Planning Kid-Friendly Cities

City Planning Guru, George Osner

City Planning Guru, George Osner

TGSG Note: Recently, I wrote about urban planning as one of the key  barriers to today’s children spending time outdoors. I am so excited to have City Planner, George Osner guest post today at TGSG. An expert in his field — as well as a father and grandfather — I can’t think of anyone better to discuss this issue. Important information for us all to learn more about.   See ya outside! – The Grass Stain Guru

City planning? Why should I care about that? Isn’t that just something bureaucrats and politicians do?

If you care about kids — and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t, you should care about how your town or city is planned and where it is headed in the future.  The way your city is laid out has a big impact on kids, some obvious, some not so obvious.

An obvious one is an adequate amount of parks and other open space that is easily accessible.  After all, TGSG is all about playing outside, right? Getting an adequate amount of land for parks is a constant battle in growing areas.  Kids need outdoor spaces, and not just their own backyards (and many don’t have backyards).  Imaginative, unstructured play has been shown to be critical to social and mental development of children. Outdoor, natural environments are crucial to reducing stress levels for children and adults.  Parks, greenways, trails, natural areas along waterways, these all are needed for a humane, kid-friendly environment. And adult-friendly, too!

Public open space is a critical element to any city and is especially critical to kids. These spaces are the places where kids meet informally and groups/friends coalesce.  (Private open space—aka vacant lots—played a big role in my childhood as well).

The modern city is designed with cars, not people (and certainly not kids) at the top of the pyramid.  We have tried (unsuccessfully) to create a model where cars can be used to zip us everywhere with no waiting, and at the same time to insulate ourselves from the effects of that zipping.  Thus the typical subdivision with as many cul-de-sacs crammed in as possible.  This has huge downsides for kids.  It means that every trip requires a car—even to visit that friend who lives over the fence in back—he or she may be next to you, but you have to negotiate a half-mile of streets to get from one cul-de-sac  to the other.  And while the cul-de-sac has little traffic, the “collector” streets are full of fast traffic, and the arterial streets are even worse—all the traffic is concentrated on a few streets, making them a place where no one cares—or dares to walk or take their bicycle. A walk to the park or to school becomes a scary trip that most parents don’t want their child attempting. This “must drive to everything” design is very destructive. It contributes to the immobilizing fear/security syndrome that we see depriving our kids of their childhood.  And furthermore, it is at the core of the epidemic of childhood (and adult for that matter) obesity and juvenile diabetes.

Connectivity is a planning buzzword that you should know. A city design that has less cul-de-sacs and more grid streets has some great benefits.  The traffic on any one connecting street becomes less, so that cars and walkers/cyclists can coexist.  Sometimes this is married with “traffic-calming” techniques—roundabouts, narrow streets, and other measures to keep vehicle speed down.  An area with high connectivity becomes walkable — families can visit the neighbors, walk to the park,  and kids can walk to school.  In a well designed neighborhood with a fine-grained mixture of uses (mixing land uses like retail and housing at the neighborhood/project level), even the kinds of shopping that are done on a daily basis are within a walking radius.

Great urban planning design incorporates connectivity principles, adequate and accessible well-designed open space, a fine-grained mixture of uses, and sufficient density to enhance both walkability and the availability of non-auto modes of travel, like mass transit. These principles have the added benefit of significantly reducing energy use and greenhouse gas generation — huge issues that will affect our kids and grandkids in significant and not yet well-understood ways.

So what can you do with this information?  City governments are highly responsive to their constituents.  Get organized.  Follow your city’s planning commission and city council actions.  Join a group promoting good planning for your community.  Attend meetings and support the good/oppose the bad. Insist that plans for your community incorporate connectivity, walkabilty, and mixed use principles, and that project approvals carry these principles out.

You can make a difference to your community, and those individual improvements add up to make a difference to the world!

Guest Blogger Bio: George Osner (AICP) has been a planner for 33 years.  His goal as a planner is and has always been to make the future a better place for the coming generations.  An avid cyclist, George is the a father of four and grandfather of  five. He lives in California with his partner and cat, Freddie Mac.

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