Peter Arkle

In May, the White House’s Childhood Obesity Task Force released a plan to eliminate U.S. childhood obesity within a generation. According to Michelle Obama’s organization, Let’s Move, only a third of high schoolers get sufficient exercise, and the average 8- to 18-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with TVs and electronic devices. The number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980, partly due to the environments architects and planners have created, since sprawl discourages exercise and increases the risk of obesity. Yet the plan says little about urban design. Combating children’s health risks requires another kind of community: the free-range city.

In her 2009 book, Free-Range Kids, syndicated columnist Lenore Skenazy writes that virtually every minute of a child’s time is scheduled in advance, and a big reason is fear. “Parents are afraid to send their kids outside, even to play in the yard,” she tells me. “But kids don’t need a security detail every time they leave the house.” Skenazy points out that crime in the U.S. has dropped by half since it peaked in 1992—a time when, not coincidentally, the term “play date” was surging in popularity. Today, the crime rate is about what it was in 1970, when I was a toddler, playing outside all day without supervision. (I survived.)

Of course, once you let kids loose, the community needs to sustain their interest. An excellent model for how planning can liberate children is the Active Design Guidelines, produced by the City of New York (where 43 percent of children are overweight). The guide outlines the “Five Ds” of an “active city”: Density (concentration of jobs, people), Diversity (variety of land uses), Design (safe, vibrant, accessible streetscapes), Destination Accessibility (ease of travel), and Distance to Transit (railway and bus-stop locations).

Providing more, and better, play areas can boost activity and, studies show, lower obesity among youth. Recently, Washington, D.C., began an overhaul of its recreational facilities, spending tens of millions on school yards, playgrounds, and athletic fields. Improving the quality of public space is especially important in lower-income neighborhoods, where both obesity and access to play areas tend to be worse. Additionally, smart zoning can locate produce stores and farmers’ markets strategically to encourage street activity and make better foods more readily available.

All of these factors can increase childhood activity and enhance quality of life for people of every age. But they won’t work unless parents loosen their apron strings.