Summer 2004, p.8-9

Restoring Vital Habitat: NYC Kids Need Car-Free Parks, Playgrounds and Side Streets

NYC’s 2 million kids are losing ground to NYC's 3 million cars. As a result, kids are getting sick.

Nine children per day, on average, are reported struck and injured by cars and trucks in New York City.* On July 7, 2004, Nicholas Ho was one of the nine, mowed down and critically injured by a red light running dump truck. Ten-year old Sebastian Ho, who rode behind his brother and saw his shoes fly off on impact, is today severely traumatized and highly unlikely get back on his bicycle anytime soon. As Nicholas has become a symbol of the daily carnage that affects thousands of NYC children per year, his brother Sebastian represents a quieter tragedy of hundreds of thousands more New York City children trapped inside, either afraid to venture out or forbidden by their parents to go outside and into harm’s way.

People of a certain age who grew up in the City will readily recount stories of long summer days spent playing stickball or jump rope on side streets, in city parks or neighborhood playgrounds. These places provided refuge for a generation of New Yorkers and with a little work, they can do so again.

In 1990, there were a reported 15,589 pedestrian injuries on New York City streets. In 2000, this number declined to 11,616, an impressive 33% reduction when population growth is taken into account. While health professionals, police, transportation and child advocates, traffic safety experts and the city Department of Transportation are mostly in agreement about what has led to the decline—extended and protected sidewalks and medians; exclusive and extended time to cross and stepped up enforcement targeting the most errant drivers—much of the reduction may also be due to fewer children on the streets.

As speeding and reckless driving has been brought under a greater degree of control, the total amount of traffic in New York City has inched ever upwards, as has the sheer acreage of urban space devoted to moving and parking it. Constantly gushing motorized traffic is now a fact of life for New York City kids, and not just on big scary streets. On side streets, parks and even playgrounds—areas where kids of yesteryear found refuge to play—cars and trucks have taken over.

The immediate, acute impacts of speeding and reckless driving are all too clear. The chronic impacts of a car-choked city, while less sharply violent, are much more widespread and insidious: asthma and attention impairment have been long linked to traffic pollution and the constant din of moving cars and trucks. Now, as families seek refuge indoors from a city overrun with motor vehicles they put their children in the path of a dangerous new epidemic – childhood obesity and its associated litany of health problems.

According to the New York Department of Health, 43% of New York City school kids are obese (24%) or overweight (19%). As a result, record numbers of kids now suffer from obesity induced illnesses such as: type II diabetes, depression, sleep apnea, liver disease and low self esteem. Later in life, obese kids are at a much greater risk to develop high blood pressure and heart disease. While the pervasive presence of junk food doesn’t help, health professionals are increasingly pointing the finger at decreasing levels of everyday activity as kids are literally driven indoors for lack of safe places to walk, bicycle and play.

Numerous studies have bolstered the common sense view that physical activity is crucial to the health of children. Health experts agree that kids need more than 60 minutes of moderate physical activity per day to maintain healthy weight, bone density, cardio respiratory fitness and psychological health.

Here in New York City it seems that everyone has a scheme to get kids moving more. Discount gym memberships for kids, yoga for families, more physical education classes in schools and $1 billion for new gyms, are all pieces of the solution. But piecemeal solutions prevent us from looking at the big picture. If physical activity is naturally integrated into a child’s everyday activities then exercise is not a prescription but a way of life. This integration can be achieved through common-sense changes to how side streets, playgrounds, and parks are managed.

According to the April 2001 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, children are 400% to 500% more likely to be physically active if they are afforded safe and attractive places to play. Following are three easy steps that New York City can take to restore urban refuges to keep our kids safe and healthy.

*The actual number if kids injured is probably much higher, as incidents causing relatively minor injuries often go unreported.

No Place to Play

  • Per capita, New Yorkers have 42% less park and open space than Los Angelenos.
  • Compared to NYC, children in Boston are twice as likely to have access
    to park or open space. 
  • 94% of NYC schools are without an athletic field.
  • 55% of NYC elementary schools don’t have
    playgrounds, or even access to one.

This article continues with How to Make Play Safe Again.