Children in the car era: bad for them and the planet


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Children’s travel needs are a big factor in private car use.
Pablo Rogat/Shutterstock

Hulya Gilbert, University of South Australia; Andrew Allan, University of South Australia; Carolyn Whitzman, University of Melbourne, and Johannes Pieters, University of South Australia

Children today spend more time in cars than previous generations. They also spend less time playing on the streets and in unstructured and unsupervised activity outdoors. The lack of opportunities for physical activity and the loss of freedom to explore their local neighbourhood is bad news for children’s physical, social and mental well-being.




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Though equally important, the environmental cost of these trends is not well understood. As rapid urbanisation extends across the globe, transport planning continues to be challenging. Transport is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. And 46% of transport-related emissions come from private vehicles.

We know surprisingly little, however, about the detailed reasons for individual private car use. An international study highlights that households with children have higher rates of car ownership and use. In Australia, official statistics on transport pay a great deal of attention to the “journey to work”, but car travel that can be attributed to child-related activities has not been fully explored.

Research on children’s travel patterns tends to focus on the “journey to school”. While school trips are important, this provides only a narrow image of children’s actual travel patterns. They also make many trips to non-school destinations and extracurricular activities such as sport, music and dance classes.

We recently reviewed local government policies related to sustainable mobility and child-and-youth-friendly cities. Our review found little consideration of children and young people in transport planning policies across Australia. This is despite the fact that the decline in their walking and cycling rates was widely recognised.




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Why are walking and cycling rates decreasing?

Several factors contribute to lower rates of walking and cycling among children and their limited use of public transport. These range from urban form to social and economic conditions.

Australian suburbs typically have low density and segregated land uses, which privilege the car over other travel modes. This situation is worse in outer suburbs which have limited public transport and poor provision for walking and cycling. These outer suburbs are also more likely to have lower socio-economic status and a larger proportion of families with children.

All together, these suburban conditions add to the social disadvantage resulting from limited access to services and activities that are critical for families with children. This further encourages private car use.




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Changing social structures mean families usually are on tight schedules. These changes include increases in employment for women and in the number of both single-parent families and families where both parents are in paid work. Because the car is relatively cheap and easy to use for individual mobility in Australian cities, it is generally the uncontested way to manage these schedules.

In addition, the increased individualisation as a common characteristic of Western societies usually means parents are expected to provide strict supervision of children’s movements. In the conditions described above, the most practical way to do this is usually to drive them in a car.

Of course this increases the number of cars on our streets, particularly around schools and other common destinations for children. This then perpetuates parents’ concerns about traffic safety, leading in turn to even more private car use.

Notice the difference? Drop-off time at an inner-city Copenhagen school.
Hulya Gilbert, Author provided



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Child-centred sustainable mobility

What is perhaps most striking about the trend towards chauffeuring children is that these facts are seemingly becoming accepted as unavoidable outcomes of modern society. They are largely ignored in transport planning.

We have argued that children have a pivotal role in sustainable mobility. Greater attention to the mobility needs of families with children will produce many social and environmental benefits.

The importance of children’s role in sustainable mobility can be grouped under two themes.

First, children’s needs in today’s lifestyles mean they have an active role in contributing to increased private car use. The daily lives of families with children offer a good example of the context in which carbon-intensive travel patterns occur. If their mobility needs can be met more sustainably (even partially) we are likely to achieve significant carbon savings.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, children have a role as catalysts for behavioural change towards sustainable cities. This is because childhood is a key stage for establishing sustainable travel habits as opposed to “trying to modify already ingrained habits later in life”.

A better understanding of children’s travel patterns would provide a solid foundation for sustainable mobility policies. Planning and transport policies that are responsive to children’s specific needs are likely to have more effective and longer-lasting outcomes, with many related benefits for social sustainability and public health.The Conversation

Hulya Gilbert, PhD Candidate, University of South Australia; Andrew Allan, Senior Lecturer in Urban and Regional Planning, University of South Australia; Carolyn Whitzman, Professor of Urban Planning, University of Melbourne, and Johannes Pieters, Lecturer, Regional and Urban Planning Discipline, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Children living in green neighbourhoods are less likely to develop asthma



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Several studies have shown that spending time in nature is good for health. Now new research has looked specifically at asthma and found that living in green neighbourhoods protects children from developing the condition.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

Jeroen Douwes, Massey University and Geoffrey H. Donovan, United States Forest Service

Since the pioneering work of architecture professor Roger Ulrich, who found that patients with a view of a natural scene recovered more quickly from surgery, research has shown that exposure to the natural
environment is associated with a wide range of health benefits.

We have focused our work on asthma, and our research, published today, shows that children who live in greener neighbourhoods are less likely to develop it.

Not all greenness was equally effective, however. If a child was exposed to a broader range of plants, they were even less likely to get asthma. Exposure to landscapes with low plant diversity, such as gorse and exotic conifers, on the other hand, were a risk factor for asthma. Thus, greenness is good, but more biodiverse greenness is even better.




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How nature protects against asthma

One intriguing explanation is provided by the hygiene hypothesis, which proposes that for children’s immune systems to develop properly, they need to be exposed to a broad range of microbes in early life. Without this exposure, children may be more susceptible to immunological diseases, like allergies and asthma.

The hygiene hypothesis explains why children living on farms, where they are exposed to a wide range of animals, are less likely to develop asthma. However, it’s not only farm children who benefit from exposure to animals. Having a pet in the house can also help protect against asthma. Similarly, children with more siblings are less likely to be asthmatic.




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Living around a more diverse range of plants may also increase a child’s exposure to microbes. In fact, past studies have shown that people who live in more biodiverse areas have more diverse skin bacteria. Exposure to the natural environment may, therefore, improve our health by increasing the diversity of microbes living on our skin and in our gut.

This, in turn, may promote a healthy immune response and reduce the risk of allergies and asthma. Reduced stress and increased physical activity, associated with living close to green space, may be another reason for the observed protective effects.

Tracking children’s environment

This study used the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which is a large database of individual-level data maintained by Stats New Zealand. Currently, it contains 166 billion pieces of information on education, benefits, tax, families and households, health, justice and migration.

Using these data, we were able to track where children lived from birth until age 18, calculate the greenness of their neighbourhoods using satellite imagery and land-use data, and link to health records throughout each child’s life. This was all done anonymously, in a secure data lab, to safeguard the children’s privacy.

This study is an unusual collaboration between economists at the US Forest Service and epidemiologists in New Zealand. It contributes to our understanding of why asthma is on the rise.

Our results may lead to some innovative strategies to combat asthma, although there is a need to elucidate the underlying immunological mechanisms.

Improved prevention and treatment options for asthma are urgently needed as the burden of asthma is considerable, with 334 million people affected worldwide. Asthma prevalence in English-speaking countries such as New Zealand, Australia, the US and the UK is particularly high, with approximately one in six people suffering from it.

Good for people, good for the planet

Showing a link between biodiversity and human health may also change how we manage natural resources, especially in cities. Unfortunately, biodiversity is declining around the world due to population growth, climate change and intensive agricultural practices. Our work suggests that this is not just an ecological problem, but may also present a significant threat to public health.

The ConversationOther studies have suggested that the exposure to the natural environment also protects against low birth weight, heart disease, mental health disorders and breast cancer, although results have not always been consistent. Therefore, as the diversity of our natural environment and resultant microbial exposure declines, we may see further increases in diseases, such as childhood allergies and asthma.

Jeroen Douwes, Professor of Public Health; Director, Centre for Public Health Research, Massey University and Geoffrey H. Donovan, Economist, United States Forest Service

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What children can teach us about looking after the environment



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6-year-olds have the social skills to cooperatively overcome the competition of a resource dilemma.
from www.shutterstock.com

Rebecca Koomen, Max Planck Institute

United States President Donald Trump sparked outrage last year when he announced that the US would pull out of the Paris climate agreement. The decision frustrated world leaders because it undermined the process of global cooperation, setting a bad precedent for future agreements to unify countries in the effort to avoid climate disaster.

This is an example of a very common social dilemma, called a common-pool resource (CPR) dilemma. When a natural resource is open access, such as fish in a lake, everyone has to limit the amount they take individually in order to sustain the resource over the long term.

But if some people don’t cooperate, for example by overfishing or pulling out of a global climate agreement, they risk collapsing the resource for everyone else, leading others to follow suit.

Our research, published today in Nature Human Behaviour, found that some six-year-old children are capable of cooperating to sustain a CPR dilemma using strategies resembling those of the most successful real-world solutions by adults.

From tragedy to hope

Back in the 1960s, economists believed this type of environmental dilemma to be unsolvable, famously labelling these competitive traps as the tragedy of the commons.




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More recent work by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom tells us that we do actually have the social skills necessary to cooperate and avoid environmental tragedy, when we can communicate and come to fair agreements about how a resource should be divided.

If we fail to find cooperative solutions to these dilemmas, we risk facing disastrous environmental outcomes. Understanding our behaviour and the conditions that are most likely to lead to cooperation could better prepare us to create solutions in the future.

For this reason, myself and my colleague, Esther Herrmann, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, recently set out to explore the roots of human behaviour in CPR dilemmas.

We looked at how children deal with such a dilemma in the laboratory in order to find out if these basic social skills are already present in developing children. Because children are not yet exposed to as much environmental information as adults, we asked: are children are able to spontaneously use these skills in a novel context to avoid resource collapse?

A magic water game

To test the social behaviour of pairs of six-year-olds in a CPR dilemma, we created an apparatus that mimicked a renewing, but collapsible common-pool resource, “magic water”. The water was slowly pumped from a clear container at the top of the apparatus into a clear cylinder, where it became accessible to the kids for the taking.

Each child and their partner had a clear box in front of them with a set of buoyant eggs inside. They used the magic water to float eggs to the top of the boxes and could then trade their raised eggs for candies at the end of the game. To collect magic water, children could turn an individual water tap on and off whenever they pleased throughout the game, which looked like this:

This image shows a pair of kids playing the common-pool magic water game. Each child could use the magic water to collect eggs they could exchange for candies, but if either one or both took too much water at any given time, they risked collapsing the resource. In order to get the most magic water possible, kids had to work together to sustain it, much like a real-world environmental dilemma.

There was a trick to it though: If either one or both children took too much water at any given time, they risked collapsing the resource which meant no one could get any more. To produce resource collapse, we put a bright red cork into the cylinder where children harvested their magic water. When this cork fell with the water level to a red threshold near the bottom of the cylinder, a magnet mechanism engaged, pulling out a plug at the bottom of the cylinder, dumping all the magic water into a bucket below, out of reach of the children.

Although kids were much more successful at sustaining the magic water when they had their own independent source – instead of a shared (open access) source – about 40% of pairs did find a way to sustain the magic water together. This means partners collapsed the water in the majority of trials, earning fewer candies because they succumbed to the competition of the game. As we know from research with adults in CPR dilemmas, success is far from guaranteed, owing to the competitive nature of this type of dilemma. But, the number of children who did manage to sustain the water shows these skills develop early. Our challenge will be to find ways of fostering these successful behaviours.

For the pairs who managed to avoid resource collapse, some social patterns emerged, and interestingly, these patterns resemble the successful strategies used by adults in real-world CPR dilemmas.

Children’s strategies resemble those of successful adults

One pattern to emerge was a series of verbal rules many of the kids spontaneously came up with and enforced on each other.

The most successful pairs were the ones that made inclusive rules that applied equally to both partners – like “now we both wait until the water rises and then we’ll both take a tiny bit!” – rather than the unilateral rules made up to benefit a dominant child, enforced at the expense of his or her partner.

Systems of rules generated, monitored and enforced by local communities are also some of the most effective strategies for adults in real-world and laboratory CPR dilemmas. For example, many lobster fishing communities in Maine have developed local systems of mapping fishing territories throughout their accessible waters which determine who is allowed to fish where, and when.




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Another pattern evident in the successful sustainers’ behaviour was a tendency for partners to have similar or equal numbers of eggs at the end of the game. In fact, partners who collected more unequal amounts of eggs tended to collapse the magic water more quickly.

This is a pattern also seen in experiments with adults – we fare better when we can establish fair resource access and equitable risk management among stakeholders.

The ConversationOf course, determining what is fair in the global effort to curb the effects of climate change is more complex than a face-to-face game of common-pool magic water. But this work shows that the basic social building blocks needed to avert the tragedy of the commons develop and can be applied early.

Rebecca Koomen, Postdoc, Max Planck Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What do we tell kids about the climate change future we created for them?


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Over the past two years The Conversation has published my analyses on a range of topics related to climate change and politics, including climate denial in the Liberal Party, 25-year-old cabinet papers (not once but twice), coal industry PR campaigns and much else besides.
Finally comes a topic I can cheerfully say I know nothing about (at first hand, at least): raising children.

Apologies for oversharing, but I had a vasectomy in 2004. The columnist Andrew Bolt spotted this, via an article in Britain’s Daily Mail which clearly stated that I was the one who had been under the knife. Bolt claimed that my wife had “sterilised herself”. (She does a lot of yoga, but she’s not that flexible. We have pointed this out but Bolt has kept at it, repeating the claim almost six years later).

Despite what the Daily Mail article says (and what is within the quotes was never said), our decision not to have kids wasn’t based on concern for what our hypothetical children would do to the planet, but rather what the planet would do to them. My wife copped some online abuse, and I was once disinvited to appear on the BBC after explaining my actual position.

I first switched on to climate change in about 1989, and have become convinced that the second half of the 21st century will probably make the first half of the 20th look like a golden age of peace and love. There have been 30 years of promises and pledges, protocols and agreements, while atmospheric greenhouse gas levels have climbed remorselessly due to humanity’s emissions. I suspect that the reported recent flatlining in emissions growth could well turn out to be as illusory as the so-called global warming “hiatus”.

Writing recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, climate scientist Sophie Lewis eloquently asked:

Should we have children? And if we do, how do we raise them in a world of change and inequity? Can I reconcile my care and concern for the future with such an active and deliberate pursuit of a child? Put simply, I can’t.

While I would never presume to tell anyone what to do with their genitals, I must confess my personal amazement that climate activists who do have children – and who I know have read the same scientific research as me and drawn the same conclusions – aren’t freaking out more. (Perhaps they are just very tired.)

As the Manic Street Preachers sagely warned, our children will have to tolerate whatever we do, and more besides.

Be prepared?

So how do we prepare tomorrow’s adults for the world bequeathed to them by the adults of yesterday and today? Even the mainstream media is beginning to ask this question.

Some studies say young people don’t care enough about climate change; others claim they do. The Australian picture seems to be mixed.

As the environmental writer Michael McCarthy has lamented:

A new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published in 2007 with a substantial group of words relating to nature – more than 50 – excised: they included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip and dandelion. Their replacements included terms from the digital world such as analogue, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail.

Might we be more adaptive than we think? The social demographers Wolfgang Lutz and Raya Muttarak, in their snappily titled paper Forecasting societies’ adaptive capacities through a demographic metabolism model, think so, describing how “the changing educational composition of future populations” might help societies adapt to climate change.

But not everyone thinks our brains will get us out of the mess that they and our opposable thumbs have got us into. As an editor at the Daily Climate pointed out:

A substantial portion of the human population lives on coasts. Much of their protein comes from fish. What happens when ocean acidification turns all of that to slime?

So what should we tell kids about climate?

It always helps to be open to advice from different settings. For instance, I stumbled on this good advice on a blog aimed at military spouses, but it strikes me that it holds just as true for the climate-concerned:

It is okay to show sadness around your kids; in fact, it is probably healthy. However, it is not okay to dump your emotions on them. Save rants and deep conversations for trusted adults.

If you are feeling overwhelmed (and you will), don’t turn to your kids. Children are usually helpless to offer advice and it can cause them to experience anxiety. Seek help from an adult friend … extended family, a neighbor, your church, or a counselor.

Sophie Lewis sensibly hopes that the next generation(s) “can be more empathetic, more creative and more responsive than we have been”. It’s a noble hope, but it will only happen if we behave differently.

So as previously in this column, it’s over to you, the readers. I have a couple of questions for you:

First, how do those of you who are parents (and grandparents, aunts and uncles) talk to your children about the climate change impacts that will happen in their lifetimes? Avoidance? Sugar-coating? The “straight dope”? Do you slip books from the burgeoning fields of dystopian fiction and “cli-fi” into their Christmas stockings? Besides The Hunger Games, there is Tomorrow, When the War Began, the excellent Carbon Diaries and, more recently, James Bradley’s The Silent Invasion. Do you worry about scaring the kids? What do the youngsters themselves say?

The ConversationSecond, what steps are you taking to help young people develop the (practical and interpersonal) skills required to survive as times get tougher? What are those skills? How do we make sure that it isn’t just the few (children of the rich and/or the “switched on”) who gain these skills?

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.