Suitable for all Ages: How Child-friendly Cities Benefit Everyone

The concept of designing cities that meet the social, emotional, intellectual and physical needs of residents of all ages is one that IMCL has been advocating for years. Several new initiatives are underway to address the needs of some of a city's most vulnerable residents— children.  These initiatives present the perfect opportunity to talk about how the smallest planning and design changes can have some of the most profound impacts. The also demonstrate how doing what's best for children just might help cities reach their livability goals.

The most livable cities are those that work for residents of all ages. The features of a city that make it the safest, healthiest, and accommodating for its most vulnerable citizens can also make it exceptionally more livable for everyone. We've talked before about how the elements of making cities truly livable are ideal and convenient for most of us but essential for the well-being of elderly populations. The same is true for another vulnerable population, children, whose needs if addressed, can help us reach exemplary livability for everyone. Several new initiatives are addressing urban livability as they relate to the needs of vulnerable populations and children in particular—access to green open space; safe streetscapes and public transportation; clean bathrooms; and safe places to rest.

Child-focused urban moms (the Park Slope mom in particular) have been given a lot of flack in recent years for everything from clogging sidewalks with strollers to suburbanizing one of Brooklyn's hippest neighborhoods. But their demands for safer, healthier, and user-friendly urban spaces can't be all bad. They do have a point. For anyone who has every travelled to an unfamiliar city, let alone had to trek an infant and five-year old across town via public transit at rush hour knows the value of an accessible restroom, a safe street-crossing, and a little shade in which to rest.

The Department of City Planning in New York as well as the New York Academy of Medicine have looked at ways to make the city more "age-friendly." Meetings and focus groups with elderly residents conducted by the Academy found that people want a city that has many characteristics more readily found in smaller towns. People wanted a "neighborly" feel— where it's safe to cross the street and where there are ample places to rest freely and use the bathroom. They also wanted improved street navigability citing poor street drainage as an impediment to walkers and wheelchairs. These are shared concerns for parents with strollers and young traveling professionals alike. Easier navigability and accessibility are essential for an optimal urban lifestyle. While planners can't ensure that someone someone will help every elderly neighbor or parent with a stroller across the street, we can reduce the need for such courtesies with good pedestrian and open space design.

A streetscaping initative in New York City used pavement markings, signal timing, new signage, painted and textured surfaces, concrete islands, and flexible delineators to reclaim public space from existing roadways. Recaliming this space not only improves the quality and safety of the pedestrian experience but can also be leveraged into a greening program due to more permeable surfaces and shading potential. For more information on the NYC DOT's streetscaping initiative, visit IMCL's 2010 eConference page to view a presentation by Randy Wade, NYC's Director of Pedestrian Projects.

Like the rest of us, kids need safe places in which to live, learn, explore, and play. The urban landscape has the potential to be just that— and we could all benefit from a little more time on the playground. As a recent article in Good described, "[c]hildren could lead cyclists, developers, school officials, and health nuts to their more perfect city, if only we would listen."