Why It is Important to Have Children Living Downtown

We have become so accustomed to the 20th century mantra that children need to grow up in suburbia that many would never consider raising a child downtown. Now we know inherent flaws in suburban planning – distances, dangerous streets, monotonous single function zoning, etc – make suburbia unhealthy for children. It is time to reconsider raising children downtown.

Many downtowns are also currently not healthy environments for children: they often have traffic problems, lack of schools, and many homeless. In 20th century efforts to create single-function business, commercial and entertainment districts, they have lost much of their original mixed-use residential character. In many cities, downtown residents today consist primarily of lower income elders in public housing, or the very poor.  But changes are taking place. There is a new influx of well-to-do retirees and young professionals who see the advantages of being close to cultural resources.

To make downtown healthy for children, further changes need to be made, but it may be no more difficult to retrofit downtowns to make them child-friendly than to retrofit suburbs for the same purpose. In those cities that still retain some mixed-use urban fabric, historic buildings and human scale, the benefits of raising children in the city may be great for all. The benefits of growing up in cities are therefore addressed in a threefold manner:

  • Why is it valuable for children to grow up in a city center?
  • Why is it valuable for other age groups to have children living in the city center?
  • Why is it valuable for the city to have children living in the city center?

Why is it valuable for children to grow up downtown?

  • Growing up in an adult-filled environment gives children a strong head start in developing vocabulary, and conceptual skills. Children are more likely to become articulate, and “street smart”, i.e. quick witted, quick to respond, able to converse.
  • More interaction with adults is valuable in developing social skills, the ability to “read” people and to judge their trustworthiness. They have the opportunity to learn how to appropriately address and talk with different kinds of people.
  • Children growing up downtown can more easily understand how society works; all the businesses, professions, and occupations that society needs; and how they are interdependent. This exposure to diverse ways of life, businesses and occupations makes it easier for a child to select an appropriate career or job from a wide range of possibilities. It can broaden their horizons.
  • Growing up in a diverse social and ethnic mix may increase networking skills, with practical outcomes such as applying and interviewing for a job, finding success in life.
  • Exposure to how businesses and professions are interdependent may make it easier in adulthood to negotiate business deals, discuss inter-disciplinary issues, or even to be resilient enough to switch professions if desirable.
  • Exposure to different ethnic and religious groups in the public realm as well as in school reduces unrealistic fear of those who are different. It may increase tolerance, or at least the willingness to hear another point of view.
  • Contact with a diverse population of elders, poor, those with disabilities, stimulates a child’s awareness of human frailties, compassion, and their sense of their ethical responsibilities towards those who may need help.
  • Given the compact structure of downtown, it may be more likely that children can walk to school, shops, parks, cultural resources and friends’ homes.
  • Closer proximity to cultural resources – library, theaters, performing arts, museums, etc – may increase exposure to culture and the arts. This exposure can peak a child’s interest in learning about different fields or developing diverse skills.
  • Exposure to a more stimulating, diverse environment challenges the child’s curiosity, and desire to understand their world.

Why is it valuable for other age groups to have children living downtown?

  • Parents can live closer to their jobs downtown, reducing commute time and increasing time spent with children.
  • If parents can commute on foot or public transit this reduces need for a second car – a great saving
  • Parents have access to downtown cultural resources, restaurants, cafes etc, all of which may be accessible on foot or by public transit, thus saving money and increasing community building.
  • Local cafes, eating places, grocery stores, squares and parks increase opportunities for parents to develop social networks with other adults who have parenting skills, experience and information about local resources.
  • Apartment buildings or condos with hospitable lobbies, meeting rooms and other communal spaces can facilitate community and provide parents with valuable contacts for finding baby sitters, and other child-rearing support.
  • Small business owners benefit from a residential population of workforce families with more disposable income than the elderly poor or homeless.
  • For elders, the co-presence of children in the public realm can be life-affirming.
  • If they wish, elders can have a closer rapport with children. This is of mutual benefit. Some elders may fill the roles of grandparents in caring or looking out for children’s well-being; this gives elders a greater sense that their presence is valued by others. On the other hand, older children and teenagers may be able to help out their elderly neighbors, running an errand or returning a book to the library.
  • Children’s play in hospitable parks and squares is creative and spontaneous. For working adults, serendipitous co-presence may spark creativity in their own line of work.
  • All age groups living downtown benefit because efforts to make a city safe and livable for children requires higher standards of livability – better facilities for pedestrians, more traffic-calmed streets, better public transportation, more accessible parks and squares, etc.

Why is it valuable for the city as a whole to have children living downtown?

  • Parents are the city’s primary work force. If families live downtown close enough to walk or take public transit to their jobs, pollution from commuting is significantly reduced.
  • Every family living downtown reduces the city’s need to invest in costly infrastructure at the city’s periphery.
  • The carbon footprint of families living downtown in a mixed-use 5-6 story urban fabric is far lower than in suburban single family homes and is also lower than families in high rise housing.
  • Families help to bring back a diverse economy downtown, and diversity increases the city center’s economic resilience.
  • Families living downtown support all kinds of shops, businesses and eating places. Not only toy shops, school supply stores and children’s clothing shops will prosper, but also groceries, farmers markets, adult clothing stores, banks, services, pharmacies, restaurants and entertainment benefit.
  • The increased density of families living in mixed use buildings of 5-6 story apartments or condos (yielding a population of approximately 600/acre) greatly increases the potential economic success of all kinds of businesses in close proximity, compared to suburban shops and businesses.
  • Schools in the downtown are powerful agents in creating social networks downtown.
  • The city’s unique architectural heritage can be protected by upgrading historic apartment buildings to workforce housing, retrofitting historic institutional buildings as schools, preventing demolition of historic churches that now have a congregation, etc
  • The beauty and livability of downtown is enhanced by creating or improving existing parks to facilitate children’s play.
  • The safety of downtown is enhanced for all population groups by efforts to ensure children’s safety – calming traffic, widening sidewalks, ensuring eyes on the street, etc.
  • Children who experience a good livable city are all the more likely to understand what a livable city needs, and may become the guardians of the city’s livability for future generations.
  • Children who have grown up in a hospitable and complex downtown may as adults contribute great social, intellectual and creative skills to the city they love.

A number of US cities are making a concerted effort to create family-friendly housing and facilities downtown. In Portland, OR, the Downtown Neighborhood Association has stressed the need for housing for families and the middle-class workforce. The City Planning Department is also supportive of more two or more bedroom family-friendly units that are still small enough to be reasonably priced.

In 2012 the Ramona apartments, a new affordable family housing block in Portland’s downtown Pearl District opened its doors. To provide hospitable play space for young children, the block contains an inner courtyard (open to the east) designed specifically as a toddlers’ and children’s play area. Benches and sittable walls provide seating for parents within sight of the play equipment. The walkways are wide enough for two children’s tricycles to pass an adult. Overlooking the courtyard is an elementary school on the ground floor, with apartments and community rooms above.

The Pearl District is an attractive downtown district for families, Isabelle Groc reports: “Watching the trains come and go, listening to the ship horns, riding the streetcar, browsing the local bookstore, and splashing at the Jamison Square water fountain are some of the weekend activities Nancy Davis enjoys with her four-year-old son in Portland's Pearl District. "It is just wonderful for a child because you are exposed to so many new sights, sounds, and smells," Davis says.”

According to developers, Oklahoma City’s first downtown grocery, and planning for a charter elementary school and streetcar system are attracting families with children to live Downtown.

Key elements in Hampton’s Downtown Master Plan include “a strong emphasis on new multi-family housing in the downtown core and single-family housing in the in-town neighborhoods”, as well as commercial development that supports family living downtown - “mixed-use projects with retail and restaurant tenants on the first floor and housing and offices on the upper floors”.

Ann Arbor’s Downtown Development Authority places priority on “Creating a 24-Hour Neighborhood with a Full Spectrum of Housing Options in the Downtown”. They stress that “a local residential population is necessary for a dynamic, economically-strong 24-hour downtown. A substantial residential base near and in the downtown has a positive effect on the retail climate, local transportation systems, and quality of life.” An important strategy is to “Encourage mixed-use projects that feature retail businesses on lower floors and residential housing on upper floors.”

Ann Arbor’s DDA also emphasizes that “Maintaining and strengthening the traditional residential character of the near-downtown neighborhoods is essential for the economic and social sustainability of downtown Ann Arbor.” To achieve this, they will “Consider the impacts of downtown development projects and improvements on near-downtown neighborhoods. This includes consideration of project design, massing, and height, possible future traffic impacts, and encouragement of elements that add to the attractiveness of living near downtown, such as open space.”

In Seattle in 2012, more than 3,200 children under the age of 18 were living downtown.  However, research showed that “once children reach the age of 5, families will often move out of Downtown in search of a neighborhood that fosters a more family-friendly environment.” Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) has been trying to increase the number of families with children living downtown. They asked parents and soon-to-be parents living downtown to discuss what works and what doesn’t work when living downtown with kids of all ages. Reasons for families relocating included “lack of quality schools in the Downtown core as well as the lack of safe public parks, playgrounds and amenities suitable for young children.” 

In April 2013, Seattle Department of Planning and Development, Seattle Planning Commission, and the Downtown Seattle Association are holding a day-long conference on “Ingredients for Designing a Family-Friendly Downtown”. Local, regional and national experts will discuss how to attract families, and examine what other cities in North America are doing to create great downtown environments for families.

Some years ago it was thought that only students, young professionals and retired elders were interested in living downtown close to work, cultural resources, restaurants and public transit. Now it is becoming evident that as these young professionals marry and begin families they find themselves unwilling to abandon the quality of life downtown for the suburban dream. Downtown is also beginning to draw other young families from the suburbs eager for a more sustainable life style and a stronger sense of community.

In a follow-up article, we will identify what downtowns need to provide to become healthy environments for raising children. Most downtowns are not there yet, but making downtown livable and healthy for children, will ensure livability for all, and make our cities ecologically and socially sustainable.