By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
This summer, the City of Somerville wants to break the spell of our screens—our smartphones, televisions and computer monitors—by giving every resident access to activities that replace remote communications with face-to-face interactions.
The city’s summer calendar is overflowing with outdoor activities that bring neighbors together. From our SomerStreets program that closes roads to all but foot and bike traffic, to our new SomerPlay program that aims to make it easy and safe for children to play together outside, to our outdoor SomerMovie Fest and Dance in Streets series, there are plenty of fun and free reasons to get out of the house this summer.
We are reclaiming our streets as more than rush hour pipelines. Our summer activities dovetail with the city’s efforts to make our streets better for pedestrians, bicyclists and all commuters. Our goal of being the most walkable, bikeable and transit-accessible city in the nation does not only make good sense economically, environmentally and for healthy living, but most important—and like our summer activities—it knits together neighborhoods. Because that’s how you build a neighborhood, by making it a place where your neighbor’s faces are not blurs seen through car windows, but the faces you meet and greet every day.
Of course, it can be difficult to meet and greet faces when cooped up inside, staring at a screen, or sitting idle with a handheld video game. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of “high quality” content each day for older children and against any screen time for children under age 2. Too much media use is linked to childhood obesity, something we have led the charge against in Somerville, and problems with attention, sleep and school, according to the Academy.
Let’s be honest: Kids are not drawn to screens on their own. They’re taking their cues from us, their parents. How many times each day are our eyes darting back and forth between our smartphones and our kids? Every cell phone vibration, every email chime is a signal that something else is more important and needs your immediate attention, when most of the time, it does not. We are spellbound by our screens. Strangely and ironically, and I am not the first to say so, tools like smartphones and tablets that seem to connect us can isolate us from what is right in front of us. Media and entertainment at our fingertips 24/7 is not evil, but we need to remain aware of how it can demand our attention.
The Millennial Generation has been raised in the era of computers and interconnectivity. That generation, which makes up 40 percent of Somerville’s population, is also hitting its prime parenting years. Meanwhile, Somerville has seen a spike in births in the last six years, with 970 in 2012, a figure not seen in this city since the 1970s. These young families, the future of Somerville’s revitalization, settled here because of our enriching culture, our neighborhoods and our diversity, all right outside their front door. They also understand the balance between screen time and playtime. They want their children to be physically active and curious about the world around them, not only the world brought to them via electronic devices.
That is why the city is holding its fourth annual SomerStreets series, which already kicked off on June 2 with Carnaval on East Broadway. More SomerStreets events will be held each month through October, bringing Somerville’s rich cultural scene and diverse community together on streets open to bikes, walking, dancing and running.
We are also giving control back to our residents through our inaugural SomerPlay program, in which the city supports “zones” that encourage free play for children, created by residents, businesses, churches and other community members that bring people out of their homes and into their neighborhoods. The city has 11 SomerPlay zones this summer, from weekly afternoons of biking, potluck and games, to block parties.
And if you have to get some screen time in, why not do it outside with your neighbors? SomerMovie Fest kicks off July 11 with a screening of Jurassic Park at Seven Hills Park in Davis Square, and seven more movies will be shown outside in the city’s parks this summer.
This summer, break the spell of the screen, get outside and see what Somerville has to offer. It’s much more than city services, shops and restaurants or a quick commute. It’s neighbors and neighborhoods.