Where Do the Children Play?

SAMSUNG…if we build a city that allows children and youth to thrive, we are inherently building an inclusive, sustainable city for everyone.”

~ City of Toronto, quoted by Lloyd Alter

A scream, shouts and high-pitched laughter. The kids down the block are engaged in some complex game that seems like an amalgam of tag, Marco Polo and tumbling. I remembered being a kid in the summer, wandering the neighborhood looking for playmates and making up games and stories, and daring each other to do something ‘scary’.

Now, I equate summertime in my neighborhood with kids. They play in various front or back yards, often in several at the same time. Rubber baseballs appear in my yard, showing the increasing skill of the small boy down the block. Burgeoning artists claim sidewalks the length of the block as their canvas, creating dinosaurs, raceways and hop-scotch trails that go on for several houses. Sidewalk chalk shows up in the grass, melting away after a rainstorm or if caught in the sprinklers.

We roamed in the summers. No school to interfere with your day, and not much kid-friendly TV until the weekend, (as if any mother would let her kid watch TV during a weekday). Every mom on the block knew each kid and how to report any observed misbehavior to your mom, or if serious, to your dad. The kids were of different ages and gender (we only had two back then) and group dynamics and hierarchies shifted with the participants. Often someone would run home crying or injured, and differences were usually settled by peer-pressure, intimidation or actual scuffles.

The suburbs were kid-friendly. The adjoining yards provided a playground, traffic was light on the street, and adults were mostly nearby. (Although, I admit that a mom ironing laundry and watching soaps was not always a very attentive lookout.)

Outside the suburbs, in denser urban areas, I guess kids had a different context for summer play. Limited, if non-existent, yards, much more traffic, greater distances between home and play areas, greater mixes of kid ages, customs and backgrounds — and fewer adults that knew your name. Maybe a ‘wilder’ place.

There is a lot of science and sentiment suggesting that we need to live in denser settings, reduce our sprawl and create more vertical communities. I see town houses, apartments and condos replacing single-family homes as more of us abandon the suburbs for the more convenient urban life. Vertical living replaces our sprawling suburbs.

But, vertical living could result in fewer places for kids. If you don’t have a yard, it’s harder to get out and just fool around outside. Local parks help, if they’re close enough and there are enough responsible people about. Common spaces, like courtyards can provide some room for kids, but can easily get crowded and be too confining.

Denser communities introduce more people, some of whom will be ‘not us.’ There’s value in learning diversity, but there is also risk, real or imagined. Is that scruffy guy hanging out on the corner just a bum or a thief or a murderer? Is it safe for the kids to be outside without supervision?

The public realm is an integral part of any neighbourhood. In many instances, components of the public realm, such as parks or the library, become an extension of the home. Vertical communities become more livable when the public realm is designed and planned to support the specific needs of households with children and youth. Vertical living then becomes a more desirable and feasible option for more households.”

~ City of Toronto, quoted by Lloyd Alter

Some cities are trying to cope with the livability of ‘vertical’ communities. They work reasonably well for people without kids or younger families with very small children. But community is built through stability, and families that raise children in one place create communities around themselves. Children interact more readily with those around them either directly or indirectly. I hear the kids playing and it makes me feel that we all belong. As the children grow, their presence coalesces the surrounding lives with certain commonalities.

So, how do we create vertical communities that work for families with children as well as others? Certainly, we need to soften the hard edges of buildings and streets. We need sidewalks separated from traffic, and space between the sidewalks and the buildings where people can comfortably hang out — all preferably with vegetation. Harkening back to the brownstone-lined urban streets seen in movies, people need to feel comfortable sitting, visiting with neighbors, and watching the kids play (hopefully not in the street).

Parking and bike lanes can help to separate traffic from sidewalks, but do reduce traffic lanes. One solution tried in many places is “parklets”, the creation of permanent or temporary public spaces within parking slots. A row of two or three slots can be made level with the sidewalk, and benches, tables or bike racks added with vegetation or planters. Some of these parklets are seasonal and designed to be removed, say in the winter for snow removal. As well, some are used for commercial establishments, such as outside seating for cafes or bars; however, this may limit public access.

Options for creating local ‘pocket parks’ or larger play spaces are limited in already developed areas, but it remains important to find ways to make ‘vertical living’ desirable and sustainable. That means we need to accommodate families and kids at all ages if we want to create community.

From our patio, the rhythmic creaking is clearly audible, and across the back alley, a brown head pops up, then disappears, then repeats — over and over — often accompanied by a sweet tune whose words we can’t understand. She plays for hours in the safety of her yard, swinging to the cadence of her own song.

I wish that joy for every child.

Additional reading:

How to Design a Vertical City for Kids, Lloyd Alter, June 2, 2017, TreeHugger.com

Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities, City of Toronto, 2017

It’s June, and Parklets are bustin’ out all over, Lloyd Alter, June 2, 2017 TreeHugger.com

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