How to Build a City for Children
Last week as I wrapped up the Kids in the City series, I talked about how city life is beneficial for families. Cities can provide children with a more active lifestyle, access to great amenities, reduced energy and goods consumption, exposure to diversity and better family connections. But, how do we create a city that meets the needs of children and families?
Here are ten ways that we can build a more child-friendly city:
1.) Density – All of the benefits of city life for families, such as walkability, more free time and access to public transit and services, would not be possible without living in more compact homes. This does not just mean high rise towers (which I do not believe create community unless mixed with different types of housing). It means providing a whole range of compact forms like townhomes, laneway homes, duplexes, low-rise apartments and more.
2.) Family–oriented Housing – We can't just have density, we need homes designed to meet the needs of families, particularly homes with three bedrooms that are in family-friendly neighbourhoods with parks and amenities nearby. The City of Vancouver recently announced that it will develop a city-wide rezoning policy to allow for more high-density multi-family units in single-family neighbourhoods.
3.) Access to Schools and Childcare - This is key. Parents cannot raise a child in the city without having nearby access - ideally walking distance - to good quality childcare, elementary and high schools.
Vancouver's former Director of City Planning taking his newborn home on the bus (Photo; Twitter @BrentToderian)
4.) Access to Public Transit – It has been said that families need their cars to tote the kids around from place to place, but many families are proving are proving this is not true. Even Vancouver's former Director of Planning Brent Toderian, who once said that "kids are the indicator species of a great neighborhood", took his newborn son home from the hospital on public transit. Access to public transit is much easier when you live in a more compact, walkable community. If you do need a car, many cities now have car-sharing, allowing families living "car-free" to access a car when necessary.
5.) Walkability – This is not just a matter of being able to walk where you need to go. Walkability means crosswalks, paved sidewalks and nice things like tree-lined streets. You'd be surprised at how many cities don't provide sidewalks – even when something is within walking distance. I learned this when trying to walk 10 minutes from the Canada Line to Richmond Oval and having to cut through alleyways and climb over ditches to get to my destination.
6.) Bikeability – The greatest joy for a child is riding a bike. It teaches them independence and its just plain fun. For many urban families, it is their main mode of transport. Cities need to do their part to make it safe and plentiful.
7.) Access to Nature – The irony of living in the suburbs is that many people live there to get closer to nature, yet they end of destroying it in the process. Children and even their parents, need access to nature. We know the benefits it has on physical and mental health. Every family should be able to access a park within 5 -10 minutes walking distance. There are many other ways to improve access to nature in the cities, such as planting community gardens and adding trees to the urban forest.
8.) Access to Amenities – Parents in cities say that one of the greatest benefits of city life is easier access to amenities like community centres, libraries, public pools, movie theatres, and playgrounds. One of the best ways for cities to attract families is by providing an abundance and diversity of amenities that appeal to children and don't require car transport.
Photo: Hillcrest Community Centre
9.) Public Safety – When I think back to my childhood, it is hard to believe how much more sheltered children are today. Maybe it is because back then there were more eyes on the street and stronger community connections, but many parents are afraid of letting their kids be unsupervised in their neighbourhood. Simple measures like traffic calming and even bringing back programs like Block Parents can help parents be more confident in letting their kids roam freely.
10.) Fun and Whimsy – Children can find magic in almost any every day object. To aid their curious minds, cities can add many things to inspire the inner child in all of us, like water parks, swings, rainbow cross walks, street art and fun, creative public spaces like the one installed every year at Robson Square. Chris and Melissa Bruntlett of the cycling organization, Modacity, wrote a great article for Spacing Magazine on how to make cities fun for children that included examples such as parklets, sidewalk swings and public pianos.
I hope that I have demonstrated that it IS possible to raise a family in the city and what we can do to build cities for children. With the Kids in the City series, I wanted to show that there are real, every day families who are living in cities and more importantly, they love it and their children love it.