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Quarterly 2/2018 |  10/16/2018Veera Moll

From city streets to suburban forests – changing mobility patterns of children in Helsinki

Since the 1990s, children’s independent mobility in the city has been a lively topic of research. By international comparison, children in Finland still move fairly independently. However, recent decades have seen evidence of decreasing autonomy in children’s mobility. The article looks at Helsinki from the 1940s up until the present day and discusses how a changing city influences the spontaneous mobility of children.

A hundred years ago, one-tenth of the world’s population lived in cities, and one-third in the 1950s. Nowadays, more than half are city-dwellers. The number of children living in cities amounts to roughly one billion (UNICEF 2012, IV). Due to traffic hazards, pollution, lack of greenery and scarcity of playgrounds, among other things, the city has come to be seen as an unsuitable environment for children to grow up (Karsten 2005, 275). Nonetheless, an urban childhood is more common today than a rural one.

The extent to which children can move around safely in their neighbourhood is a factor influencing the wellbeing of city children. The independent mobility of children in cities is linked to the issue of empowerment in the urban realm: who has the right and the possibility to move about in the city? Independent mobility is also closely linked with health, as well as the growing concern in recent decades that children might not be getting enough exercise (Bicket et al. 2015, 4). Everyday mobility, home-to-school journeys made on foot or by bicycle and an environment conducive to outdoor activities may be important for both a fair division of urban space and children’s healthy life habits (Kyttä et al. 2009, 9). Children who roam without supervision also learn to know their own neighbourhood better than just looking out of the car window (e.g. Fyhri et al. 2011, 703).

Furthermore, independent mobility promotes the use of sustainable modes of transport. The likelihood of becoming a car user is higher among children who have regularly been driven to school by their parents (City of Helsinki 2017, 4).

General interest in children’s independent mobility grew in the 1990s after a study of British children had showed their mobility to have decreased significantly over the previous two decades. Important reasons for this change included growing traffic volumes and increasing parental anxieties (Hillman et al. 1990, 106–108). The research done in the UK was followed by a number of studies worldwide showing that independent child mobility had indeed decreased [1].

When the home opened up out to the backyards

Was everything better in the past, or is it just that memories grow sweeter with time? [2] How has the independent mobility of children – and the opportunities for that mobility – changed in Helsinki? No single source can give a direct answer to this question since independent child mobility was not measured in Helsinki in the past. We need to combine various sources: oral history, contemporary newspaper reports, expert opinions and statistical data.

It has been shown that children used to move about rather independently in Helsinki, at least during the first half of the 20th century. Oral historical evidence shows that Helsinki offered plenty of green milieus such as parks, gardens, allotments, fields and woods. Since traffic was much lighter, it was possible to ski and play in the snow in the winter even in the city centre. The hills, rocks and shores of Helsinki were venues for ball sports and other types of games, or they could be used for sledging, downhill skiing or just admiring the view. Sometimes children would make long trips together in the city – to have a picnic or just to play (Laakkonen & Kivistö 2001, 23–36, Moll 2011).

Oral historical material also shows the importance of the sea for recreation. Scouting and similar hobbies took some city children far out into nature. The material also highlights places where children were forbidden to play. Children could occasionally play on railway tracks, industrial sites, wasteland and landfills. Objects found among the rubbish could be reappropriated in play. Accidents were not always avoided (Laakkonen & Kivistö 2001, 23–36).

In her research on the Helsinki of the 1940–1960s, Anna-Maria Åström notes that, for children, home was more of a springboard to various outdoor activities than a place for cosy domestic life. The world of children opened up out of the front door (Åström 1998, 17).

Concerns about urban children

Children roaming freely in the urban space were not always viewed with approval. A concerned debate about housing and the wellbeing of children had arisen already in the 19th century (Kumpulainen 1999, 123; Moll 2016, 68). There were real reasons to pay attention to the children. Child mortality was elevated [3], and housing remained crowded in Helsinki until the 1960s (Kuparinen & Vihavainen 2006, 8–10). The proportion of children in the population was high and schools were over-crowded. The children born in the period immediately after the Second World War formed Finland’s largest baby boomer generation.

With accelerating urbanisation in the 20th century, words were increasingly put into action. In 1946, a famous polemic pamphlet by Heikki von Hertzen, head of the Family Federation of Finland, titled Koti vaiko kasarmi lapsillemme? (‘A home or a barracks for our children?’) is seen to have triggered plans to build the ‘garden city’ of Tapiola. In the accelerating public debate on cities and housing, children were increasingly the focus of attention. It was considered natural that improved housing for children – tomorrow’s citizens – would serve the good of the whole nation.

After the war, the Family Federation of Finland’s stance was clear. The population centres of the day were regarded as socially unsound, and the federation declared the objective to promote decentralisation in order to achieve healthier urban life and housing (Asuntopolitiikka 1/1956). In practice, this implied a demand for building garden cities. These new communities would contain sufficiently large, well-lit and hygienic homes close to nature, ideal for saving the children from the filth and decay of the city. In short, the old city was no good. A special worry for the federation were the newly constructed tower blocks in the Taka-Töölö area, as well as the workers’ district of Vallila (Von Hertzen 1946, 14, 20).

The conditions of families were also gradually improved in other ways apart from the urban and housing planning in the 1940s. Child benefits, maternity allowances, prenatal clinics and loans for young families were introduced. According to the garden city philosophy, elements necessary to children such as clean nature and safety should be found in the city, too.

Traffic was a cause for concern as traffic accidents increased alongside the number of cars. Between 1965 and 1973, around a thousand people were killed annually in road traffic in Finland. Gradually, however, traffic accidents started to decrease (Official Statistics of Finland 2010). Nevertheless, there were frequent articles in the Family Federation’s periodical publication Asuntopolitiikka (‘Housing Policy’) reporting children injured or killed in road traffic, and demands were raised for better safety in the city (e.g. Asuntopolitiikka 3/1950).

Hopes now lay in the suburbs, as the following quote from Asuntopolitiikka (2/1950) illustrates. ‘Improvements can probably be achieved in the older neighbourhoods, but it is essential that henceforth all neighbourhoods should be designed so that the locations of schools and safe walking routes for children are planned simultaneously.’  Families with children soon started moving from central districts to suburbs, where children could move about more safely.

Traffic safety measures were gradually upgraded and speed limits were introduced. Children’s safety was also promoted by the national accident prevention organisation Tapaturmatorjuntayhdistys (through its road traffic division, predecessor of the Finnish Road Safety Council). This organisation ran awareness campaigns on road safety and produced educational material, films and guidebooks.

The efforts for traffic safety seemed to work. Towards the end of the 20th century, the traffic environment improved rapidly, with increasing emphasis placed on respecting the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. The number of accidents decreased. (Syvänen 1991, 168–170).

Certain new regulations, such as forbidding younger children from cycling to school, played their part in reducing the numbers of accidents. At the same time, however, these limitations had an impact on children’s independent mobility (Syvänen 1991, 170). Only recently have the authorities begun to introduce deregulatory measures, after having identified the potential of the home-to-school journeys to increase children’s physical activity.

From garden city utopia to suburban reality

Another factor influencing children’s mobility in the city was the increasing size of homes. Overcrowded housing gradually decreased, and housing space per person more than doubled in Helsinki between 1950 and 1980. More and more children had a room of their own.

For many years, children’s need for a space of their own at home had been a frequent topic in the specialist press. The magazine Kaunis Koti (‘Beautiful Home’, 1965:8) wrote that a well-planned bedroom for children or adolescents should include exercise equipment such as ‘wall bars or steady rings, since both help you maintain good posture and give you a feeling of cheerful confidence. After trying this equipment at home, the children will not be afraid of gym class at school - -’ 

In a well-equipped home, children could now play the kind of games that used to belong outdoors. Whereas in the immediate post-war years the world of children in Helsinki opened up outside their front door, they could now spend their spare at home, too.

The idealising tone of the garden city debate gradually began to fade in the magazines and expert opinions of the mid-1960s. Some felt now that the new neighbourhoods that sprouted around the city were not ideal garden towns but rather inadequate forest suburbs. Alarming reports from inner cities in the first half of the 20th century had given way to similar warnings focussed on suburbs (see e.g. Mäenpää 1968, 74). The new suburban environments were not always considered ideal even for the children – although they had been designed expressly for families with children.

‘It’s a crime against children to build houses the way we do nowadays’, stated a Swedish expert quoted by the Finnish national broadcaster YLE in a programme focussing on children in suburbs. ‘A childhood spent in a monotonous, unstimulating and unhospitable environment may cause emotional emptiness, violent outbursts and an inability to understand beauty and tenderness.’ (Yleisradio 1976)

The researcher Irene Roivainen, who has studied the debate on suburbs in the nationwide daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, identifies a change in the discourse in the late 1960s. According to her, a ‘dramatic’ paradigm shift occurred in 1968, with a strong increase in problem-centred articles and opinion pieces on the topic (Roivainen 1999, 56).

Nonetheless, in oral historical material, the childhood in the suburbs is remembered as anything but monotonous, unstimulating or unhospitable. Memories of a variety of games in the backyards, on the shores and in nearby woods recur in most of the writings collected in 2016–2017 by the Finnish Literature Society (SKS 2017). A childhood in the suburbs in the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century appears to have been close to nature and safe, and characterised by children’s independent mobility. 

One participant who had spent a childhood in Olari, Espoo, in the 1980s, writes: ‘As an adult I have realised how fine the urban layout in Olari really was: you could walk from home to a day care centre, school, playground or health club without crossing a motorable road. When I went to skate in the ice rink, I would put my skates on at home and walk there with blade protections on. The grocery stores, the child health clinic and the hairdresser’s were also all within easy reach. Across a footbridge was the library where I started going independently at the age of nine or ten.’

Another writer still remembers the vast area that children could roam in the 1960s–70s in the Helsinki suburb of Pakila: ‘A new walkway had just been completed when I started school, and my mother gave me instructions on how to walk to school without crossing a single road or a parking lot. The roads were our borders against the outside world, although two of them could be crossed on a footbridge and there was an underpass beneath another one. You were familiar with everything on your side of the roads. I could probably still mark the locations where dozens of different plants grew and where we used to climb the rocks.’

The majority still walk to school

Do children then move less independently today than they did earlier? The study The last free-range children? Children’s independent mobility in Finland in the 1990s and 2010s (Kyttä et al. 2014) – so far the only major Finnish research on changes in children’s mobility – notes a substantial decrease over the twenty-year period in question. The same report argues that the conditions enabling children to roam freely have not been guaranteed and that Finns fail to see the value of the relatively free mobility of children in our society. In fact, independent mobility has been associated with images of lacking parental care and interest and children’s loneliness. Consequently, there have been calls for more adult supervision in children’s free time.

By international comparison, Finland is still doing well in terms of children’s mobility. A study published in 2015 by the Policy Studies Institute compared independent mobility in various kinds of neighbourhoods, making comparisons within and across the 16 countries included in the research. The objective was to find out about the reasons for the differences, to discuss the consequences of reduced independent mobility and to give policy suggestions. Independent mobility was mapped through a series of questions including whether children had permission to cross main roads or go to school without supervision. Other questions sought to determine whether children were allowed to walk independently elsewhere apart from school, stay out after dark, cycle on main roads or travel alone on public transport. Additional questions were asked about the attitudes and fears of adults and children.

As a whole, children in Finland were found to move far more freely than children in other countries. Some suggested reasons for this difference include the tendency of both parents to work and the general atmosphere of trust often associated with Nordic culture (Kyttä et al. 2014, 8–9).

The concern that children are less and less able to move on their own – and the health implications of this loss of freedom – has prompted researchers and planners to look at the home-to-school journey as an opportunity for children to get more exercise (Mitra 2012, 21).

In Finland, worries about children’s physical passivity have been highlighted even at national government level. The objective of the Liikkuva koulu (‘School on the move’) programme, one of the governmental spearhead projects, is to make schoolchildren exercise at least one hour a day. This can take many forms – walking or cycling to school has been among the suggestions.

In Finland, there are good conditions for increasing the level of physical activity in home-to-school journeys. According to the latest National Travel Survey, the majority of children’s journeys to school are still made on foot, albeit the proportion has shrunk over the last ten years. According to the same study, cycling is the second most common means of transport on school trips, bus the third and car ride the fourth, followed by other ways of travel such as tram or metro. Not only do Finnish children move generally fairly independently, but walking and cycling are also considered rather safe options for making school journeys (Turpeinen et al. 2013, 34 & 20).

The home-to-school journey must indeed be sufficiently safe in order for parents to allow children to go to school on their own. In 2017, the City of Helsinki surveyed the current traffic safety situation near schools in Inner Helsinki. The report states that traffic safety in the vicinity of schools varies considerably (City of Helsinki 2017). Remarks were made regarding pupils’ attentiveness in traffic, the physical surroundings of the schools, traffic arrangements along home-to-school trajectories and the behaviour of vehicle drivers. Apart from traffic education, there is thus room for improvement in the urban environment.

There may also be a need to pay attention to the attitudes of parents. As stated above, their mobility habits have a direct impact on those of their children. Thus, the most efficient way to influence children’s active mobility may be for parents to change their own ways of travel.

[1] Bhosale 2015; Bicket 2015; Kyttä et al. 2014; Griffin & Wolley 2014; Karsten 2005; Tandy 1999.

[2] The question is inspired by Lia Karsten’s article ”It all used to be better? Different generations in conceptions and opportunities on continuity and change in urban children’s daily use of space”, from 2005.

[3] Official Statistics of Finland: Causes of death: child mortality. Statistics Finland.

Veera Moll is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Built Environment in the Aalto University School of Engineering.


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