A generation ago, urbanist researcher Donald Appleyard showed how heavy traffic in cities erodes human connections in neighborhoods, contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction and loneliness. Now his son, Bruce Appleyard, has been looking into how constantly being in and around cars affects children’s perception and understanding of their home territory.
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.