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Is Your City a Great Place to Raise Kids? Could It Be?

Photo: ## Yourdon/flickr##

Jennifer Langston of the Sightline Institute in Seattle has so far published eight articles in a series called Family-Friendly Cities. She shows that while Seattle has a lower share of the population under age 15 than the rest of the state of Washington, that gap is closing. The number of kids in Seattle is growing far faster than in the rest of the state.

Image: Sightline
Image: Sightline

“Whatever the underlying causes, the data certainly make intuitive sense, given the expectant parents I know searching for cribs that will fit in the closets of their Capitol Hill apartments and downtown daycares with open infant slots (harder to find than a magical unicorn!),” wrote Langston. “In my own Seattle neighborhood, the new elementary school that opened four years ago to handle our local baby boom filled up so fast that there’s now a lottery to get in.”

In fact, while all over the country, demographic factors -- delayed fertility, lower birth rates, the silver tsunami -- are raising the median age, Seattle is unusual in seeing the share of its population under 15 rise -- and dramatically.

Image: Sightline
Image: Sightline

Still, Seattle’s kid-friendliness is put to shame by Vancouver, BC, whose downtown has five times downtown Seattle's under-15 population. And between 2001 and 2011, downtown Vancouver’s child population grew 68.6 percent, while the city as a whole lost 1.4 percent and the province lost 4.1 percent.

How did they do it? Vancouver mandated that 25 percent of new high-density housing be designed for families -- meaning at least two decent-sized bedrooms and a host of other thoughtful features:

    • Bathrooms that are big enough to fit a parent and child.
    • A non-carpeted entry area where parents can pull off wet jackets and muddy boots.
    • No more than 12 units grouped together on the same hall or entry, to foster a sense of community.
    • A minimum of 130 square meters of outdoor play space somewhere in the complex, ideally that parents can see from the unit, with separate areas for preschoolers and older children.
    • Landscaping with non-toxic plants that can withstand the “rough and tumble of children’s play.”
    • Soundproofing between units and sleeping areas that won’t be disturbed by proximity to living areas.
    • In addition to clothes and linen closets, a minimum of 5.7 cubic meters of bulk storage space, within the unit or near the entry, that can hold strollers, wheeled toys, suitcases, sports equipment and holiday decorations
    • Lockable bicycle storage adjacent to a building entrance.

To keep these larger, more family-friendly units from being a net detractor from the goal of density, developers can build “tall, skinny towers set atop a podium of townhouses or rowhouses,” offering the best of both worlds. Plus, 20 percent of all housing is designated affordable.

A common thread in Langston’s ingredients of a pro-kid city is that there need to be other kids there. Parents shouldn’t have to drive to the suburbs for playdates or playgrounds or good schools. Not every house needs its own yard, but every family needs easy access to green space -- and the presence of others kids there adds value.

Photo: ##
Photo: ##

To be truly kid-friendly, a city's middle-income houses need to have enough storage, its streets need to have safe places to bike and walk, and ideally, the spaces need to be flexible enough that they’re suitable not just for families with pre-schoolers but those with teenagers. “Small bedrooms, inadequate or inflexible living space, outdoor areas aimed at younger kids, and a lack of programming and activities for teenagers were all commonly cited challenges,” Langston wrote.

Vancouver hasn’t quite managed to swing that:

In 2011, there were twice as many kids under the age of five living downtown as kids aged 5-9 and nearly three times more than young teenagers. Which suggests that even as successful as Vancouver has been in attracting families with kids downtown, the city’s forward-thinking policies aren’t completely meeting their needs.

Vancouver has also neglected to create enough capacity in its downtown schools for the population influx -- a cautionary tale for cities hoping for (or bracing for) a baby boom of their own.

Third Place Commons. Photo: Jennifer Langston, ##
Third Place Commons. Photo: Jennifer Langston, ##

In her most recent post in the series -- a photo essay on spaces that are both kid- and adult-friendly -- Langston mentions Third Place Commons, a free common area connected to a bookstore of the same name in a shopping mall in a suburb just north of Seattle. True to its name, the space fulfills most of the promise of the concept of a “third place” that is neither home nor work: it’s free, there’s food (a farmers’ market, in fact), it’s welcoming and comfortable, and one can find both new friends and old friends there. These are great places for any community and people of all ages.

Vancouver made sure to have enough of these spaces by negotiating “Community Amenity Contributions” requiring developers "to build or even help fund the operations of daycares, parks, libraries, cultural facilities, service agencies, and community centers."

I appreciate Langston’s focus on places that fulfill the needs of parents as well as kids because I, like her, “have easily spent hundreds of hours sitting on playground benches, bored out of my mind, messing with my phone, and waiting until I can justifiably extract [my child].” Cities looking to attract and keep families with kids will recognize what the writers of children’s movies realized long ago -- parents are more likely to take their kids there if there’s something in it for them. In movies, it's the higher-level jokes and subtexts that go over the kids' heads. In cities, it’s grown-up fitness equipment at the playground, bars with kiddie happy hours and space to run around (or toys to play with), farmers markets with live music.

These aren't just ingredients for happy kids. They're essential parts of a healthy, thriving city.

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