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The progressive potential of kid-friendly urban design

For cities seeking to hang on to their young families, Toronto offers an example to keep an eye on

The Bayside development in Toronto shows how the child care’s outdoor space was located on the 2nd level by taking a ‘bite’ out of the building. This alternative massing solution was a response to a constrained site and involved cooperation between the developer (Waterfront Toronto), City Planning and Children Services. 

For young adults in U.S. cities, the life cycle of urban living can seem as prescribed and predictable as the life cycle of a butterfly. Head downtown after school, get a job and career, meet a partner, have a child, and then, as if called by some great migratory urge, wait until right before the kids hit school age and head to the suburbs.

While major cities have seen steady, and many hope sustainable, growth in their young-adult populations since the recession, the same can’t necessarily be said of families and children. Between a lack of affordable family-friendly housing stock and neighborhoods without enough playspaces and child-friendly streets, cities can seem designed to discourage parents from staying around and raising children. Just try getting a stroller through the New York City subway system.

Demographics reflect how these hurdles are discouraging family life downtown. In Washington, D.C., between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population of children decreased by 14,000. In Seattle, in the midst of a tech and real estate boom attracting high-income young workers, just 2 percent of the city’s affordable apartment stock has three or more bedrooms. In San Francisco, which famously has 80,000 more dogs than children, the population of children dropped from 22 percent in 1970 to 13.4 percent in 2010. A survey that year found that half of the parents of young kids were planning to leave in the next three years.

“A lot of people come into the city, have small kids, and when the time comes for them to afford school, they can’t afford a private education and they leave the city,” says Kaid Benfield, a planner and urban designer at PlaceMakers. “That’s obviously not the healthiest population dynamic if you want a diverse, modern city. “

Suburbs, and the siren call of high-performing public schools, is undoubtedly a key factor in young families leaving cities. But that’s far from the only factor. That’s what makes a new initiative from Toronto, a holistic approach to re-envisioning urban space for children and families, so progressive.

Proposed layout of a kid-friendly ground floor.
City Planning Toronto

Planning for a city with children at the center

In May, the Toronto City Council approved “Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities,” a set of guidelines for developing more family- and kid-friendly condos. According to Ann-Marie Nasr, manager of strategic initiatives at City Planning Toronto, one of the things that makes this first-of-its-kind plan stand out is the way it approached the problem.

Growing Up emerged from the realization that Toronto was becoming taller, denser, and filled with larger households (44 percent of households in the city have children). The city predicts 83 percent of its growth will come from vertical communities, says Nasr, and growing populations of immigrants and families will find high-rise living uncomfortable or even impossible without larger, family-friendly units.

But even more importantly, and perhaps transformative, is the way the idea came to be. Developed through extensive outreach and resident feedback—during “condo hack” sessions, designers and planners visited homes to glean what families felt was missing, and how they made due in constricted units—the results, which will be finalized and rolled out as guidelines for two neighborhoods in 2018, also have developer buy-in. Jim Ritchie, a senior vice president of sales and marketing for Tridel, a local developer, told the Toronto Star that “there is definitely a marker for larger homes,” and expressed interest in the program.

Designing for kids on a neighborhood scale
City Planning Toronto

The guidelines have been broken into three sections: unit, building, and neighborhood. The neighborhood guidelines include recommendations for mobility, such as protected bike lanes, improved access to play space, and co-located child care facilities. Building and unit guidelines focus on more spacious, open living units, as well as integrating common spaces throughout new buildings. They recommend units with sightlines so parents can more easily keep an eye on their kids, more storage and flexible unit design, and hallways and common spaces designed for social interaction, so they function more like play areas than hotel lobbies.

The combined nature of the guidelines addresses a big problem in a lot of park expansion plans, according to Benfield: a lack of integration with building design, which would make them more efficient and equitable.

While guidelines, by definition, are suggestions, Growing Up Toronto isn’t just an exercise. Developers will need to explain how future developments measure up to these guidelines during the permitting process. The guidelines also inform a new planning framework for downtown Toronto which will be statutory, which will mandate that new high-rises contain 15 percent two-bedroom units and 10 percent three-bedroom units, while also proposing a vision and commitment for sustainable growth.

“There are some developers who know that’s where their future market is, and they see this report as a real insight,” says Nasr.

Proposed layout for a two-bedroom apartment
City Planning Toronto

In the last decade, developers in the U.S. and Canada have generally focused on smaller unit sizes to boost profits (the average size of units finished in 2016, 934 square feet, is 8 percent smaller than a decade ago). But there’s a difference between what’s profitable and what’s possible. According to Brent Toderian, a former chief city planner and now international consultant, Vancouver has required a quarter of the units in its buildings be two bedrooms or more, and 10 percent three-bedrooms, and that hasn’t slowed down the city’s rapid residential growth. Planning needs to step in and set guidelines, expectations, and a vision for how the city will grow, he says.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he told Vox. “We assume families don’t want to live downtown, we therefore don’t design for family, and, sure enough, families don't come, or they don't stay.”

U.S. plans and what we’re missing

The Growing Up Toronto guidelines support the belief that kid-friendly urban living is a choice, not an oxymoron. In the United States, plans and proposals that aim to create a child-friendly urban environment tend to be much more limited. As a recent report on child-friendly design suggest, to really create a welcoming environment for families, urban planners and local leaders need to look past signature skate parks and playgrounds. One big, kid-friendly playground downtown doesn’t work; it needs to be buttressed by a constellation of smaller, more accessible play spaces for kids across the city.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City has proposed Universal Pre-K, an expansion of his successful push toward universal kindergarten. As part of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), the city has proposed new means to build affordable housing, along with requirements for family-size housing. Denver’s Safe Routes to School program provides funding for restoring bike lanes for student transit. And Philadelphia’s Rebuild Program will spend $500 million on repairing and restoring the city’s parks, libraries, and recreation centers.

While those are valuable programs, truly kid-friendly design needs to start with equity and safety. According to Reilly Wilson, a researcher and expert in environmental psychology at Children’s Environmental Research Group, one of the biggest issues facing kids in cities is the design of streetscapes and pedestrian areas.

“That’s the main thing American cities are pretty far behind on,” she says. “It’s not just about getting around school. One of the main reasons parents like to keep their kids inside is because of the lack of street safety, and the lack of urban infrastructure for safe play.”

Children of working mothers, who receive day care at the Greenwich House on Saturdays and after school hours, returning to this community center after a trip to the zoo or some other place of interest in 1944.
Library of Congress

New York City, where she lives, is “not a terribly friendly place” for children, she says. Like a lot of urban infrastructure and services, those geared toward kids—parks, community centers, day care, child-friendly transportation options—have historically suffered from budget cuts. New York City in particular suffered greatly when community and rec centers faced steep cuts starting in the ’70s, says Reilly.

According to Kaid, U.S. cities haven’t fully recovered from the disinvestment in child services of the late 20th century. But perhaps the opportunity presented by a generation that wants to raise their kids downtown, as well as progressive plans like Growing Up Toronto, can spur cities to continue to rebuild and rethink who they want included in their vision of urban life.