Is Auckland bad for your kids?

By Edward Rooney -
Unaloto Matekuolava and Tone Lopati collect research data as they walk — or wiggle. Photo / The Aucklander
Unaloto Matekuolava and Tone Lopati collect research data as they walk — or wiggle. Photo / The Aucklander

Cheeky, happy grins cross the faces of Unaloto Matekuolava and Tone Lopati, both aged 10, as they walk along a Mt Wellington street to Panama Rd School.

Unaloto and Tone are in a small army of 150 data collectors, taking part in groundbreaking Kids in the City research project into the daily movements of Auckland children.

The details of their walking, running, leaping and playing are being compiled by Massey University's SHORE social and health research centre and the Whariki Research Centre. The research is led by Associate Professor Karen Witten.

This isn't just a snapshot of how much exercise our children get. It intends to help decision-makers of the future understand how increasing urban density affects children.

"We know that kids being mobile is good for their development," says Professor Witten, gazing at the inner city from her highrise office in Symonds St. "As Auckland intensifies and becomes a more compact city, what impacts are there going to be on children's physical activity?

"Most parents want their kids to be free to explore and do all the things they did when they were kids. But, at the same time, they are fearful. There are less kids walking along the roadsides and there are safety fears around biking, which has an effect of lessening further activity over time."

It's lessening before our very eyes. A New Zealand Transport Survey report in 1990 found 42 per cent of children aged 5-12 walked to school. A survey run from 2005-08 showed the number dropped by a quarter.

It's not just about kids becoming lazy and wanting to ride in mum and dad's car, though; it's affecting children's health. In 2006-07 it was estimated 21 per cent of kids aged between two and 12 were overweight. Eight per cent were obese.

One in five children is overweight; one in 12 is obese.

It's a big problem, and costly. Last year, the Government invested $82 million in the KiwiSport programme to try to lift activity rates through sport.

Professor Witten believes children hold the solutions themselves because they are naturally more active when outdoors, rather than inside, and they use up more energy in informal free play, rather than in structured activities.

This is borne out by our cheeky pair, Unaloto and Tone, as well as their more than two dozen classmates. Fitted with GPS belts to upload their movements, they take these as licences to run and cut loose. "Normally, I just stay at home," Tone tells me, "but this time I ran out to play"

"I walked in wiggly lines, rather than walking straight," giggles Unaloto.

The fact is they want to be more active but we are not building a city that permits it. Quite the opposite.

"Nearly half of new dwellings built since 2000 have been multi-unit," says Professor Witten. "These dwellings are supposed to be accompanied by infrastructure development to create walkable, connected, urban neighbourhoods. But, often, they are not.

"Also, multi-unit dwellings are seldom planned with children in mind. But kids and families move in regardless."

The research team has identified six neighbourhoods across the former Auckland, Waitakere and Manukau cities that have good or poor "walkability". Walkability attributes include the distances between homes and parks, schools, kindergartens, shops and other community facilities. Once these places are more than 800m or 10 minutes' easy walk away, the poorer their rating is for walkability.

A study by the Centre for Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation, in 2009, rated four territorial local authorities for walkability.

Of the four, Wellington rates best in New Zealand. As the ratings are based on statistics from 2006, the previous cities of the Auckland region are named. Waitakere was lowest of the four and North Shore was next, beneath Christchurch on the index.

Professor Witten's team used the data from the 2009 study to identify neighbourhoods in Auckland with good and poor walkability.

For seven days the children each wear an accelerometer and a GPS on a waist belt. The accelerometer records their physical activity and the GPS indicates where they go in the neighbourhood and how they get there, such as by car or walking. They wear these as they go about their normal daily activities.

They also keep a travel diary and members of Our Kids in the City research team go into the school every day to meet the children, download data and to go through their travel diaries with them.

The team contacted schools in these areas to seek help charting the levels of activity in the children. Panama Rd Primary's associate principal, Runnitty Peteru, says 30 children from senior classes signed up to be data collectors after an evening explaining the process to parents.

"The children wear GPS belts for seven days. Karen and the team come in at morning tea to download the data. Additionally, the children are interviewed about where are the safe places to play and how they feel about them"

Just as important as the data are the children's personal observations of activity and their neighbourhoods.

"We recruited and trained local young people to conduct the 'go along' interviews with the children," says Professor Witten.

"One of our research team always walks along a wee way behind the child and young person - to make sure all goes well."

The purpose of the go along interviews is to understand how kids experience their neighbourhoods - the places they like and dislike, where they are allowed or not allowed to go on their own or with peers, etc.

During the go along interviews the children use a digital camera to take photos of the places they like or dislike, or are of interest to them. Parents are also surveyed about their neighbourhood perceptions and experiences.

Principal Colleen Margison says the process has been a great learning experience for the children. "They have been exposed to a fantastic research team while getting to understand how such study is done and what it will be for. The parents have also been very interested and we, as a school, are very excited about what information it may turn up."

Professor Witten says much progress has been made around school travel plans, particularly through the walking school bus initiatives, verified in studies by University of Auckland's Professor Robin Kearns.

But children need activity beyond walking or biking to school. "We want to see urban planning and urban design taking more account of the needs of children with regards mobility."

The benefits stretch far beyond fitness and health. The Children's Interaction Matrix is a formula used to measure children's social skills and has shown huge positives, from outdoor play and travelling to destinations unsupervised.

Benefits are cognitive, social, physical and spatial understanding.

Basically, children become aware of where they are, grow confident and interact with others better.

Professor Witten says the implications of too little activity are far-reaching. "Children learn through interactions with people and environments - more so when done independently. Restricting their play reduces opportunities for learning. This can also lead to isolation and loneliness in teenage years."

Professor Witten says it is not an automatic given that well-to-do areas will provide more opportunity for child activity. In some places already identified, the opposite is likely. "Urban design in Auckland is not all bad for children."

She cites the advances made during the recent rejuvenation of Talbot Park in Glen Innes, where Housing NZ has many families tenanted.

The houses have been redeveloped to face the parks and reserves, enhancing a feeling of security for parents with children in the play areas. The area is well placed for shops and public transport.

Professor Witten and her team hope the findings of their three-year study, funded by the Health Research Council, will contribute to a healthier, happier Auckland for children of the future.

Unaloto sums it up as well as anyone: "They are seeing what it's like for us, so we can get some exercise and have fun."

In your neighbourhood

Karen Witten poses questions to consider about your suburb:

* Are there local places where local people commonly meet and greet each other?
* Do you feel safe walking down your street after dark?
* Are there safe and attractive outdoor places for children to play?
* Do neighbourhood adults watch out for the children's wellbeing?
* Are neighbourhood schools, park and shops within 10 minutes' walk from home?

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