The Geography of Freedom

Like many geography educators, I am fascinated by a book by Colin Ward called The Child in the City:

 “This book is an attempt to explore the relationship between children and their urban environment. It asks whether it is true, as very many people believe it to be true, that something has been lost in this relationship, and it speculates about the ways in which the link between city and child can be made more fruitful and enjoyable for both the child and the city”.

 The Child in the City is often used as a marker for the emergence of ‘children’s geographies’ or the ‘geographies of young people’. But I am interested in the particular social and historical moment that made it possible.  It was published in 1973, and came at the end of a period of an orgy of what Colin Ward called ‘neophilia’: the worship of newness for its own sake. This involved the restructuring of cities and towns by planners, and this ‘structure of feeling’ is well expressed by the government’s Planning Advisory Group in 1965:

 “The dominant task of urban planning over the next twenty years will be the physical reshaping of the large towns and cities, the modernization of their road and transport systems, the redevelopment of town centres and the wholesale renewal, whether by comprehensive development, of obsolescent housing. This process will call for a radical re-appraisal of the town’s functions and of the distribution of activities within the town”.

 However, by the mid- to late-1960s there was a growing backlash against the perceived inhuman planning system that seemed to sweep away the past and replace it with ‘brutalist’ modern buildings and transport systems. The 1964 Buchanan Report Traffic in Towns provided an overview of the effects of increased levels of personal mobility on urban form, and posed the question of whether towns could be habitable in the face of continued traffic growth. There was also a sense that the familiar townscape was in the process of being replaced by modern buildings. It is very important not to underestimate the implications of these developments for what it meant to live in a place. Historians of the built environment suggest that there was a strong strain of anti-urbanism in British society which ensured a reaction against modern buildings and environments. In 1969 the Skeffington Report called for public participation in the planning system. Robert Colls (2002) pays attention to the ways in which these changes represented a fundamental shift in ordinary people’s relationship with the landscape:

 “People sensed deep change as they experienced town-centre congestion, or decay, depending on what form of redevelopment it was, during the day, followed by dispersal to estates in the evening…”(p.345)

 Policies of suburbanisation, spatial fragmentation and town centre redevelopment meant that ‘many of the tangible facts of urban life were removed’. Colls cites the Cambridge Urban History which noted that in little more than thirty years was eroded ‘much of the ancient palimpsest, the mixture of public and private buildings, high streets and back lanes, which has given [towns] for so long a sense of place, of physical coherence and individual community identity’ (cited in Colls, 2002:346). Colls notes;

 “For a nation that swore in its constitution by community and lineage, this was a bitter pill. Older people found themselves in a land bearing little evidence that they had ever lived there. The house in which they were born, the back lane where they had pushed prams, the hall where they had danced, and the streets where they had run, were gone or were going to be gone”(p.346).

 This, then, is the context in which The Child in the City was written. It was concerned to explore the possibilities of the city as a place of freedom. It is important to locate the text within Ward’s overall political project, which may loosely be described as a form of ‘self-help’: texts such as Anarchy and Housing, Arcadia for All (with geographer Denis Hardy), and The Culture of Allotments (with geographer David Crouch) all stress the resourcefulness and ingenuity of ordinary people, who are able to help themselves without interference from the ‘great and good’. As education officer at the Town and Country Planning Association Ward co-authored Streetwork: the exploding school which was a handbook for urban and environmental studies, and was instrumental in founding the Bulletin of Environmental Education . It is this commitment to a philosophy of freedom that makes The Child in the City a classic text of the child-centred or progressive education movement, and should be read alongside works such as Douglas Holly’s Education or Domination or Society, schools and humanity. As Ken Walpole has shown, the post-war dreams of social democracy were based on the belief that childhood should be a state of freedom to explore and play and this was expressed in the design of public space. The failure of this vision was a source of concern and there were moves to involve children in visual and aesthetic education. These were local initiatives, designed to get children out of the classroom (the imagery was of ‘the exploding school’), learning from and through their environments, and learning to participate in a societal conversation.

 It is perhaps unfortunate that this form of educational approach emerged at the very moment when the conditions for social democracy were being eroded. Looking back at The Child in the City, which can hardly be seen as a ‘celebratory’ text, is to catch a glimpse of a world where the ‘fantasy cities’ of the past two decades, with their rainforest cafes, Imax cinemas, science centres, cathedral-like shopping malls, and executive ‘buy-to-let’ flats, and Boho gentrified neighbourhoods, were barely conceivable. The contemporary city is one where public space for children is even more marginal than when The Child in the City was published, and where children are welcome to the extent that they (or their parents) can afford to entrance fee. As Walpole states:

 “While the market is adept at creating all kinds of goods and services in the names personal fulfilment or flourishing, it shows less interest in supporting a range of public goods without which a participatory or educated democracy cannot flourish, such as safe streets, parks, playgrounds and public libraries”.

 For many commentators, childhood is increasingly being written into the script of preparation for life in a work-rich, time-poor, neoliberal world of ‘turbo-consumerism’. The result is a narrowing of the ‘geographical imagination’ and a truncated experience of space and place:

 “Good geography, a geography able to explore, connect, map, and engage, requires freedom. Yet freedom is easily lost. The society of long-work hours, constant surveillance and materialist, isolated lives, is a society in which freedom is dying and with it the large horizons and outward disposition of geography. One of the most tragic aspects of this enclosing state of comfortable passivity is how it affects children. Increasingly, children are deprived of the freedom to explore, to roam and hide away out of the reach of adults. The traffic and ‘stranger danger’ mean that streets are too risky, so too the parks. And what really is the point of unsupervised play?

 In a culture where children are expected to be always visible, to be meeting ‘targets’ and achieving ‘outcomes’, this question becomes harder to answer. Both work and play are now scripted as useful and productive ‘opportunities’. For freedom and adventure read ‘supervised outdoor learning experience’ and ‘professionally designed educational trip’. Children soon find that their only ‘downtime’, the only place where they are not being appraised, is when they are sat in front of a console or TV. In depriving children – and adults too – of environments in which they are free to explore and where risks can be taken, we are creating the conditions for the hollowing out of the geographical imagination” (Alistair Bonnett 2008).


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