A city that is not safe for children is not a city.
  • CM
  • A city that is not safe for children is not a city.

A week ago, the Brazilian architect, urbanist, and former mayor of Curitiba Jaime Lerner spoke at Town Hall. He had many things to say about what makes a city a city—meaning, a place that meets the most basic needs of human beings. Lerner pointed out that, while mayor of Curitiba (in the '70s), his office initiated a program which taught children (not adults) how to separate garbage for recycling. "Once children could do this," he said, "then they could teach their parents." The result of this useful form of social engineering is that Curitiba now has the highest recycling rate (70 percent) "in the world."

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Lerner also pointed out that a city had to be safe for children, a place they could use without fear or constant exposure to danger. Elements of this position were adopted in the '90s by another mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, of another South American city, Bogotá. For Peñalosa, a bike path was not the real thing unless it could be used by children. If only adults could use it (risk it, feel safe in it), it was more a road than a bike path.

The point that Lerner wanted Seattle to grasp is that the best way to measure a city's success was the extent to which it involved and protected children. This kind of thinking flew against the values of our society (and city), values that privilege car mobility and storage over the safety and freedom of children. At a social level, this value system is made apparent by the fact that "child care workers are typically paid less than parking lot attendants." So, the hero of the city is the stranger (this is my view of things), and the true subject of the city is the child (Lerner's view).

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