I find myself becoming very nostalgic and clichéd when reflecting on the growing gap between children and the natural world. “It’s not like it used to be” trips off my tongue and before I know it I’m recounting tales of “when I was a boy.”
I grew up near Durham and we spent almost all our free time outdoors. I loved cycling, of course, but was also a keen walker and explorer. Our idea of a real treat was a camping trip – we’d go off on our own to camp in the woods when I was as young as eight.
A major part of this was our freedom to roam from our front door. Rarely were we taken anywhere in the car – we’d simply pull on our boots and head off.
This is rarely the case now. Fear of traffic, fear of strangers and major changes to the places we live mean children are often cooped up indoors or are only allowed to play outside after being driven for miles. As a parent and grandparent I really relate to these fears which are often very valid.
When it comes to traffic – the main reason parents cite for not letting their children cycle to school alone – we grown-ups urgently need to see some changes to our streets if we’re to set our children free.
Some of these changes are so blindingly obvious I often wonder why on earth they haven’t been made yet. Take 20 mile per hour speed limits for the streets where we live, work and play. Proven to make our streets safer, to increase cycling and walking and to bring about benefit to public health, some areas of the UK are already introducing these lower speed limits. We urgently need them everywhere.
At Sustrans we’re working with communities around the country to help them redesign their streets to make them safer and more enjoyable for everyone. From crowded urban areas to leafy National Trust villages, our DIY Streets projects are creating streets where children can play, wander and cycle. We need streets like this across the country.
Giving children back their freedom would make them happier and healthier. But it won’t happen without some big changes that go well beyond the choices being made by individual parents.
Malcolm Shepherd is Chief Executive of Sustrans