Last week I was shocked to see a shiny, crisp, red-and-white Block Parent® sign in the window of a house along a quiet suburban street in Waterloo. For those who do not know about the Block Parents® Program of Canada, it is a registered charity that tells “children, seniors and others that help is at hand if they are lost, frightened, or in distress” (Block Parent, 2011). People who volunteer to be a part of the Block Parents® Program are vetted by police, knowledgeable about safety procedures, and willing to offer refuge in an emergency to people on the street (Responsibilities, 2011). It began as a program in London, Ontario back in 1968 (Mission, 2011).
While the street of my childhood was littered with signs about this safety-oriented initiative, I have recently seen (noticed?) fewer signs in household windows. Older, faded signs remain on street corners (announcing that it’s a community where Block Parents® exist), but I had erroneously assumed the program was inactive. I haven’t seen a fresh new sign in quite some time.
Given the mounting evidence of decaying social capital in our modern communities and children’s declining interest in playing outdoors, it is hard to imagine how the Block Parents® Program continues to run in its original form. Aren’t parents really, really paranoid about crime these days, and hesitant to let their kids even walk to school? The rise in childhood obesity has been identified as one of the outcomes of this modern predilection for keeping kids ‘safe’ indoors or in a car. Decaying social capital in communities also means that people do not know their neighbours by name – a situation which Jane Jacobs cautioned us against years ago.
Jane authored The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the touchstone book for urban planning in which she argued against top-down, authoritarian planning ideals and promoted mixed-use neighbourhoods and free markets in land (Wikipedia article). The novel is written as if from her own stream of consciousness, and presents an engrossing (if lengthy) read. Famously, the novel outlines the concept of ‘eyes on the street’ – or, put another way, a “well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe” (Streets Wiki). Contrary to our modern lifestyles and urban form, Jane suggested that children should be playing out on the streets while parents and other adults watch from the windows of appropriately-designed houses (Streets Wiki).
Today, Jane’s work and teachings are embodied in a variety of ways, one of which is the Jane’s Walk movement. These events are free, locally-led walking tours in which people explore their cities and meet their neighbours (Jane’s Walk, 2014). It seems important to me, somehow, that the Block Parents® program and the Jane’s Walk initiatives open conversations about their challenges and successes. In a world of complex and interconnected social and urban planning issues, these two programs fight for the same goals: more vibrant, livable communities where people of all ages can live and recreate without fear.