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Creating child-friendly cities: lessons from Monstropolis

Presented by Dr Paul Tranter
Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, 27 October 2007

ISA MENZIES: It gives me great pleasure to welcome Dr Paul Tranter to the National Museum of Australia. This is part of the Museum’s programs for Children’s Week (20-28 October 2007). Thank you very much for coming.

PAUL TRANTER: ‘Lessons from Monstropolis’ - if you haven’t seen the movie Monsters, Inc. (2001), you might be wondering why Monstropolis? When we talk about child-friendly cities we’re talking about something that is very serious; we’re talking about children’s rights. But even though we’re talking about a serious issue, that doesn’t mean we can’t look at it in an entertaining way. So we’re going use a critique of the movie Monsters, Inc. to get some insights into the ways in which we might be able to create child-friendly cities.

I’m not suggesting that the creators of Monsters, Inc. did this intentionally. I might be seeing some messages that the creators did not intend, but the messages are there and they’re very important. Monstropolis is a monster world in the Pixar animated Disney movie Monsters, Inc. It’s a child-friendly environment, at least for the monster children, but not for the human children.

Monstropolis is a peaceful, quiet, unpolluted environment, and this makes it a child-friendly place. The street is safe enough for the child monsters to come along on their skateboards on the sidewalk and skate straight onto the road and off into the distance. There’s also a sense of connection between the adult monsters and the child monsters. On their way to work the adult monsters have friendly exchanges with the child monsters. We can see evidence that, for the monster children, Monstropolis is a child-friendly environment.

What about today’s children? A lot of parents reflect on their own childhood and they think, ‘Today’s children have got so many opportunities that we didn’t have when we were children.’ Today’s children have got access to the world wide web that we didn’t have. They’ve got parents who can drive them to school, drive them to the cinema, drive them to their friends’ places, drive them anywhere they like. They’ve got access to all these extra-curricular activities that they can be engaged in - every night of the week if the parents can organise it. And there’s all this canned entertainment: they’ve got Xboxes, PlayStations, CD players and iPods.

But despite all this, a lot of parents have this nagging doubt, ‘Are our children really any better off than we were as children or are they missing out on something?’ We can broaden that question to ask, ‘Are our cities child-friendly?’ What are the features of child-friendly cities? Child-friendly cities are cities that guarantee the rights of children. There are three broad rights: provision rights, protection rights and participation rights. There’s a couple of features of child-friendly cities that I’d like to focus on, and research by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Growing Up in Cities program has found that children all over the world value these things, no matter what city they are in. The first is that children should have the freedom to playfully and safely explore their environment in ever-increasing circles as they mature without the constant threats of traffic, danger or violence. Related to that point is that children should have a sense of connection with their community and their neighbourhood: a sense that they’re a valued and important part of their community; and a sense of attachment to the physical aspects of the environment - not only the trees, the rocks and the soil, but also people.

Why is that important? There’s a number of reasons starting with benefits for the children. If children have that freedom and that sense of connection, it encourages their development, not just physical development but also social, cognitive and emotional. It gives them a sense of place. They can’t get that sense of place when they’re passengers in cars because it’s missing the element of active exploration. In cars children might see more but learn less. Those of you who are parents will know that there are huge costs involved in transporting and supervising children.

Child-friendly cities are important for the environment. If you’ve been living in Canberra for long enough, you’ll know how significant the journey to school is in creating traffic congestion, because in school holidays the traffic congestion almost disappears.

Child-friendly cities are important for the community. If we want to build up a strong sense of local community, children are very important in breaking down that natural reserve between adults and generating a sense of local community. This has health benefits for everyone.

How do Australian cities fare in terms of children’s freedoms? We might think that we have very child-friendly cities, but the news isn’t good. It’s very low in Australia and there’s been a decrease in children’s freedom over recent decades. Let us look at some data from the 1990s that illustrates this. This data looks at one of the licences that parents give their children - in this case the licence to travel to places other than school alone. It shows that children in German cities have very high levels of freedom, children in English cities have less, and children in Australasian cities - in this case Australian and New Zealand cities - have very low levels of freedom.

The other side of that is that children in Australian and New Zealand cities are much more likely to be driven to school by car. Children in Australian cities get driven quite a lot, but the poor old German children have to walk and cycle everywhere. What’s been happening in recent times? Data from Perth, from between 1986 and 2000, shows a doubling in the number of children taken to school by car and significant declines in walking, cycling and use of public transport.

If we take a longer time period, and compare 1974 with 2005 - this is data from the Essendon area in Melbourne - we see that there’s been a huge increase in children taken by car with noticeable declines in walking and public transport use. The only bit of good news is that the number of children cycling has stayed relatively stable at one per cent. Well, so what? Does it matter that children have lost their freedom? Can’t we just replace this with more adult-organised activities, more chauffeuring or more virtual activities? One way to get an answer to that question is to look at the ways that adults balance the risks and freedoms that children are exposed to. We can ask: have we got this balance right?

What are the risks and benefits of letting children play freely? The risks are the standard ones such as traffic danger and ‘stranger danger’ [danger from meeting an unknown person]. But there’s a whole lot of benefits: children have fun; it’s good for their development; it’s good for parents; it’s good for the environment; and the community benefits as well.

But there’s another way of looking at this: we can talk about whether we bubble-wrap our children. If we bubble-wrap our children we try to protect them from some dangers but, in doing so, we expose them to other risks. Let’s have a look at the risks and benefits of not letting children play freely or explore their environment. There’s a huge list of risks and this is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you some idea: lack of exercise, increased obesity and we could add type 2 diabetes to that, lack of play opportunities, lack of development, traffic dangers, stranger danger, lack of road sense, pollution, lack of a sense of place, and the last one - depriving children of joy and wonder. I’ll come back to that one. They’re the risks.

What are the benefits? We keep our children safer, or do we? Maybe all we do is keep them safer in a very narrow, individualistic and short-term sense. Let’s have a look at some of these risks in more detail.

Stranger danger - we’re trying to protect our children from stranger danger by keeping them inside or driving them everywhere. But that means that the streets start to look lonely, deserted and dangerous all the time. The fear of stranger danger increases because there’s no-one around to keep an eye out for children.

Pollution inside cars - very few people are aware that pollution levels inside cars are higher than the pollution level outside, even on the footpath where children walk. Pollution levels can be several times higher for different sorts of pollutants.

Loss of a sense of place - children who are bubble-wrapped have no sense of place. They’re not looking out the window; they don’t know where they are; there’s no contact with the community or the neighbourhood. The only bit of exciting, risk-taking play they have is a virtual experience.

The last risk I want to talk about is loss of joy and wonder. Dr Catherine O’Brien, Canada’s leading expert on child and youth friendly planning, goes along to transport conferences and says to the traffic engineers and the economists who have been talking about cost-benefit analysis and the efficiency of transport networks, ‘Excuse me, have you factored in the loss of children’s joy and wonder?’ They look at her as if to say, ‘What planet are you on, lady?’ But she brings them around and gets them to realise that when we go down to the local shops, for example, as adults we’re locked into this mechanistic view where we want to get the bread, the milk and the newspapers and get on with the next job. Children, however, want to treat the journey as an experience. They want to treat it as a time and a place to experience joy and wonder through their interaction with the environment, kicking the autumn leaves, talking to their neighbors and so on. We can learn a lot about joy and wonder from our children.

How do we make our cities more child-friendly? There are three broad strategies we can look at: changes to urban form and transport; improving the design of neighbourhoods; and changes in social values. The first of these is best done at a state government level; the second at a local government level; and, the last point, changes in social values can be achieved at any level from federal, state and local government down to community groups and individuals.

Looking at changes to urban form, we know that if schools, shops and services are located closer to children’s homes, children are much more likely to be able to walk to those places. Now what is happening is that, for a range of reasons, we’re closing schools, shops and services. This is leading to a much less child-friendly environment.

We need to invest in transport modes other than the car. What are the child-friendly modes of transport? It’s pretty clear: walking, such as on a walking school bus; cycling, and you’re never too young to cycle apparently; and public transport. They’re the child-friendly modes, because not only can children use them independently without an adult but also when adults use those modes, it doesn’t make the city less child-friendly. In fact, if anything, the more adults you have out on the streets walking and cycling, the more likely it is for children to feel comfortable out on the streets as well.

The next thing we can think about is improving the design of neighbourhoods. This is part of all those fine detail issues that improve children’s freedom and enjoyment, safety and connection. One thing we need to do is to increase children’s safety from traffic, and in Australian cities we’ve made a start here. We’ve reduced speed limits in residential areas from 60 kilometres per hour to 50 kilometres per hour. People come out here from European cities and they think this is a joke. They can’t believe that we think 50 kilometres per hour is slow. In Berlin, for example, 72 per cent of the streets have speed limits of 30 kilometres per hour or lower. So we’ve made a start but we’ve got a long way to go before we really get child-friendly cities in terms of keeping children safe from traffic.

We also need to increase the feeling of safety and connection. We need to provide streetscapes that provide passive surveillance from the windows and balconies. For example, where there is a nice pedestrian walkway with trees and verandahs where people may or may not be sitting but there is a sense of surveillance. Or like we saw in Monsters, Inc. where there was the passive surveillance of the adult monsters looking at the child monsters.

We need interesting streetscapes for children to walk, cycle and play in that will make children want to stay and play in the local area. And we need more parks and playgrounds - or do we? The planners think we can make cities child-friendly by having a hierarchy of parks and playgrounds. So we have lots of little pocket parks, a smaller number of regional parks and then some city parks, and supposedly that makes a city more child-friendly.

But I’d like you to consider this quote from Colin Ward’s book The Child in the City (1977). Feel free to have a laugh because it is a ridiculous statement. Ward says, ‘The failure of an urban environment can be measured in direct proportion to the number of playgrounds.’ I know that sounds a bit weird, but the sentence before that helps to make sense of that: ‘One should be able to play everywhere easily, loosely and not forced into a playground or a park.’ I think what Colin Ward is saying here is that, if we rely on parks and playgrounds as our only solution to the creation of child-friendly cities, we are effectively saying to our children, ‘Look, sorry kids, but this is our city. We’ve created it for adults. We have left these little bits of it for you. There’s a park over there with a little blue swing, and a playground over there with a little red swing. But if you want to get from one park to the other, come and see us because we’ve made the city too dangerous for you.’ Having said that, we now need parks and playgrounds more than ever because our cities are dangerous places. But how do we make our whole cities more child-friendly? That’s where changes in social values are important. There are three social values that I think we need to address. The first one is that we need to slow down, and I don’t just mean slow down the traffic - everything needs to slow down. We need to challenge the idea that speed is good. Second, we need to move away from this individualistic focus to a focus on greater collective responsibility. Lastly, we need to think about what it means to be a good parent.

Let’s look at each of those in turn. There is a wonderful book by Carl Honoré called In Praise of Slow (2005). In a chapter called ‘Raising an unhurried child’ he says, ‘Children are not born obsessed with speed and productivity. We make them that way.’ He said that, when he was bringing up his own children, the most common phrase he used when he was interacting with his children was ‘hurry up’. I had a pang of guilt when I read that myself. I still say that to my 18-year-old son.

Carl Honoré said that, instead of telling your children to hurry up, give them time for unstructured play, and he was very clear on what unstructured play was. It’s not ballet; it’s not soccer; it’s digging for worms; it’s exploring the world and your own reaction to it at your own speed. Slowing down is something we might need to think about in creating child-friendly cities.

We also need to move from individualism to a greater collective responsibility and we need to recognise the collective impacts of all of our individual decisions. This is nowhere more clear than the collective impacts of parents who drive their children to school, to protect their children from the traffic dangers created by parents who drive their children to school, who are only doing that to protect their children from … and so it goes on.

What we need to do is get a collective agreement to break out of these social traps and to get an agreement to look after everyone’s children. That’s what the walking school buses are all about.

What’s a good parent? Is the best parent one who drives their children from one activity to another activity, preferably in a big four-wheel drive? Or as Fiona Stanley says in the book Children of the Lucky Country? (2005), ‘We should value childhoods for children rather than for adults.’ In other words, instead of preparing children for life in a consumerist world, just let them go and play in the mud. They’ll have a much more productive childhood.

But there’s another reason why we should be making our cities more child-friendly now, and it’s related to peak oil. Some of you may have heard George W Bush, in his State of the Union address last year, say that ‘America is addicted to oil.’ Psychologists tell you that the first step in curing an addiction is to admit that you’ve got a problem. So George W Bush is off to a good start.

You’ll be relieved to know that the rest of the talk is not based on the intellectual insights of George W Bush. But it is profoundly influenced by an event that occurred in late 2001. You can probably guess that that was the year Monsters, Inc was released.

So let’s have a look at Monsters, Inc. Monstropolis is the monster world. Monster’s Inc. is the factory in Monstropolis that provides all the energy needs for the entire monster land. They get their energy from children, and in particular from children’s screams.

The scary monsters capture children’s screams by bursting through their bedroom closet doors in the middle of the night and doing a roaring scary routine. The children scream, they capture the scream energy, which they refine and use as clean dependable energy. However, there’s a big problem in Monstropolis because children are getting harder to scare. And because children are getting harder to scare, there is now a scream shortage - or an energy shortage - and this news story is hitting the Monstropolis Horn newspaper. The front page of the Monstropolis Horn says, ‘Scream shortage looms. Rolling blackouts expected. Modern kids harder to scare’, and at the bottom the headline says, ‘Prices double at the pump’. It has a familiar ring about it.

A human child called Boo escapes into Monstropolis. The child turns out to be the solution to Monstropolis’s problems, because the monsters realise that, by looking at the behaviour of the child, they can get a technofix - they discover that laughter energy is far more powerful than scream energy. In true Disney fashion the monsters and the children live happily ever after.

That’s a quick summary of Monsters, Inc. We’ll come back and have a look at some more things in a minute. The important point is that movies like Monsters, Inc. may or may not give us the solutions, but they are very good at indicating our desires and anxieties. The production and consumption of the world’s energy resources, particularly oil, has been a major issue for the world over the last few years.

Why are we so concerned about oil? Cheap oil is absolutely central to modern western societies. We would not have modern western societies without cheap oil. We all know it’s vital to transport. Fewer people are aware that it is absolutely essential to practically everything we do, including food production. But just as in Monstropolis, where the source of energy from children’s screams was starting to go into decline, we may be approaching the stage in the world where the production of oil is starting to go into decline.

This graph shows global oil production. On the right-hand side is educated guesswork. On the left-hand side is historical fact. What we know is that 54 of the 65 most important oil-producing countries in the world have already peaked in their oil production. I’ll just say that again because it’s a pretty scary figure: 54 of the 65 most important oil-producing regions in the world have already peaked in their oil production.

The United States peaked in oil production back in 1970. With a few little ups and downs it’s been on the way down since, and now the United States oil production is about half of what it was in 1970. When the whole world gets to that situation that the United States reached in 1970, we’ve hit peak oil.

There’s not a lot of agreement on when we get to peak oil. Some people think it’s already happened, some people say 2007, 2010, 2020 or 2030. Less important than exactly when it happens is the fact - and there’s widespread agreement on this - that we won’t be able to adapt easily to a situation where oil prices have become very expensive. There’s agreement that it might take ten or 20 years to make the changes that we’ll need to make to adapt to a world of massively increasing oil prices.

What will peak oil mean for children’s safety? I’m going to give you the bad news first and have a really pessimistic look at what peak oil might mean for children. It could lead to widespread starvation, lots of children dying throughout the world because of a global shortage of food. If peak oil leads to a global financial system collapse, or another great depression, as many researchers believe is almost inevitable, that will increase the number of children living in poverty. If we start to get desperate for oil, then there’s likely to be more international conflict. More wars over oil is not good news for children. That’s the pessimistic view about what peak oil might mean for children’s safety.

But it’s not all bad news. Dr Scott Sharpe, from the Australian Defence Force Academy, and I have been looking at this issue of children and peak oil for a couple of years now. We have recently published an article in the International Journal of Children’s Rights Vol. 15, No. 1 (2007) looking at ‘Children and peak oil: an opportunity in crisis’. In that article we argue that peak oil is an opportunity to reflect on the present, on how we’re doing things right now.

We can ask ourselves a number of questions just by considering peak oil. First, what is it about our dependence on oil - and we’re massively dependent on oil - that we might want to change now? Second, what can we learn about improving children’s lives now by considering what it’s going to be like after we can’t rely on cheap oil? Third, how does our current dependence on cheap oil affect the way in which we conceptualise children?

These are the opportunities, but there’s a problem. The problem is that very few people are aware of peak oil, and those that are aware just don’t take it seriously enough. There are exceptions. For example, in 2005 the Swedish prime minister set up a task force which aims to make Sweden oil independent by 2020.

But as Jeremy Leggett, chief executive of Solar Century, (UK’s largest solar solutions company) explained during a recent visit to Canberra, this suggests that our society is in a state of collective denial that has no precedent in history in terms of its scale and its implications. If that seems like a sweeping statement, it may be, but I think he’s spot on. So we’ve got this situation of denial. But could that ignorance and denial be counteracted by using a focus on Monsters, Inc.? I think it could.

You can see Monsters, Inc. as an allegory for a number of things: firstly, the way in which we conceptualise children and how that has been changing; secondly, the likely responses to an energy crisis; and, thirdly, it provides some solutions to the likely problems that we’ll get with peak oil.

So let’s have a look at Monsters, Inc. and then we’ll look at our own world to get some insights on how we see and treat children to start with, and then how we might respond to peak oil.

First of all, the conceptualisation of children. Those of you who have seen the movie will be aware that the way the monsters see the children changes dramatically through the movie. They first see them as dangerous, then harmless, then vulnerable, and then as very capable - so capable, in fact, that they provide the solution to the energy crisis.

At the start of the movie we have Waternoose, the evil monster, who’s the factory boss. He says, ‘There’s nothing more toxic or more deadly than a human child. A single touch could kill you.’ You realise later in the movie that Waternoose knows that this isn’t true.

Then there’s the realisation that human children are harmless. And Sulley, the big friendly monster, says to his mate Mikey, ‘Hey Mike, this might sound crazy, but I don’t think that kid’s dangerous.’ So, there’s this change in the perception, from toxic to harmless.

Then later on in the movie Sulley discovers how vulnerable Boo is when he sees Boo’s reaction to his scaring routine. She’s absolutely terrified, and he starts to realise just what an energy policy that relies on children’s screams is doing to children.

And, finally, Boo shows herself to be very capable. One example of this is when she takes on Randall, another evil monster, and protects Sulley from Randall, leading to a happy ending.

In the real world we can see the same sort of changes. We see children as a nuisance or as vulnerable or we see them as capable social actors having a right to be consulted on matters affecting them. This last point is enshrined through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But cheap oil has affected the way we conceptualise children. It reinforces the idea that children are vulnerable, because we have to protect them from the traffic that is itself made possible by cheap oil. Of course, some children are protected from this danger by parents who drive them everywhere. But there’s a catch 22 in that: they’re contributing to the danger.

What about responses to the energy crisis? In Monsters, Inc. we see a whole range of responses to peak scream. There’s denial, behaviour change, advanced energy techniques, and then desperation and immoral activities - things that most of the monsters would see as immoral.

Mikey, the likable but dim-witted, one-eyed monster, refuses to accept the scream shortage. Going to work he comes to his car and says, ‘Come on baby, it wants to be driven’. So he’s refusing to accept the scream shortage. But fortunately we’ve got Sulley who, in very good role modelling for behaviour change, says, ‘Mikey, there’s a scream shortage. We’re walking.’ But of course Mikey doesn’t like that and tries to jump back into his car again. So this denial is very strong.

Then there are the advanced energy techniques. At the start of the movie, in an advertisement for Monsters, Inc., Waternoose says, ‘We’re prepared for the future with the top scarers, the best refineries, and research into new energy techniques.’ He doesn’t tell you about one of those new energy techniques - the immoral, desperate technique of kidnapping children to extract their scream energy. And this, of course, is a completely unsustainable form of energy because it would destroy the children.

In the real world, can we see these patterns: denial, behaviour change, advanced energy techniques and desperation? Yes, we can see all of these. We can see denial with people who continue to drive their car even down to the local shops to buy the milk or people who continue to drive bigger and more powerful cars or four-wheel drives. We have seen some good examples of behaviour change with programs such as TravelSmart, an Australian government initiative that tries to get people to change their travel behaviour. We can see advanced energy techniques through oil companies that are desperately seeking ways to extract the last drop of oil. We might even be able to imagine a situation where Australia involves itself in a war to maintain control of the last remaining oil resources.

What about solutions? The solution to peak scream is a technofix, the discovery that laughter energy is ten times more powerful than scream. The monsters learn this from a human child. They have this situation where a human child escapes into Monstropolis, and they learn, from watching the human child, how to solve their energy crisis.

There’s an important lesson here because we’re going to have to be creative to cope with peak oil, and young people are creative. They’re not afraid of new ideas; they’re open to new ideas, new worlds and new possibilities. One of the lessons from Monsters, Inc. is that, if we’re going to cope with peak oil, we should be treating children as capable social actors and involve them in the process of developing solutions. We can get a lot of insights from just watching our own children. But the key message from Monsters, Inc. isn’t so much that children are a part of the solution; the key message is about the treatment of human children.

A bit of a recap: Waternoose, the evil factory boss, gets together with Randall, and they come up with this evil plot to kidnap children. As you’ll see when you watch the movie, Waternoose explains, ‘I’ll kidnap a thousand children before I let this company die and I’ll silence anyone who gets in my way.’ So this Waternoose is not a particularly nice character as it turns out. The idea is that they kidnap the children and strap them into a scream extractor, which is torturing the children and making them completely useless. That’s a clearly immoral activity. But because it’s a children’s movie, of course Sulley comes to the rescue and stops Boo from being destroyed by the scream machine. The key message is that any solution that relies on the oppression of children has been put on notice.

I’d like to go back to George W Bush and have a look at his war in Iraq. I’d like to ask you to assume, just for a minute, that this war in Iraq had something to do with oil. And then we’ll ask the question, ‘Did this war lead to the oppression and the deaths of children?’ Well, yes it did, we all know that. What we may not know is the number of children who have been killed as a result of this war. A researcher in Melbourne, Gideon Polya, has estimated the number of avoidable deaths as a result of the occupation of Iraq since 2003. He estimates that some 500,000 children are now dead that wouldn’t be dead had we not started a war there.

The message is that, rather than having an energy policy that leads to oppression of children, we need an energy policy that contributes positively to children’s wellbeing. If we can work with children, treat them as capable social actors and let them have some fun, that might be an enduring way forward.

If we think about scream energy and laughter energy, can we identify real world equivalents of scream energy and laughter energy?

What’s the worst possible energy in terms of something that will lead to the oppression of children especially in the future? Who would have thought coal? We talk about clean coal. That’s a very clever marketing ploy, as the Australia Institute pointed out. When we talk about clean coal it’s a bit like talking about clean cigarettes. We’ve got dirty coal and we’ve got very dirty coal; we haven’t got clean coal and we may never have clean coal. Coal is something that contributes to global warming in a way that no other energy source does.

Another form of scream energy is oil; not just because of its impact on children through wars but also through its impact on global warming. So that’s a form of scream energy.

Let us think about what scream energy might mean. In his book Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis (2005), Jeremy Leggett writes: ‘Global warming will destroy economies and ecosystems’ - that’s clearly not good news for children - ‘if more than a small fraction of remaining coal is burned. Burning most of the remaining oil and gas will have the same effect.’ That’s a fairly important message to get across, and I guess you could put nuclear into the scream energy category as well.

What about laughter energy? I think the obvious laughter energy sources are solar and wind, which are sustainable and don’t have any of the negative impacts on children that the other sources such as coal and oil do have.

I’d like to conclude on a positive note. I think it is possible to achieve a shift in attitudes. We can achieve this fundamental change in our cities by reviving values that our children use. If we - as individuals, politicians, planners and policy-makers - just take the time to observe our children, then we may rediscover the joys of slowness, the value of community and working together, we may even rediscover our own inner child. If we can do all of these things, then we will recreate child-friendly cities. We’ll also have cities that are happier, healthier and more livable for all city residents, and cities that are better prepared for the coming of peak oil. Thank you. I would now like to invite questions and comments.

QUESTION: I like the way you’ve drawn parallels between various aspects of society. It’s made me wonder about some of the dangers outside the house. But I think we’re also creating dangers in the domestic environment. For example, I brought my three kids up without fences at all. There were no fences in the district. Now you have two-metre high metal fences in a rectangular arrangement, with a ricocheting of sound backwards and forwards so they’re getting a different aural environment. They’re getting cut off from their neighbours and therefore having less interaction - I think the dangers are at home just as much as outside.

PAUL TRANTER: I completely agree with you for a number of reasons. I mentioned inside the car pollution which is higher than the pollution outside. It’s the same with households. Pollution levels inside houses are usually much higher than pollution levels outside. There can be exceptions to that, but that’s a general rule.

Your point about fences is a critical one that I hadn’t really thought of before, which does have a big impact on our sense of community. It relates to the idea of privatisation and individual views of the world. We see ourselves as locking ourselves into our own little household unit.

One of the ways we might have to cope with peak oil is to become more self-reliant in the way we produce food, so community gardens might become more important. We’ve already made a start with this, because there are some community gardens in Canberra. But knocking down the fences might be a way to use water more efficiently to get those community gardens working between a number of households.

QUESTION: The city of Canberra used to be very open planned. But with the recent development of new suburbs this is no longer the case. If you take a car down the street, you can’t turn it around. You can’t take a truck down the street. As the previous questioner said, the fences are not fences; they’re two-storey houses. That’s what we’ve got our children growing up in.

PAUL TRANTER: Yes, that’s an interesting point. If you look at some of those new areas there’s a potential, if the density of the houses is higher, to have a higher density of service provision. But that hasn’t happened. One of the critical things is that, if we’re going to talk about increasing densities, we shouldn’t be talking about increasing the density of housing as much as increasing the density of shops, schools and services. So instead of closing, say, 39 schools, maybe we should think about ways in which we can not only keep schools open but also maintain the ability of children to access the schools and the shops.

QUESTION: Is there any evidence that stranger danger is worse now than it has been in the past?

PAUL TRANTER: As far as I understand it, the fear of stranger danger is much greater than the reality of stranger danger. If children are going to be assaulted or molested, it’s much more likely to be by someone they know - someone in their own family, someone in their own street, or someone in their own community organisation. So the idea of children being more susceptible to stranger danger is, in fact, a myth. Having said that, it’s a very real fear for parents, so you have to overcome that fear. One of the ways to overcome that fear is to re-populate the public spaces, including the streets. If you do that, then there’s that sense of passive observation by people who are out there all of the time. For instance, if you look at European cities, especially German cities where there’s a much greater use of public spaces and public transport by people of all ages, there’s a greater collective responsibility for other people’s children, which makes it a much more child-friendly environment, particularly in that sense of fear of stranger danger.

QUESTION: I would like to recommend that your paper be given to the ACT Planning and Land Authority to the Housing Industry Association and people like that. They’re the people who ought to be looking at alternative energies.

PAUL TRANTER: You’re right. Derek just said that he’d like to recommend that the paper be given to people like ACTPLA. Yes, I would be very happy to do that if we got the invitation.

QUESTION: Paul, I think it would be nice to have footpaths in some suburbs to actually be able to walk around more often too. It’s sometimes a bit difficult when there’s no space on the verge to walk properly. The question I was going to ask was: if households wanted to move at this individual level, what sort of fuel alternatives could they start moving into? Do you see any practical alternatives for households at the moment?

PAUL TRANTER: Yes, I do. I think Derek would probably be the best person to answer this. For those of you who don’t know Derek, he has a house that is virtually independent of external sources of energy. It is possible now to design households that can work independently of the grid. Water is a bit of a problem in Canberra but there may even be technology around that can help with that. But in terms of transport we already have the technology that will enable you to get around where you need to go, at least in Canberra, and that’s been around for 150 years or so now - the bicycle.

ISA MENZIES: Please join me in thanking Dr Paul Tranter for presenting this talk and giving freely of his time on a weekend.

Date published: 5 May 2008