. I am as guilty as others on this score. Is it no wonder that elderly individuals living alone don’t report falls?  They know full well what this can mean.

Discussions of safety are not productive when we frame the issue in black and white terms. Let’s think of this as a continuum and design built environments that push the envelope a bit without being totally negligent or totally over protective. We can’t eliminate risk from childhood or elderhood. We can reduce risk through smart design while promoting environments that challenge us, physically, mentally and socially. Indeed, facing risk and successfully coping promotes resilience and a new balance, at a higher level of fitness.

I don’t have the answers. The designers do. But this design, to be smart, must be informed by an insider’s knowledge of childhood and an insider’s knowledge of what it is like to grow old. Who has that knowledge?  Why children and elders of course!

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