Lately, exploring our urban neighborhood in Washington, DC with my two-year-old daughter, I’ve found myself viewing the urban landscape anew through her eyes—specifically, from an elevation of 34 inches and with a renewed sense of wonder. The transition to parenthood over the past couple of years has not only transformed the routines and rhythms of daily life, but has forced me to reassess and revise many longstanding priorities, assumptions and presumed understandings. Not exempt from this changing worldview has been the perspective from which I approach my work as an urban planner and how I think about cities and urban neighborhoods in general.
As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about children: their place in cities and how to design neighborhoods for them. I’ve learned to look at familiar places and spaces in new ways. And witnessing my daughter’s cognitive and physical development progress on each walk and visit to the park, I’ve also, unexpectedly, found myself drawn to research related to the built environment from disciplines I might never have touched a few years ago—environmental psychology, neuroscience, education and child development, behavioral economics, and (yikes!) parenting blogs.
I found my way into these unexpected corners in an attempt to understand how my daughter is processing and learning from the physical environment around her. Along the way, I’ve also been following recent online debates about whether cities need children, as well as online journalism documenting how—and if—cities can be truly child- and family-friendly.
All of which is way too much to unpack in a single blog post, so I envision this post as a first in a series of periodic musings on child-friendly planning and urban design. Stay tuned for future installments on Plan.Place. In the meantime, let me share some field notes from recent walks with my daughter, and few things she’s taught me about city design along the way.
CHILD-FRIENDLY CITIES, PART 1: FIELD OBSERVATIONS
1. Street design, as viewed from 34 inches
The novelist Michael Chabon once reflected that “childhood is a branch of cartography,” and each walk with my daughter confirms this theory, as I watch her mental map of the urban environment spring into full relief. Like adventure-explorers, we navigate the cracks and changing textures of the sidewalk, peer through the familiar front gates and fences of rowhouses, and traverse the curbs and ledges that line front gardens and tree boxes, all the while remaining vigilant for the movements of squirrels. We regularly stop to inspect and stomp on the grates and manhole covers concealing the tantalizing secrets of underground infrastructure. We expand our color palette by admiring the painted sidewalk markings of utility workers, and we revel in the glorious pleasures of dirt, sticks, sidewalk puddles, and the green bags protecting newly-planted trees. And let’s not forget the fascinating storm drains that echo when we shout into them and allow us to view our reflections in the collected water below.
My daughter’s map of the city is layered with these micro-landmarks, and these seemingly utilitarian objects provide the physical cues that shape her understanding of her neighborhood and, from her vantage point, give the urban environment its sense of place. As a result, well before her second birthday, she had already acquired an amazingly well-developed sense of direction. This includes an almost-constant awareness of where the park and playground are at all times, and a homing pigeon’s stubborn determination to get there at all costs (particularly when naptime and bedtime are approaching). But, in function, the street and its micro-landmarks are already as much her playground as the playground itself.
When we design streetscapes, we generally do so from an elevation of five feet and higher. But what if we were to pay more attention to the experience at 34 inches and celebrated our micro-landmarks to make them more intentionally playful and distinct? The Japanese appreciation for artistic manhole covers hints at some of the possibilities.
2. Greenscapes: access to nature
My daughter’s favorite spot in our neighborhood playground is over by the tree stump in the far corner, where she can poke at its hollowed center with a stick, play in the dirt that surrounds it, and collect seeds from the tree looming above. Adequate yet certainly not spectacular as far as playground equipment goes, where our playground really succeeds is through its integration into a larger natural “greenscape.” Rather than a sterilized and hardscaped place where children are separated from the natural world, this playground is part of a larger park with open green spaces and a canopy of beautiful old trees that provide shade (a critical element of successful playgrounds, I’ve learned through experience) and also includes natural features within the confines of the playground fencing. The grassy areas of the park transition in some areas to expanses of glorious dirt, where my daughter will happily sit on the ground to collect pebbles and rub the dirt in her hands. On our walks to and from the park, I’ve also come to appreciate how the natural world extends out of the park and into the surrounding neighborhood in the form of tall street trees, the front gardens of rowhouses, and occasional tree box bursting with vegetation or bordered by large rocks (which my daughter likes to greet individually with the touch of her hands as we pass by).
My appreciation for this access to the natural world only deepens as I learn of study after study documenting the far-reaching benefits of children’s exposure to nature. These benefits include everything from improved learning and cognitive development to less-aggressive behavior to enhanced overall happiness and creativity, not to mention a host of other public health and psychological benefits. The designers of our playground clearly got something right, as studies also confirm the benefits of naturalized playgrounds over traditional paved play spaces. For more on the benefits of nature, see here and here.
3. Playscapes: beyond the playground
As I’ve become a regular participant in the parental viewing gallery that is the playground, I am extraordinarily grateful to have it close to home. But I’ve also become increasingly uneasy with the idea that this fenced-in parcel of land and equipment could be the only place where my daughter experiences and learns from the world—a place where children are quarantined from the realities of the adult world. There is an expanding body of literature documenting the importance of play in child development, the declining amounts of playtime nationwide, and the extent to which children’s lives are becoming more scheduled and structured while their parents are less willing to let them roam than those of previous generations. Other studies underscore the value of opportunistic play and the ability to play anywhere, not just in playgrounds. As Next City reports, even the play-advocacy organization Kaboom!, a major supporter and builder of playgrounds, recently published a study that makes the case for creating “corner store” playspaces closer to home: just as corner stores within easy reach of home contribute to walkable urbanism, the availability of safe and interesting play spaces—just beyond the front door and embedded in the urban landscape—contribute to a form of playable urbanism.
As a new and still-cautious parent, I may not be ready just yet to embrace the “free-range” parenting ideal that kids should be able to roam freely without parental supervision. But I do find the idea of playable urban spaces outside of the park and playground—both closer to home and integrated into the built environment—to be a compelling goal worth exploring further.
4. The toddler walkshed: a new metric
No matter what you call it or how you measure it, there are various metrics and rules of thumb for assessing walkability: the half-mile walkshed, the quarter-mile pedshed, transit sheds, Walk Scores, the Irvine-Minnesota Inventory. Moreover, as many have noted, if you design a place that works for kids (and seniors, for that matter), it will work well for everyone. Along these lines, Enrique Peñalosa and others have noted that children constitute a kind of “indicator species” for walkability and overall livability, as noted in particularly thoughtful pieces by Kaid Benfield and the PlaceShakers blog. There’s the“popsicle test” (i.e., you live in a successful neighborhood if a small child can walk to a store, buy a popsicle, and return home before it melts) and the “Halloween test” (in which walkability and livability are measured by the number of trick-or-treaters knocking on your front door on Halloween). And the SmartCode takes the idea of the pedestrian shed one step further by stipulating what some call a “playshed” – that is, within 800 feet of every residential lot, there should be a “Civic Space designed and equipped as a playground.”
Let me add a new metric: the toddler walkshed. In other words, the distance that a curious and perpetually-distracted toddler can navigate city streets on foot in 10-20 minutes, all the while insisting that her parent pushes an empty stroller. More seriously, a viable toddler walkshed can be identified by answering the following question: can a neighborhood provide a range of destinations and diverse experiences within a toddler’s walking distance, without requiring access to an automobile? For my family, the importance of the toddler walkshed is underscored by the fact that our daughter’s care provider does not have access to a car. Nonetheless, within 20 minutes and during the small time window before and after her nap, our daughter can, during the course of a week: attend a weekly kids’ concert; visit several parks and playgrounds; play at a neighborhood recreation center during inclement weather; attend story time at one of two local libraries; buy groceries with her parents; take swimming lessons in the local public pool; and gleefully play and climb on the public art installation in a nearby pocket park (the allure of which is so great that we must avoid it all costs if we want to make it to any of the other destinations in time).
At a time when many decry the sedentary lifestyles of children, the amount of time spent in front of television and video games, and our increasing dependency on cars for carting around our children, the availability of a toddler walkshed can be an antidote to such trends. In our case, our urban lifestyle has been a conscious choice, but one that is easy to sustain due to the range of activities and experiences—and the number of paths leading to discovery—within a short, meandering walk.
5. Rediscovering the social life of public spaces
I know, I know: good urban design fosters human interaction, getting to know one’s neighbors, a sense of community and eyes on the street. I get it. Or at least I got it, until recently, in a mostly theoretical sense. I’ve preached this gospel in countless planning documents, advocating for lively streets and vibrant public gathering spaces. I’ve absorbed the lessons of William Whyte’s film clips. The problem: in practice, the city has been—for me, at least—a lively and interesting place, yet also one that is faintly impersonal in a way that does not completely jive with my planner preconceptions.
Not anymore. Having a toddler in tow has a way of unlocking and revealing the social life of the city. With my daughter constantly observing people on the street and in the park, attracting attention, engaging both human and canine passers-by, pointing out every baby that passes in a stroller, I’ve had to learn to talk to strangers on an almost daily basis. And it goes beyond the obligatory nods of recognition and shared circumstances typically exchanged between parents and among proud dog-owners. Neighbors suddenly engage in conversations from their stoops. People talk to us in the park. Smiles. Eye contact. Familiar voices and faces. Potentially embarrassing situations with other toddlers defused. An urban planner lets out a sigh of relief, as planning theory is validated. Social interaction in the public realm: it does exist.
These observations are all things I likely would not have noticed or considered three years ago, and I still have much to learn through future “field work.” But with a 34-inch sub-consultant as my guide, I now have a new and revealing lens through which to view my practice as an urban planner.
Image credits: All images by author, except where noted in captions.
January 20, 2015