Since I grew up watching children’s television in the 1970s and 1980s, I was definitely intrigued by a recent poll asking the question: How did Sesame Street influence your childhood perceptions of urban neighborhoods?
There is no question in my mind that Sesame Street gave me a positive view of urban neighborhoods. My childhood was spent on a farm in central Iowa and in a small town in rural southeastern Washington. Urban environments were certainly not part of my daily experience. Yet I could appreciate the strong sense of community shown in the dense, walkable Sesame Street neighborhood. When I grew older and spent time in older, dense neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Seattle, I half expected Gordon, Maria, and Luis to be sitting on front stoop and Oscar the Grouch to be inside one of the trash cans.
As a father of two small children, I wonder how contemporary children’s media shape their understanding of physical environments. Media are much more fragmented now than when I was a small child. I grew up with four television channels, movie theaters that were seven miles away, and no VCR. Now there are hundreds of channels, DVDs, services such as Netflix, websites, and smart phone and tablet applications. There is no one television program like Sesame Street that reaches most American children.
Nevertheless, there are popular young children’s shows that show different types of places. Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat live in a dense urban apartment and neighborhood, Thomas the Tank Engine travels around a rural English island, Handy Manny is a handyman in the diverse and moderately dense small city of Sheetrock Hills, and Doc McStuffins practices medicine on toys in a low-density single-family neighborhood. The movie Cars, which is of course about cars, shows a strong nostalgia for small town life prior to the interstate highway system. Disney has even reproduced the main street of Cars’ Radiator Springs at their California Adventure Park in Anaheim, California.
What strikes me most when I watch young children’s television and movies and read children’s books is that the world seems so much more accessible to children now than it was when I was child. In The Backyardigans, Dora the Explorer, Justin Time, Little Einsteins, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse television series and the Flat Stanley and Magic Tree House book series, the characters explore different times and places (both human and natural) in every episode. The story lines of Disney’s Cars 2 and Planes involve travel through Europe and Asia as well as North America.
These shows and movies show young children that the world is a big, interesting, and exciting place. Just like I found the streets of Manhattan less intimidating in part because of Sesame Street, my children may find a range of different places less intimidating because of what they watched when they were young. What this means for planning when this generation is old enough to move where they wish is difficult to tell, but no doubt shifting attitudes about the desirability of places will continue to have implications for our built environment in the years to come.