Blame bad urban planning for
youth mental-health crisis

By Kenneth Schrupp | October 27, 2023

The fundamental cause of the escalating mental-health crisis among young Americans is a topic of fierce debate. New state laws – such as Ohio’s Social Media Parental Notification Act – point the finger at social media for fostering exploding anxiety and depression among youth.

While these platforms may play a part in this growing concern, they are merely the symptom – not the cause. The crux of this crisis can be traced back to a much more physical and tangible root: the failures in the design and management of our built environment. 

Mainly, our urban infrastructure and design lack spaces that children can navigate independently without automobiles. There’s a lack of sufficient public safety – or at least a perception that children aren’t safe on their own. This is creating a generation plagued by loneliness and isolation.

Under America’s model of urban development, we have inadvertently designed cities and suburbs that deny our youth the freedom to engage in unstructured play and human interaction outside of the confines of their homes or schools. Consequently, our children are left to seek solace, freedom and social interaction in the only remaining space left open to them – the digital realm.

Thus, it’s necessary to shift the conversation from pointing the finger at the obvious symptom of our social malaise – skyrocketing social-media use – to the real issue and re-evaluate our urban-design policies to prioritize non-auto-dependent and safe access to amenities and public spaces. Similar design issues affect rural residents also, but 80% of the American population lives in metropolitan areas, so we need a vision for how to raise children safely and effectively in these denser locales.

It’s well-established that today’s youth have less time for free play than in the past as school days get longer and parents coordinate endless supervised after-school activities designed to maximize their children’s chances of getting into college. While jam-packing after-school schedules with supervised activities could give a slight academic edge over students who don’t partake in such overload, it’s more likely, according to the Alliance for Childhood, that the lack of free play is harming children’s potential for real-world success.

The alliance adds that free play is essential to “maintaining a healthy weight and supporting cognitive, physical, social and emotional development and well-being.” It also “enhances self-regulation, empathy and group management skills,” and even leads to better attention and improved grades. Moreover, the increase in anxiety and depression – which affects 63% of young Americans – has largely been linked to declining free play. 

But with the school schedule not aligning with the workday, and walkable infrastructure and public safety lacking near schools, parents believe they have no choice but to leave their children busy in time-managed after-school programs that function essentially as extended daycare programs. If parents don’t feel safe letting their children leave school before they are off work, then they aren’t going to let them have unsupervised time.

Read Free Cities Center Director Steven Greenhut’s column about the teen mental-health crisis.

Read this Free Cities Center article
by Sal Rodriguez about improving public parks.

Here are five simple and practical ideas that might help:










First, municipalities should increase police patrols near schools and widen zones of heightened criminal penalties near schools. They should post clear signage that one is entering a school zone. A stronger police presence and enhanced criminal sentencing for crimes within school zones would let parents know that their children’s safety is a priority and that someone is watching out for their kids. California, for instance, has created a Safe School Zone.

Second, speed limits within school zones should be lower – not just immediately before and after school, but until after the end of adults’ workdays to improve student pedestrian safety. Such rules adopted in a limited pilot program in Los Angeles are a start, but could also be expanded in coverage and duration. 

Third, following Los Angeles’ lead, homeless people should also be prohibited from sleeping or loitering in school zones to further reduce the risk of encountering criminal or antisocial behavior.

Fourth, to encourage the availability of commercial enterprises within school zones that are accessible to and cater to children, stores within these zones should be exempted from various land-use regulations. This idea hasn’t been tried yet, but it fits with the state’s recent efforts to deregulate targeted land uses. The state could also lower minimum-wage provisions for younger employees to encourage these stores to hire students for after-school jobs – by following federal rules that allow a lower youth minimum wage for their first 90 calendar days of employment by any employer.

Fifth, to enable more families to afford to live near school zones, restrictions on multifamily development within these areas should also be eased, much in the way that that California has reduced development rules for projects around transit lines. One idea is to incentivize the construction of larger family-sized apartments.

These are just some general thought experiments, but the goal should be the transformation of school zones into safe, accessible areas for children and their families – “safe zones” where parents can encourage their children’s independence.

States (and cities, too) can also pass “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws, such as those approved in six states. Virginia’s law, for instance, declares that “No child whose parent or other person responsible for his care allows the child to engage in independent activities without adult supervision shall for that reason alone be considered to be an abused or neglected child.”

Such changes can promote a shift in parenting to produce the necessary end result: fully developed, well-socialized children with strong community ties who are ready and able to take on the world at large. The greatest possible gift parents can give their children – outside the foundation provided by a stable, loving home – is the freedom to practice making the right choices and grow into the responsibilities and joys of adulthood. Better urban policy can help.

By turning the areas around our schools into areas where children can safely grow into adults in close-knit, safe communities, we can give as many children as possible the opportunity to become happy, well-adjusted people with the dense social connections and warmth humans crave and need.

Kenneth Schrupp is the California reporter for The Center Square. His commentary and analysis have been published by Newsweek and RealClearPolitics.

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