Kids Belong In High Rises


Australian capital cities have undergone profound changes in recent years. From Melbourne to Darwin, apartment buildings have sprung up in central cities. These high rises have been planned on the assumption that the residents would comprise a mixture of DINKS (dual income no kids) and empty nesters. High rise living is assumed to be bad for children, despite – or because of – the fact that public housing estates built in the 1960s and 1970s house large numbers of families.

But children do live in these new downtown apartments. In 2006, according to the City of Melbourne, dual or single parents with children comprised 7, 4.7, and 8.6 per cent of households residing in Docklands, downtown Melbourne, and Southbank respectively. By 2021, children aged 14 and younger will comprise 7.7 per cent of the population of those three areas, equating to more than 4000 residents.

I lead a research team that has just completed a study of 40 children aged eight to 12 living in buildings of four storeys or more in central Melbourne. The project, “Vertical Living Kids”, was funded by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, and was intended to explore these children’s ability to explore public spaces – streets, parks, public transport – by themselves. The 40 children were evenly split between those living in public housing (in Carlton, North Melbourne, and Flemington) and new privately owned flats (in Southbank, Docklands, and St Kilda). We spoke to equal numbers of girls and boys. We asked the kids to fill out a travel diary for four days, saying where they went and how they got there. We also gave them disposable cameras and asked them to take photos of places they liked and disliked. We worked with the children to make collages out of their photos.

There have been a number of studies in recent years that look at children living in more traditional suburban homes in Melbourne. All of these studies have found that there has been a precipitous decline in children’s independent journeys to school, shops, friends’ houses and other destinations. If suburbs were intended to provide safe places for children to explore and travel on their own, they are failing in that regard.

We found that the children in high-rise public housing had more freedom to  roam than most suburban children. In our small sample, 62 per cent of journeys were undertaken either alone or with other children. In contrast, only 17 per cent of the journeys by children living in privately owned housing were undertaken without adults. Even that figure is higher than many suburbs: a 1999 Melbourne study found that 81 per cent of all trips made by five-tonine- year-olds was in the parental car.

The children living in public housing had schools and play spaces immediately adjacent their housing, although there was pretty universal dissatisfaction with those spaces: “boring” and “for little kids” was a constant refrain. In contrast, the children living in privately owned housing covered a wider territory, partly because they have to commute longer distances to school (there are no schools yet downtown), and partly because they like a broader set of places to hang out and play, from shopping centres to Federation Square.

Perhaps the most important finding is that the children we spoke to generally like living in centrally located high rises. One eight-year-old girl living in Southbank says: “I like [Federation Square] because it is fun to jump on the ropes” and “I like the buskers [in front of Flinders Street Station]”. One 10-year-old boy who lives on St Kilda Road says “The Kwik-e-mart is just a block away. It is really fun because whenever I pick milk and bread up for mum, I can get a lollie for myself too.”

Cities such as Vancouver and Singapore have created high-rise housing guidelines that support family living. Buldings include larger apartment units, have small playgrounds next to apartments that can be overlooked from the units, and there are nearby child-care centres, schools, and parks in new redevelopments. Most of all, these cities recognise that walkable places with lots of interesting destinations – whether they are in the central city or in suburbs – are the kinds of places where people of all ages will enjoy exploring public space. In this time of concern about sustainability and urban sprawl, when will Melbourne grow up? – See more at:


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