There’s been a recent surge in attention on designing cities for young families (examples 1, 2, 3). This work raises important questions about what makes a place “family-friendly.” Can urban neighborhoods compete with less dense places that fit a more conventional understanding of that term?
I believe so. We’re spending the year in a neighborhood in London that’s literally 10x more dense than our neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota (roughly 40,000/sq. mile vs. 4,000/sq. mile). And our quality of life as a family with two kids under five is higher here in important ways. Our boys are more active and independent. They can walk, scoot, or bike most of the places we go rather than being strapped in car seats. How? Both the density of places to go and the street infrastructure support active transportation for children that young.
The 8-80 concept is a useful related idea here. For over a decade, 8-80 Cities has championed the idea that if you design city streets to work for 8 and 80 year olds, those streets will be safe and comfortable for nearly everyone else. It’s a great rule of thumb for improving safety outcomes and improving mobility.
However, if you want your dense neighborhood to be safe and welcoming for families with young children, designing to the 8-80 rule of thumb – taken literally – isn’t enough. It takes eight years to raise an eight year old! Without kid-friendly infrastructure, families with young children move away, kids spend a lot of time in containers (strollers, car seats), people make fewer trips on foot, and everyone makes the trips they take with more trepidation.
So, in order to get at that idea without losing the snappiness of 8-80, I think we should consider designing infrastructure for eight month olds. I’m not actually being very facetious, either. Can a toddler toddle down and across your street?
There’s more to say about the nuts and bolts of the kid-friendly infrastructure I’m seeing here, but in the spirit of a place that celebrates eating cake in the middle of the afternoon, I want to show you something unexpected.
Hark! A woonerf
I veered from my normal route on a run last week and discovered a bona fide woonerf. A woonerf is a Dutch concept in which a street is designed to prioritize social activity over motor vehicle travel. You can technically drive down a woonerf, but its made difficult enough that it’s not supposed to happen often. It’s becoming more common to refer to these as “shared streets” in the States, which is somewhat disappointing for me personally because I enjoy saying woonerf.
The particular woonerf I happened across is Lemsford Court, a street built through the Kings Crescent Estate regeneration project. Kings Crescent was previously a public housing complex with 275 units in a series of buildings, plus a significant amount of vacant, unimproved land. The first phase of the regeneration project – which includes market rate housing to pay for the other improvements – opened in Fall 2017. It’s a very interesting project for many reasons I won’t get into here, particularly for anyone interested in public or inclusionary housing, and it’s been well-received so far, winning the New London Architecture Mayor’s Prize and a Royal Institute of British Architects National Award.
The woonerf is a central feature in the development, and it was a very interesting choice. It’s a large site overall, and the Council used that flexibility to focus vehicle access to the buildings on other frontages, and to prioritize access for people walking and biking here. Its design is very much of the moment. If developed in an earlier era, this would have absolutely just been built as another normal street, an empty lawn, or a private driveway for residents. It’s a very specific, intentional decision to make a space like this public, and to allow cars as occasional visitors.
Design elements for the whole family
In practice, this level of traffic-calming means that nearly anyone can wander down the middle of the street without a high level of stress. It’s not technically difficult to accomplish that basic specification for a woonerf, and it can benefit everyone.
Once that’s accomplished, you still have the basic areas of a standard street: sidewalk walkways, furnishing zones (i.e. where street furniture and trees go), and the roadway. And what I appreciate about the design here is that they didn’t leave the furnishing zone and the roadway blank – they added unique design elements that add visual interest and interactivity.
Permanent community dining table (sturdy enough to work as a climbing apparatus) in the middle of the road.
Designing for young kiddos
There are also many touches that are very specifically targeted at young children. Enough to not be a coincidence.
Those lions are going to be of limited interest to anyone over the age of… 6? But my boys played make-believe on them for maybe five minutes. They’re at their scale. And having two of them means no fighting over who gets to be on it when there’s more than one kid around. Brilliant.
There’s more. Both the living willow den and the circular balance beam in the roadway pictured above. Speaking tubes on opposite sides of the road. In all, I counted over 10 design elements over the two block street of special interest for young children.
There are several things I appreciate about how this street was designed, and not just because my kids liked it.
- It bears repeating that you can make something out of nothing – it doesn’t seem like there needed to be a public street here at all. Inviting the public in reduces the isolation of residents in a large complex, and a high-quality gathering place outside the new market-rate and social housing has the potential to unify them.
- Prioritizing younger children here makes sense. In particular, there’s a 56 acre park across the street, and – since older kids are more mobile and independent – their needs don’t need to be served here quite so urgently. And more generally, a block is a longer distance for little kids and their caregivers. Little kids are also more easily entertained, and they’re probably less of a liability risk (not as strong so less wear-and-tear, less dangerous risk-taking).
- There are projects that have claimed to be woonerfs that I wouldn’t let my kids walk down without holding my hand, but that isn’t the case here. Traffic is calmed very nicely – we didn’t see a car drive down the street in the hour we spent there. That’s really important! If the street was engineered to be a bit more inviting for cars, parents couldn’t relax and allow their kids freedom of movement.
Will this space change our lives? Not entirely. It’s a 10 minute walk from our house, and it doesn’t have as much to offer as nearby parks. But one more safe, entertaining place for our kids to go within a reasonable walk was a very welcome discovery. I’m sure the same will be true for other nearby families that discover it. And I’m also sure that park-like spaces like this will pop up in urban neighborhoods that are intentional about becoming more family-friendly.