To Save Our Cities, Put Children First

We know a lot about the ideal environment for a happy whale or a happy mountain gorilla. We're far less clear about what constitutes an ideal environment for a happy human being. One common measure for how clean a mountain stream, is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It's the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.
—Enrique Peñalosa

Change is coming to our cities in the next 10-20 years, whether or not our culture is ready for it. As cheap oil disappears and we firmly enter the age of 'extreme energy' and additional finite resources diminish to scarce levels, we will be forced to adjust to new ways of building and living with a global population approaching eight billion—almost entirely in urban settings. Even as our cities mushroom in size, the very mega-infrastructure projects that built them—created in a world where cheap energy was substituted for common sense and ethical planning—become obsolete.

We exchanged a sense of community for take-out and parking lots. We converted the scale of our communities from a human to a highrise level. The scale of the child has been left behind in most of America.

During the post-World War II era we redefined and recreated communities of all sizes to support the transition to an automobile age within the span of only three decades. The North American landscape was changed forever—and its about to change just as radically, over just as short of a timeframe yet again. The types of infrastructure and planning that separate us within our own communities—urban sprawl, big box retail, interstate freeways, mega powerplants, centralized sewage treatment systems, and absurdly tall skyscrapers will suddenly become impossible to sustain. In their place will emerge a new urban landscape supported by new kinds of infrastructure responding to the new reality of energy, food, water, and population.

That we'll remake civilization is guaranteed—how we'll do it is the only question. Will we simply spiral towards the visions found in many science fiction novels and Hollywood movies? Will our cities become versions of an unhealthy, ecologically depleted, crowded, dirty “Blade Runner” future? Or will we use this opportunity for change as a course correction to create a healthy, vibrant and beautiful living future?

How do we begin to create a future that brings out the best of humanity and safeguards the planet's fragile ecosystems?

Putting Kids First

As simplistic as it may sound, the best way to plan our cities to function as nurturing, dynamic communities for all people is to design them well as places for children first. Regardless of function or location, all re-development and new planning should be grounded by asking the questions, “Is this good for children?” “Does it relate to a scale that children relate to?”

Why is it that so much of the built environment is unfit for our most sensitive and vulnerable citizens? The disturbing answer is that other than dedicated school yards and some city parks, children are mere afterthoughts in the 'serious business' that is city and community planning. For the last sixty years we've designed our communities first around the scale of the automobile, and secondarily around the scale of adult men and women. By leaving children out, we have left out the best of humanity—and the chance to connect our future leaders with functioning workable urbanism. Whole generations now have no experience with how fantastic well-done urbanism can be. The best cities in the world have a walkable, relatable scale that children and adults alike can relate to. They tend to be safer, more accessible, and more culturally rich. They give us greater opportunities for social interaction as well as chance encounters and educational opportunities.

By catering our infrastructure to those among us who have the least control, we actually usher in greater opportunities across multiple demographic segments.

Think about what makes a place great for kids: a focus on found learning, serendipitous personal interactions with others, opportunities to interact with nature and natural systems (water in particular), right-sized designs that aren't intimidating and automobile-based, a city with an all-around gentle touch. Now consider a city that extended such considerations to everybody. If communities were built in ways that nurtured children rather than worked around them, all ages would be the better for it. By catering our infrastructure to those among us who have the least control, we actually usher in greater opportunities across multiple demographic segments.

It's bad enough that typical futuristic images of our cities are ecologically impossible; what's also crazy is that they never appear to be very nice places for children. It seems that the visionaries who craft these plans of soaring buildings and concrete landscapes—or even present-day housing developments with endless rows of identical homes—have forgotten the importance of what it means to just go outside and play.

Even many much-heralded “eco-developments” seem to contain few genuine child-friendly opportunities, unless one counts the occasional recycled plastic slide in a fenced-in play area.

It's time to turn our attention back to our children and do what makes sense for them, for us, and for the environment. The good news is that child-centered city planning is not simply generous; it's practical.

Doing What We Do Best—A Super-Quick History

Many people have a hard time believing that we can redesign our cities within the span of a few decades, but the truth is it will happen regardless of our intentions.

While its very easy to feel defeated and pessimistic by the overwhelming evidence of energy and water scarcity, climate change, and worldwide economic upheaval, I consider it more useful to look at these significant challenges as opportunities to re-imagine civilization in a way that ensures our long term place in it. Many people have a hard time believing that we can redesign our cities within the span of a few decades, but the truth is it will happen regardless of our intentions. The question is whether we will steer things towards the best possible outcomes or see impacts continue to move in the wrong direction.

After all, we've done this before. In the period following World War II, virtually every American city, town, and village modified itself to embrace the new realities of the modern age: the rise of suburbia, an expanded reliance on automobiles, and the promise of the “American dream.” In creating the national highway system, we connected our cities—but rammed the interstates through many of their cores to do so. Waterfronts were often cut off and historic urban neighborhoods were carved up, with the most impact disproportionately felt in poor communities. In our quest for the elevated fast lane, we discarded street-level scenes and structures. We exchanged a sense of community for take-out and parking lots. We converted the scale of our communities from a human to a highrise level. The scale of the child has been left behind in most of America.

As we began to rob our cities of structural integrity—while making it easier to travel in and out from them—we very quickly began to abandon the older, central districts of cities and spread outward. Those with means wanted to live at the city's edge where they pursued what they felt were safer, cleaner, and more spacious surroundings. Larger suburban lots promised more impressive lawns, more substantial garages, more enviable status. Unfortunately the exodus of a large proportion of the middle class took its toll on essentially all American cities. Those who remained in the city tended to be of lower socioeconomic classes, so metropolitan tax revenues plummeted and inner-city development rates dropped off. Urban crime rates began to climb, schools suffered, and communities withered.

Meanwhile, suburban enclaves thrived. Housing developments boomed, shopping malls cropped up in nearly every community, parking lots exploded in number because cars were now a necessity. The new American society was an automobile paradise, built to cater to people—and shoppers—of all ages.

The American dream was here. We had arrived. Or had we?

Questioning the New Suburban Normal

Statistics now show that people didn't actually become happier once they attained what was billed as the great American dream of suburban home ownership with two cars in the garage. (In their paper “Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer found that workers with one-hour commutes must earn 40 percent more money to have a sense of well-being equal to that of a person who walks or bikes to work. Longer commutes, they assert, undo any perceived emotional benefits of suburban living.) In his powerful book, “Bowling Alone”, Robert Putnam explores how Americans have become more insulated in the years since we've fled the city. Suburban populations, he asserts, are so disconnected from family, friends, and neighbors that it has impoverished our lives and communities.

Children are left with residential neighborhoods that no longer have the cultural benefits of functioning urbanism or the ecological benefits of functioning ruralism. No wonder they play so many video games!

What's worse, this escape from the city has actually gotten us farther from nature since suburban developments tend to eat up farmland, raze forests, and drain wetlands. Residential houses have gotten bigger and bigger as their occupants have become addicted to debt and surrounded by bland same-ness. Our reliance on inexpensive energy is tied to an erosion of our former sense of place. In the midst of the mid-century, post World War renaissance, there was great optimism for the future of our society as well as our cities. Yet, we were too quick to shed the old ways and urban patterns that built our original communities to make way for the new.

Now nearly every North American community is surrounded by the same list of big-box retailers that stand at the gates welcoming visitors coming in from any direction. And children are left with residential neighborhoods that no longer have the cultural benefits of functioning urbanism or the ecological benefits of functioning ruralism. No wonder they play so many video games!

Stealing from the Innocent

Children in every neighborhood—urban and suburban—have been robbed of opportunities as we've drained the life out of our cities and created vast sprawl of bland and unhealthy suburbia. Most profoundly, kids across all strata have lost a sense of freedom. City children have sustained a figurative loss as their neighborhoods' vitality and relevance has faded, leaving many without hope for the future. Suburban kids spend an unhealthy amount of time in the car getting from one spot to another in their over-bland environment, leaving many bored, unengaged, and overweight. When schools are built on inexpensive land on the edge of a community, kids from all segments of the population spend more time on buses than in their own residential surroundings.

The fact is that we've been sucking the youthful life out of our children because of the way we've designed our communities.

With automobiles in dominant roles, it is less safe for children to bike, walk, or play outside. Our increased isolation and lack of connection to our neighbors has made us increasingly paranoid (egged on by irresponsible, fear-mongering media), prompting us to restrict our children's ability to enjoy unstructured time outdoors. Children spend more time in front of screens, substituting virtual connections for personal interaction. Inner-city poverty requires parents (often single) to take on more work hours, leading to lack of supervision for urban kids already at risk. Rates of childhood obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorders are on the rise. Funds supporting public health programs for low-income city kids are quickly diminishing.

These trends feed on themselves and problems only escalate.

The fact is that we've been sucking the youthful life out of our children because of the way we've designed our communities. It's the same thesis offered by Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”. Louv believes – and I agree wholeheartedly – that we are actually damaging our children by disconnecting them from the environment, natural life cycles and the sources of their food. I assert that we shouldn't have to choose between the city and nature.

Admittedly, we have all suffered. But kids feel the disconnection more acutely not just because they are more vulnerable, but also because many of them know nothing else. They've lived either in dying inner cities or in sterile suburban settings their entire lives. Are we raising whole generations of Americans and Canadians who have neither a personal relationship with nature nor appreciation for a thriving urban core? Are we raising a whole generation that does not have a chance to learn naturally what it means to be both a functioning citizen of a community as well as the natural world? Are we in fact robbing our youth of key experiences needed for future maturity?

Adjusting to the Inevitable

The good and bad news is this: the age of cheap oil is almost over. The days of the suburban experiment are numbered. People simply won't be able to afford driving everywhere and communities won't be able to sustain the miles of sprawl that were built on speculation in an era of both cheap energy and cheap labor. We now have neither. The only possible response is to return our focus on the urban core and responsible density, and in so doing, bring back the beauty that is also possible in great cities. It will take a commitment to maintain the values necessary to support truly regenerative neighborhoods.

Most importantly, it should usher in a new commitment to our children.

But the shift won't stop in our larger metropolitan areas. I believe the new oil-free society will reinvigorate the small-and mid-sized towns and farming communities from which people have fled for decades. I predict a reverse migration to many rural places where families can support themselves over the course of several generations.

Relying on Universality

Universal design offers an excellent parallel to the notion of child-friendly urban planning. Universal design was originally introduced to architectural practices as a way of facilitating access and use to individuals with mobility disabilities. As it became more widely adopted and solutions became more clever, universal design has often proved to improve functionality for everyone, regardless of physical ability or age. Thanks to universal design, many buildings now incorporate systems and designs that cater to any user. (Even an able-bodied person carrying a heavy load is hampered by a traditional doorknob but can easily enter a door by using an elbow to push down on a universally designed door handle.)

Universal design asks what the more vulnerable among us need, then creates designs that deliver what we all need.

The beauty of universal design is that it caters to those users who may have more difficulty but benefits users across the spectrum. It asks what the more vulnerable among us need, then creates designs that deliver what we all need.

It's time to apply universally child-friendly designs to our cities.

Painting the Picture

My own experiences as a kid growing up in an industrial community helped shape me as an environmentalist. My current role as a father of four only strengthens my commitment to child-friendly cities. Having spent considerable time in more functioning European cities, I see what our cities can and should be: healthy, safe places that nurture our youth and surround us in natural beauty.

What, then, would a children's city look like? Here is a sampling of what I think we are collectively capable of creating:

  1. Opportunities for families.
    A child-centered city would provide a diversity of housing typologies that suits every variation of family make-up and re-instills a degree of elegance to urban family living. Prices would be manageable across all types of units so that people from a mix of economic backgrounds could afford to rent or own, even when they house multiple generations under one roof. This needs to be done within the context of mixed economic neighborhoods rather than in neighborhoods comprised of uniform socioeconomic status. Housing for working families should combine form and function, not sit like stacks of soulless boxes with token three-foot balconies. Multi-unit structures that achieve ideal urban density should offer adequate acoustic separation as well as genuine (not manufactured) outdoor play spaces.
  2. Clusters of urban services.
    We must return our city neighborhoods to their former glory as diverse multi-use environments. If restaurants, markets, playgrounds, and daycare centers filled in urban spaces, families could find what they need closer to home and we would have no need to look beyond our cities' borders for basic amenities. Many urban centers lack essential services like grocery stores and daycare centers.
  3. Inner-city nature.
    As we shifted our focus to the suburbs, we abandoned the natural capabilities of our cities. A child-centric city must offer an abundance of nature—features that can offer both practical and environmental advantages while giving children easy access to clean water, climbable trees, and fresh air. Urban tree reforestation programs and the re-emergence of daylit streams bring natural systems within the urban context. The idea here is to call upon nature to do double duty, providing amenities that also support urban infrastructure.
  4. Educational neighborhoods.
    There is a nearly endless number of teaching opportunities in any urban setting. Children's cities should celebrate the natural relationship between schools and neighborhoods. Teachers and students need only to step outside their classrooms and pay close attention to the natural and built environments in order to explore the science, art, math, and music that surrounds them. As described in Christopher Alexander's “A Pattern Language”, “Shopfront Schools” where children learn within the fabric of community should be encouraged. Every building in a children's city can offer multiple benefits, as can every citizen. By remembering how to trust our neighbors, we can rely on them to help educate our youth.
  5. Real places to play.
    As the automobile loses its prominence, children will be able to make better recreational use of city streets, sidewalks, and squares. (We may even see a hopscotch revival!) Urbanites will gather in civic spaces that offer expansive and safe areas to sit, walk, and play. (Portland, Oregon's Pearl District offers a tremendous example.) With diminished need for vehicular right of ways, huge opportunities will emerge to create places for recreation, urban food production, and greater urban density without the need for buildings above walk-up scale.
  6. Revealed systems.
    Today's cities bury their infrastructures, hiding water, waste, and food systems from the very citizens who rely on them to survive. Tomorrow's cities should reveal their operations, giving adults and children alike direct knowledge of their societies' inner workings. Just consider the relative impact of a dairy farm field trip versus a pamphlet about milk production. The same could be said of daily urban living. We can adhere to modern standards of health and safety without sanitizing away our connections to municipal systems. We could all learn a thing or two from daylit streams, urban farms, community composting programs, and localized wastewater systems.
  7. Appropriate density.
    At the risk of repeating myself, I will return to a subject I've previously covered. This time, I'll touch on the topic of density as it relates to kids. Nobody can truly believe that a skyscraper is an acceptable setting in which to raise children. How can they experience a sense of community when they dwell so high off the ground? How can they connect with nature when they spend more time with potted plants than with wilderness? Children's cities should offer a saner level of density, in which people interact with the natural world as frequently as they interact with one another. There is a density sweet spot, and it remains closer to the ground.
  8. A soul.
    By thinking first of how urban plans would benefit children, we will naturally design places of greater substance. Places that delight and inform are more likely to be beautiful. And beauty most certainly opens the door to grace—which is something that people can appreciate at any age.