Getting families moving: what makes a pedestrian friendly city for families?

By Susannah Clement & Gordon Waitt

In an age of sedentarism, obesity epidemics and increasing carbon emissions, public health experts and transport planners advocate for us to walk more for the good of our health and that of the planet. The Heart Foundation of Australia’s campaign currently gracing our television screens, radio and billboards is a prime example of this. As the ads suggest ‘to walk yourself happy, all you need is your feet’.

Walking is positioned as natural, easy and something that everyone can do. However we argue that this campaign could potentially miss the mark with a vast majority of the viewership. We argue that walking is never a self-evident activity. Instead, there are lots of different types and reasons for walking and it often involves more than just two feet.

Susannah’s PhD research explores the walking experiences of families with young children. As anyone with young children can attest, walking becomes a lot more difficult when you have young people in tow and often involves a range of other ‘things’ like bags, toys, bicycles and prams. We argue that the everyday walking experiences of families are often ignored in pedestrian studies and walking campaigns. Hence this research addresses this gap in the literature and highlights the benefits and challenges of walking for families with young children.

The lived experience of walking

We consider the embodied and lived experiences of walking for families. The project takes a corporeal feminist approach. Walking is understood as more than a way of journeying ‘from A to B’, but is a place making practice that is underpinned by the experiences of travelling on foot alongside the politics of identity, space and social norms.

The research took an in depth ethnographic approach to better understand how walking fitted into everyday life for 16 families living in Wollongong. Interviews with parents and children (aged between 3-15 years) as well as go-alongs and video recordings of walks were used to understand how walking was experienced by participants travelling together on-foot by mapping affective intensities.

Walking with parents and young children. Source: Participant video.

Walking with parents and young children. Source: Participant video.

Spaces of care

For mothers, walking with young children cannot be separated from their experience of motherhood. Hence, walking was one way that participants performed mothering by selecting routes where they feel safe, in control and brought along items to help be prepared. Walking with children is embedded in understanding of ‘doing’ a form of ‘good’ mothering on-the-move. For example, Rachel (mid-40s) explains how the short walk from their house to the nearby shops does not feel safe for her to do with her kids, so they drive instead:

Rachel: ‘We’ll drive down [to the shops] … we could walk down the hill, that’s not a problem, it’s still not the safest walk’.

For purposeful trips, many mothers viewed the car as the sensible way to achieve motherhood on-the-move with children.  And, in a society dominated by car mobility, walking with children who often ran, skipped or played along the way was felt as dangerous. Hence, devices like prams enabled participants to alleviate their concern, and do motherhood on the move:

Mayra (early 30s): Yeah, [I’m] always worried, that’s why I all the time use [the] pram; just to keep her [Aiyana (age four)] [close]…

The pram immobilised mobile young bodies to help ease fears in the performance of motherhood on-the-move.

Walking with prams was also embedded in experiences of self-care. Mothers spoke of the importance of the pram in creating time in which new-born babies slept, creating important opportunities in their new everyday routines to exercise and socialise. Yet, this achievement of exercise and company has to be understood in terms of how walking required the constant bringing together of prams, sounds, cars, roads, times of day and the weather. Take for example Bella (early 30s), walking with a friend and their newborn babies in prams:

Bella: You couldn’t do two prams side-by- side anyway. They’re too narrow. So yeah, we just walked on the road.

Despite their suburb having a good network of footpaths they often aren’t wide enough for two prams or occur along quite streets. So instead, they choose to walk in the road on quieter backstreets, side by side, so they can talk and get their babies to sleep.

A sense of flow

Flow was an important experience. Journey on foot were anticipated to be seamless as well as safe. Hence, routes were planned not only to reduce potential risks, but also to maintain a sense of flow. This is particularly challenging in a city dominated by cars, and often lacking footpaths. Participants’ revealed how they are often left waiting to cross roads at traffic lights or get out of the way of oncoming cars. In many instances children, like adults became frustrated when having to wait, stop and be careful around roads.

Waiting at the traffic lights. Source: Participant video

Waiting at the traffic lights. Source: Participant video

Walking as a family is inhibited by the priority given to cars in how they enable people to move smoothly to the shops, parks, or school.

Opportunities for play

Play was a key element of walking.  Children enjoyed the opportunity to walk without parent’s constant barrage of instructions: ‘stop’, ‘hold my hand’, ‘don’t run’, ‘don’t jump’, ‘keep to the left’!  For children, opportunities for play were opened by happenstance encounters with things collected or passed along the way that provided possibilities to imagine themselves and the city to be otherwise.

For example Belle (age 7), during a walk at Wollongong Harbour, illustrates the opportunity to imagine becoming a train following the lines of decorative paving stones. Here we see how the non-human and materiality of pedestrian infrastructure, in conjunction with the walk being set aside as ‘family time’, shapes opportunities for enjoyable walking experiences.

Pretending to be a train. Source: Participant video.

Pretending to be a train. Source: Participant video.

Addressing the diverse needs of pedestrians

Walking is arguably one of the most equitable forms of active transport; it’s free and it’s good for us. Yet our research shows that walking for families is not as easy as putting on shoes and heading out the door. Campaigns promoting walking are vital for improving physical activity rates and population health. However campaigns that ignore some of the challenges of walking miss the mark. We’ve highlighted some of the achievement of families walking together and what encourages and discourages families to walk together by paying closer attention to the everyday walking experiences of families. We argue that to walk is not a ‘rational’ choice but is deeply embedded in the co-production of space, social identities, mobility norms and urban infrastructure. To improve the pedestrian friendliness of cities for families, public health advocates, urban planners and councils should invest further in assessing the lived experience of walking.

These and other findings from Susannah’s PhD are explored in these publications:

Clement, S. & Waitt, G., 2018. Pram mobilities: affordances and atmospheres that assemble childhood and motherhood on-the-move. Children’s Geographies, pp.1–14. doi: 10.1080/14733285.2018.1432849.

Clement, S. & Waitt, G., 2017. Walking, mothering and care: a sensory ethnography of journeying on-foot with children in Wollongong, Australia. Gender, Place and Culture, 24(8), pp.1185–1203, doi: 10.1080/0966369X.2017.1372376.

Susannah Clement is a PhD Candidate with AUSCCER and the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. Read her past blog post: Children, youth and families living in the city.

Professor Gordon Waitt is a researcher with AUSCCER and the Head of the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. Read his past blog post: Car spa – the rejuvenating qualities of the drive.


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