Walking should be the easiest, healthiest way for us to explore the world around us. But for parents accompanied by tiny beings, navigating the city pushing a pram is often fraught with challenges.
Every parent knows the freedom a pram can bring.
In those heady early days of parenthood, it is a lifeline to the world; a chance to escape the chaos of the house and set out into the neighbourhood. It is a way for parents to socialise, exercise, get fresh air, and, if they’re lucky, for their babies to sleep.
As the child grows, prams keep children safe as their parents navigate busy roads and provide little people with a front row seat to the world as it rolls by. Susannah Clement has spent the past few years investigating the ways in which parents with young children walk through the city.
She has recently submitted her PhD at the University of Wollongong’s Australian Centre for Cultural and Environmental Research (AUSCCER) and says the everyday experiences of mums and dads who want to take their families out for a walk are largely ignored in pedestrian studies and health campaigns.
In the pram and in control
In a paper published in the journal Children’s Geographies, Susannah and Professor Gordon Waitt, both human geographers, argue that for the majority of mothers who are exploring their neighbourhoods and cities, walking becomes much more difficult with small children – and all their accoutrements – in tow. Therefore, prams provided a much-needed sense of security and safety. But their research found that prams are not exactly welcomed in the city.
“Families traditionally have not been included in conversations around walking in cities. We wanted to share their voice on the subject,” Susannah says. “Walking is not just about getting from A to B. For most people, it is not an act of commuting.
Families traditionally have not been included in conversations around walking in cities. We wanted to share their voice on the subject.Susannah Clement
“For mothers, cities are felt to be child- or pedestrian-friendly when walking with a pram enables them to feel in control, prepared, and not fearful. For children, cities are child-friendly when walking with a pram facilitates play and feelings of freedom.”
Susannah says she found mothers who used prams had not often been considered in conversations around how to make cities more pedestrian-friendly, yet they were often the ones who spent much of their time on the move with young children.
“Prams are essential for many mothers in creating times in which newborn babies sleep, creating opportunities for exercise and socialising. However, all of this has to be understood in terms of how required the constant bringing together of prams, sounds, cars, roads, times of day, and the weather,” Susannah says.
Hitting the streets in the name of research
As part of her research, Susannah went on walks with families, or gave them GoPros to take with them and record their journeys as they explored. It was the first time the perspective of young children had been considered and explored by researchers.
“I was privy to a lot of very interesting conversations between mother and child,” she laughed. “It was interesting to find that their walking routes were planned to reduce potential risks and also maintain a sense of flow.
“Mothers and children become equally frustrated by having to stop for cars, wait at traffic lights, and uneven or non-existent footpaths.”
Mothers and children become equally frustrated by having to stop for cars, wait at traffic lights, and uneven or non-existent footpaths.Susannah Clement
Susannah discovered that while Wollongong CBD was relatively friendly towards those walking with prams, once she looked further afield, into the suburbs of the Illawarra, the research showed a different reality.
“Some parts of the Illawarra don’t facilitate that sort of movement. For example, a lot of mothers spoke about the importance of going out for walks with their babies in their prams, so it was about exercise and socialising.
“But if they are walking with a friend, often the footpaths are not wide enough for two women to be able to walk side by side and talk. They have to walk on the road into oncoming traffic.”
Creating true child-friendly cities
The conversation around prams and mobility extends itself to cities that are child-friendly in general, which means children have the same rights and access to the world around them as adults.
“Often planners and city councils address these parameters by providing play spaces for children,” Susannah said. “This is great, but a truly child-friendly city involves a broader approach to including children in all facets of the city.”
While the issue may, on the surface, seem to only affect parents with prams, the implications for society are far greater, she argues. In our era of creeping obesity rates and sedentary habits, opening children’s eyes to the positives of walking can only be a good thing and can help develop this habit as they grow.
A city that is child-friendly and pedestrian-friendly benefits everyone ... issues that people with prams face are also issues faced by people in wheelchairs and with mobility scooters.Susannah Clement
A child who spends his early years behind the windows of a car will be less inclined to see walking as a joyful, healthy activity. “A city that is child-friendly and pedestrian-friendly benefits everyone,” Susannah said.
“A space that is more pedestrian friendly for people with children is still going to be pedestrian friendly for people without children. A lot of the issues that people with prams face are also issues faced by people in wheelchairs and with mobility scooters.”
The challenges faced by mothers and children walking with prams shows that the diverse needs of pedestrians are often overlooked in urban design and planning. Susannah said it is about creating cities that are open, accessible and friendly to all ages and faces.
“It is about everyone’s right to the city. We are not all people who walk on two legs.”
Banner graphic by Matt De Feudis.