It turns out vehicular traffic does something else, too, more subtle but equally pernicious: It changes the way children see and experience the world by diminishing their connection to community and neighbors.
Appleyard worked with children in two suburban communities. One had light traffic and infrastructure that allowed children to walk and bike on their own. One had heavy traffic and children traveled almost exclusively by car. Using a technique called cognitive mapping, Appleyard asked groups of nine- and 10-year-old kids to draw maps of their neighborhoods, showing destinations such as school and friends’ houses, and marking places they liked or disliked. The results were revealing:
In the Heavy [traffic exposure] neighborhood, the children frequently expressed feelings of dislike and danger and were unable to represent any detail of the surrounding environment. Newell Avenue, the main road in front of the school, is a tree-lined street and yet few of the trees were drawn; instead, red (danger, cars) and orange (dislike) dominated. Participants from the Light [traffic exposure] neighborhood, on the other hand, showed a much richer sense of their environment, drawing more of the streets, houses, trees, and other objects, and including fewer signs of danger, or dislike and fewer cars. The children also drew many more places in the street where they liked to play and areas that they just simply liked: they noted playing in 43 percent more locations in their streets relative to the children in the heavy-trafﬁc-exposure neighborhood.
In sum, as exposure to auto traffic volumes and speed decreases, a child’s sense of threat goes down, and his/her ability to establish a richer connection and appreciation for the community rises.
“Designers can save the world,” was a common phrase I heard upon entering design school. It was the ultimate half-truth, one that resulted in class critiques filled with eco-inspired projects: billboards lined with solar panels, cell phones made of birdseed, wind-powered villages. Though the sentiment was admirable, these solutions were designed by students with no understanding of real-world economics and politics.
Ralph Caplan advises us not to underestimate the power of situation design, or “the concept of moving from the design of things to the design of the circumstance in which things are used.”
Finally, a definition of design that emphasizes the economy of time, an understanding of resource availability, and most importantly, using what’s at hand rather than producing more goods to solve a problem.