Public Open Space Attributes in Relation to Children’s Independent Mobility Experience in Urban Auckland, New Zealand
Children’s experiences in the outdoor environment are important for their healthy development: physically, socially, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and cognitively. Emerging research shows that children who engage in outdoor physical activity and travel to destinations using active modes (i.e., walking, cycling) accumulate higher levels of physical activity than those who do not. Children’s independent mobility (the ability to freely roam and actively move around their neighbourhood without adult supervision) is not only an important component of active travel and overall physical activity accumulation, it is an integral part of a child’s ‘growing up’ experience in their local neighbourhood environment. Yet, evidence suggests children’s independent mobility has declined radically over the last 40 years.
Public open space, defined in this thesis as freely accessible parks, reserves and greenspaces, are recognised as potentially important settings to promote physical activity, active travel, and independent mobility in children. This is through provision of spaces and purpose-built infrastructure (e.g., playgrounds) for play, and when located near to home, as settings to travel to actively and independently. However, simply locating public open spaces in neighbourhoods does not guarantee their use. Design, quality, population-appropriateness of infrastructure, and maintenance of the public open spaces appear to increase the appeal to usage of public open space.
Despite the growing literature on children’s independent mobility and public open space, little is known of factors associated with children’s independent mobility to neighbourhood public open spaces. With that in mind the overarching aim of this thesis is to explore associations between neighbourhood public open spaces and children’s independent mobility in a sample of children living in socio-demographically and geographically diverse neighbourhoods in Auckland, New Zealand. This thesis supports an adapted socio-ecological systems model to link children’s independent mobility with public open space visitation in the neighbourhood environment.
Extending the body of knowledge, this thesis presents a number of novel contributions regarding public open space visitation and children’s independent mobility. A review of the literature indicated that different public open space attributes may influence their use and how children access them (Chapter 2). The review concluded that a greater understanding of public open space related to children’s behaviours could be gained by using a public open space measure that incorporated both quality and quantity. To address this gap, a proof of concept tool, the Public Open Space Attributable Index (POSAI), was developed that integrated and simultaneously accounted for public open space quality (assessed using an environmental audit of key attributes) and quantity (the size of public open space, generated using Geographic Systems (GIS) spatial data) (Chapter 3). In total, 88 public open spaces were audited using the POSAI in geographically and socio-economically diverse school neighbourhoods in Auckland, New Zealand.
Extending on this work, neighbourhood POSAI scores were examined in relation to public open space visitation and independent mobility in 240 children aged 9-12 years (Chapter 4). Data were sourced from children’s travel dairies and parent telephone interviews. Overall, children made 68 trips to a public open space over a seven-day period; 35 of these were independently mobile. Novel findings showed higher POSAI scores and child ethnicity were related to making any trips to a public open space. Relationships for independent trips to public open spaces differed by ethnicity and parental licence for freedom. In the final study (Chapter 5), data were drawn from ‘go-along’ walking and home-based interviews (N=140), to gain an in-depth understanding of children’s meaningful public open space experiences. Children were positioned as key informants and co-producers of knowledge who reported their viewpoints.
The main outcomes indicated that public open spaces, specifically parks, were preferred locations for children to engage in various forms of play. Public open spaces were also important destinations for participating in other adventurous and social activities in company with friends and siblings. Parental restrictions were the greatest influence on whether a child could make independent trips to the public open space. New themes around new migrant experiences and use of technology for surveillance arose from this investigation. In light of these findings, policy and planning efforts should be directed towards engaging different groups in the community (i.e., children, adult care givers, new migrant populations) with policy makers and urban planners towards creating a child friendly neighbourhood infrastructure.