If We Build Cities for Kids, We Build Cities for Everyone

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My own children’s radius of travel is similar today in my town of West Hartford, Connecticut, to the 2007 roaming radius of the Sheffield boy Gill references. Most of the elementary age kids in our neighborhood don’t cross Fern Street, a collector with a 25–30 mph posted speed limits. It has regular speeds in the 35–40 mph range, according to the flashing digital “Your Speed” display installed by our town. There was a scary high-speed crash there this spring, right at the crossing, which totaled two cars right before school got out. Parents, the crossing guard, school staff, and kids walked through the debris to get home. Just last week, a group of parents and advocates responded to yet another crash on Fern Street, this time in the unprotected bike lane. 

My kids are 8 and 10 years old and I can remember that when my brother and I were their same age, we often traveled on our bikes to baseball, soccer, and football practices several miles from our home in Anchorage, Alaska. If I am going to support my own kids in becoming independent, confident citizens capable of going to the library or their neighborhood school on their own, we’ll need safer streets, not more careful parents. 

We need better street design, and we can look to an example Murray and Gill share, an “ideal child-friendly city” of Vauban, a district of Freiburg, Germany. 

“Few of its 5,000 or so residents own a car, and those who do must park it in a lot on the outskirts of town. A tram and a dense network of paths for cycling and walking crisscross the neighborhood. Multifamily housing leaves plenty of space for recreation and socializing. And with little traffic, parents don’t need to corral children into gated playgrounds. Instead, play structures such as swings and slides are scattered throughout town, allowing children to rub shoulders with their fellow city dwellers.”

In North America, it may not be possible to rebuild many of our neighborhood streets and retail sector, or to rework stroads, in a short timeframe. But we can take advice from people like Alexandra Lange, a design critic and the author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, who Murray interviewed for her Atlantic piece. 

Lange’s recommendations, similar to the Funenberg ethic, advise: “Slow down cars, narrow streets, add more trees, especially in shade deserts. Placing family-oriented venues close together would help create easy routes between them—and it might allow them to feed off of one another. If a child can safely run around at a nearby playground while their parent does an exercise class at the community center, for example, then there’s no need to hire a babysitter.”

Lange says city planners in North America have lots of options for ways to work with what we have, the key is to be aware of the children’s point of view. 

Gill suggests starting by looking at individual neighborhoods for potential child-friendly design. Cities can test out ideas before implementing them broadly. A 2006 survey found Rotterdam to be the worst place in the Netherlands to raise a child, so the city launched Child-Friendly Rotterdam and started by revamping a single neighborhood, Oude Noorden.

Streets were realigned to slow traffic and make public spaces safer and more fun for kids. In the process, the organizers developed guidance for making the rest of Rotterdam kid safe, too.

Most urban planners, Lange told Murray, “don’t make streets safe for kids to cross on their own. They expect you, as a parent, to set aside time to walk your kids to school every day.” 

There are not a lot of options for kids to handle boredom and loneliness independently in North America—other than the internet, Murray argues. “If it were restructured so that kids could find each other and then could create, like, pickup soccer games, we wouldn’t need to be signing them up for things all the time,” Lange told her.

Cities can also make gradual changes just by being opportunistic, Murray writes. Anytime street infrastructure is changed, for water pipe or fiber-optic cables, “why not reconfigure it with children in mind? With a little thought, run-of-the-mill city infrastructure can be re-envisioned for play. I encountered an exquisite example of such creativity on a day trip to Rotterdam: a flood-retention zone with a basketball court in its basin, and seating cut into its walls.”

Earlier this year, Steve Wright wrote a piece for Strong Towns about universal design, focusing on how transformations to streetscapes to make places safer for wheelchair users and meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements can make safer, more productive places for everyone. The argument here is that slowing streets, creating better crosswalks, and accommodating cars, but designing for people of all mobility types, is an infrastructure choice that makes places safer and more productive.

Jennifer Griffin wrote a three-part 2018 series for Strong Towns about growing demand in North America for family-friendly neighborhoods. Four years later, I would bet that demand remains unmet. Let’s build cities for kids, they’ll be cities everyone wants to live in. Safe, fun, productive, complex—just like our families. 

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