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Cities for children
Our system of urban design lets down children and teenagers; let's change that
Take a look at any major American suburb or city, and you’ll probably see the following:
Endless rows of nearly identical single family housing, connected by wide, windy roads that lend themselves to easy driving. The kind of suburb that parents like to say are “good places to raise their children.”
However, statements like those assume that what’s best for the parents is automatically what is best for the children — parents want to have the ease of knowing that their child will not get lost, and that they will have the ease of driving around, picking up their child from school and such, so we designed the places where they raise their children to be car centric and spread out. Despite the ostensible benefits of raising children in suburbs like these, they are actually extremely corrosive to a child’s development and sense of independence.
Children are humans, too. While such a statement is extremely obvious, the consequences make for a damning indictment of the current system of urban design in most cities and suburbs where children grow up.
Children need to be able to socialize just as adults do — a system of spread out single family homes means that a child’s friend could be miles away, and they would have to nag their parents to drive them to their friend or the park, which means it’s more likely than not that the child doesn’t go.
Children need mobility — designing cities such that only cars can go quickly seems fine for parents and people who own cars, but children cannot drive. Their primary modes of transportation are walking, bicycles, and scooters, and cities designed for cars means that every destination is inherently spread out, far beyond the capacity for children to go by those methods. For example, in my hometown, the library was around 4 miles away from my house, so I barely went when I was a kid.
Children, especially as they age into their teenage years, need independence — after all, they are their own human, rather than some pet that a parent has total control over. By building the places where we raise children to have only private open space (backyards) and very little bicycle or pedestrian accessible public open space (like parks, schools, etc.), we deny our children that autonomy they so need.
Perhaps the quintessential example of a city that is hostile to children is Los Angeles. LA City Council candidate Yasmine Pomeroy, who is running in the west San Fernando Valley, noted how, even near school zones, there are parts of the road with no sidewalk.
If a child doesn’t have a sidewalk, how are they supposed to walk to or from school? Walking on the street? That such a basic expression of independence is quite literally a life or death affair is probably the best expression of the hostility that Los Angeles has for children.
Of course, Los Angeles is not some exception — practically every city refuses to provide safe streets, sidewalks, and human-scale infrastructure due to the extensive planning in favor of cars. My hometown (a suburb in the SF Bay Area) is lacking sidewalks on some routes to the schools! This is not a problem that will be solved by electric or autonomous cars in the future — right now, we effectively imprison our children until they turn 16 at the minimum, and most importantly, that can change quite easily, and far sooner than autonomous cars.
A commonly held belief is that we don’t need to design cities to be more amenable for children, since they are only a fraction of the general population. However, this belief is wrong for two main reasons:
People under the age of 18 make up over 1/5 of LA county and the United States, a group that numbers 2 million in LA county and over 60 million in America. Children are not just some small fraction, they are the future of the country, and their interests are practically never advocated for since they cannot vote and do not have the time to show up to public meetings.
By creating a city that provides the necessary mobility and safety for children, we create a city that provides the necessary mobility and safety for everyone else too, including seniors and the disabled.
It’s important to understand that not everyone can afford a car, and yet we decide that our cities should dedicate loads and loads of public space with no user payment to people’s private automobiles. We mandate parking in basically every building, including near transit stops, to the point where 14% of Los Angeles is dedicated to car parking, or roughly 1.5 parking spaces for every person in LA. Free parking, viewed as a subsidy, totals to about 100 billion dollars per year countrywide at the low end, something paid for not just by drivers, but by everyone in the form of higher rents, higher costs for food, basically everything.
Freeways and surface parking lots cover cities across California, and yet the moment people without cars get mere consideration regarding safety while on their bike or reliability with their transit lines, the city has to go through a multi-year process asking all the “community stakeholders” (who tend to be old homeowners that drive) what their opinions are, which tend to be negative out of worry about parking or traffic. The callous disregard for the lives of people without cars (who, may I repeat, are primarily children and teenagers) is clear as day whenever you go to one of these public meetings. We didn’t undertake years of “community engagement” to bulldoze our cities for cars that kill thousands of pedestrians per year, why do we have to do the same for measures that protect our kids’ safety?
There are ways, very simple ones in fact, such that we can create cities with “autonomous kids,” and it starts by prioritizing people in urban design through policies.
First, no discussion of cities for children can start without acknowledgement that, in many major cities, there are not enough children. Less than 1/6 of Boston and 13.5% of San Francisco is under the age of 18 — cities like Boston and San Francisco are too expensive and do not have enough family housing in order to be places worthy to raise children (nearby Newton and Oakland respectively have their proportion under 18 around 20%).
Small apartments (one or two bedrooms) are nice and very necessary in the city, but they are not all that need to be built in order for a city to thrive. We need more multifamily housing in order for families to be able to afford the city — right now, over 75% of San Francisco is zoned for low density housing (the most expensive type in a city like SF), with much of the rest of the city zoned either for office and commercial or for high rise one or two bedroom apartments. Families, especially multigenerational ones, need three or more bedrooms in order to raise children, have grandparents live in the same building, and so on.
Designs such as stacked flats and townhomes serve in a middle density role, where they have ample floor space for families to raise children while also being affordable and high density. These designs, as well as larger condos and apartments is an important step towards both increasing density and simultaneously creating housing that is amenable for larger families in the big city. The inimitable Alfred Twu has drawn many other examples of so-called “missing middle” housing here.
This isn’t to say that apartments cannot serve as family housing — Emily Hamilton, a researcher at the Mercatus Center, wrote a great piece for Greater Greater Washington on the families that are calling large apartment buildings in the edge city of Tysons home. Apartment buildings with amenities such as playgrounds, plazas, bike trails, etc. are also great places to raise children, and are sorely needed in more cities across America.
Inherent in the need to create more family housing in cities is the need to create more housing of all kinds and complete communities within neighborhoods. This strategy includes policies such as:
legalizing accessory commercial units
expanding mixed-use zoning and ditching Euclidean style “one type of building only” in neighborhoods
strong pro-housing policies that both renew existing housing stock and create lots of new housing stock, creating safer and less expensive dwellings.
This isn’t to say that there are other policies, especially at the state and federal level, that can help increase the amount of children — generous child benefits and healthcare reform are crucial policy changes that states and the federal government can and should undertake. Nonetheless, in major metropolitan areas, a healthy population of children is a policy choice, and one that cities refuse to make.
If you’re hesitant due to worries about “school overcrowding,” I advise you to fret not. School districts predict enrollment trends far in advance, and make the necessary changes to adapt, such as school expansions, teacher hirings (something made a lot harder by expensive housing), and so on. Schools in LA, the Bay Area, and throughout the United States, in addition, are facing severe under-enrollment due to a lack of children in the city — primarily due to expensive housing and a lack of affordable family dwellings such as larger apartments, condos, townhomes, etc.
Improvements in transportation policy (and land use policy in relation to transportation) is also one that cities are currently loath to make, but if any city really wants to consider itself pro-children and pro-family, they should be jumping at the opportunity to make such basic improvements.
Let’s start with mobility. Children and teenagers primarily use scooters, bicycles, public transportation, and walking in order to get around — meanwhile, cities design basically every road to be as fast for cars as possible. This pattern of design makes those other forms of transportation that children use virtually impossible, either through gridlock trapping buses, car centric design expanding the scale of cities far beyond what children would be able to reasonably walk or cycle, and unsafe streets that lead to many pedestrian deaths.
One of the most dangerous types of collisions with a bicycle is the so-called “right hook” collision, in which a car taking a right collides with a bicycle headed straight. These types of collisions, with the paired “left cross,” are also some of the most common collisions, and often lead to serious damage. Despite the fact that, most of the time, these collisions are due to the fault of the driver, the onus is often put on cyclists to avoid such collisions, rather than the driver for their reckless action and the city planner for making such collisions possible through street design.
A couple changes that can help avoid and reduce the severity of such collisions include:
getting rid of the right turn on red rule for cars
creating protected intersections and triple-A (“all ages and abilities”) bike lanes, which slow down cars and prevent the most serious collisions from being fatal, in addition to physically separating bicyclists from drivers.
legalizing the “Idaho stop” or “Delaware Yield” which treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs for cyclists. These laws reduce fatalities and injuries for cyclists by allowing cyclists to get ahead of traffic and remain visible
If cities truly desire a reduction of cyclist deaths, they will make the necessary policy and built environment changes to prioritize cyclist safety. If all they want is vaporware, I suppose they will put some sharrows and call it a day, but I really hope that the stories every day that come out about cyclists injured or dead from a reckless driver speeding on streets designed for speed really do compel cities to make those necessary built environment changes. Cycling is not just some exercise done by people in lycra for fun, it is also one of the most important ways that children and teenagers have to get around, and denying or downplaying the danger of roads in favor of denigrating cyclists ends up hurting children and teenagers most of all.
In addition to necessary safety improvements for cyclists, cities should also prioritize pedestrians in street design. As shown earlier, many parts of the West San Fernando Valley do not even have sidewalks on the way to school, let alone the other parts of Los Angeles and other cities throughout California that have sidewalks in disrepair or plain nonexistence.
Widening sidewalks and providing them the same level of priority as road construction and repairs is the first step in providing pedestrians the dignity that car drivers always get. In addition, creating and expanding car-free streets such as JFK Drive and the Great Walkway in San Francisco, as well as slow streets initiatives such as the ones in LA and SF, allow for more pedestrians (primarily children and teenagers) to enjoy parks without worrying about their safety.
Public transportation infrastructure is also key in cities that want to embrace pro-family and pro-children positions. Taking away space from cars and moving mode share towards subways, buses, trams, etc. provides children more freedom, since a child has some level of direction over where they can go with a bus, rather than being at the whims of their parent in a car.
Bus lanes that prevent public transportation from being stuck in traffic, automated light metros and subways that run on high frequency (headways under 10 minutes), and so on and so forth are the most necessary upgrades to the current mess of public transportation in the United States. Undertaking these expansions, though, means that city and state governments will have to deal with the ungodly costs of expanding infrastructure. If cities really do care about expanding public transportation so that it’s used by everyone and treated as a public service rather than social welfare, then they would be willing to tackle the problems that Alon Levy noted in that blog post. These steps include:
exempting public transportation from environmental review and other obstructive processes like community meetings
dealing with the procurement issues Levy talks about in this blog post
ditching the “buy American” rules that lead to exorbitant costs due to public transit agencies being mandated to buy from inefficient American manufacturers rather than more efficient foreign manufacturers
Inherent in these public transportation expansions is a necessity to take space away from drivers. One of the ways that taking street parking spaces from drivers can become amenable is to use one of the prescriptions in The High Cost of Free Parking, specifically regarding parking meters.
Using dynamically priced parking meters that have the goal of one or two spaces open per block are useful because, as we take away street parking spaces from drivers for public transportation or bicycle lanes, the prices on the parking meters will adjust to keep that one to two spaces open per block — as prices become higher and higher for street parking, people will be incentivized to take public transportation or a bicycle, reducing the danger of such activities by taking cars out of the road.
Paired with removing minimum parking requirements that shovel money towards cars and prevent the creation of walkable neighborhoods, street parking metering allows for proper stewardship of our valuable urban land while also making sure to placate car drivers’ worries about parking. With the gradual removal of street parking spaces, we can create streets that are more pedestrian, scooter, and cyclist-friendly, which creates cities that are more child-friendly.
The current system of city design hurts children and teenagers most of all — the great Twitter user @_johnsonator firmly believes that children and teenagers are the most disrespected group in our culture and urban design, for good reason.
However, there are many different ways we can remedy this disrespect that we have thus far given children and teenagers, and provide them independence and safety in cities far and wide. The only prerequisite is political will.