A Placemaking Journal

Smart Growth = Smart Parenting

Put the village on hold. For the time being, it’s gonna take a parent, a councilman and a developer to raise a child.

Flashback 2003: Attending the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in New Orleans, I caught the keynote from a planning official for Vancouver, British Columbia. Now, under normal circumstances, I don’t suppose I’d remember much of what he said but, at the time, my daughter was just over three years old and something he used as the overall framing for his making Smart Growth work presentation really resonated with me.

“If it works for kids,” he said, “it works for everyone.”

He went on with a series of slides showing a neighboring child from his downtown building taking to the streets, visiting a shop, playing in a tot lot. I remember being quite inspired by the idea and I imagine others were too, as it wasn’t too much later that “the popsicle test” — the ability of an 8 year old to safely get somewhere to buy a popsicle, then make it home before it melts — became the go-to elevator speech for a lot of New Urbanists making their case.

Now jump ahead to 2011. Just last week, in fact. Doing some work in Canada, I stumbled into a conversation on “the Vancouver model” — typically characterized by the pencil-thin towers that brought new density, and new life, to Vancouver’s revitalizing streetscapes — when something funny happened. “If you were to ask Larry Beasley (the city’s former planning director) today, in retrospect, what he sees as the biggest shortcoming of his legacy there,” someone said, “he would say it was the failure to bring kids downtown.”


Downtown Vancouver. Photo credit:

The ultimate culprit, it was suggested, was that the model of development defining Vancouver in that era was most conducive to smaller unit types that were most appealing to the young, the single, the childless. Not families. I can’t speak to whether or not that’s accurate but it really doesn’t matter. [Ed. Note: Larry Beasley himself dropped by the Comments section below to say my cocktail party companion’s speculation was off base. He’s quite pleased with Vancouver’s results, as it relates to kids.] The larger point is this: Even in a place where attracting families was supported, even championed, by local leadership, it may have been easier said than done.

But that doesn’t make it any less critical.

Doing right by our kids is no small task. And we can’t do it alone. But perhaps we need to redefine exactly who it is we need — especially in the here and now — to help us through.

For too many years, we’ve tried to purchase our way to happiness for our kids and, quite responsively, the marketplace of products and ideas has made it all too easy. Surely a well cared for child shouldn’t have to share a bedroom, right? No problem, just move outside the city and get more house. Need a second income to pay for it? Again, no problem. There are plenty of daycare centers to fill in while you’re away. Afraid your older, unsupervised kids will spend aimless hours outside with nothing to do? Problem solved! The internet and all its associated tech gadgetry will keep them safely indoors with all the entertainment options anyone could ever want.

But what about their well-being, you ask? Fuhgeddabowdit! If you want them well-rounded, with opportunities to explore their interests, just pop open iCal and fill their calendar to your heart’s content. And if you find all the shuttling from place to place seems to steal the little remaining time a child would normally be playing, just swing by McDonald’s for lunch. They’ve got a PlayPlace there.

That may sound cynical, even unnecessarily snarky, but it’s also fair. The Atlantic this month describes college deans now dealing with these kids, whose every whim has been accommodated, every move scripted, every moment scheduled, every unpredictability or challenge sidestepped, and every decision made for them. Their term for them? “Teacups, because they’re so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way.”

Maybe I’m in the minority, but that doesn’t sound like doing right by anybody. And I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Free-range kids at The Waters, outside Montgomery, Alabama.

For quite a while I’ve been following the great advocacy of people like Lenore Skenazy, with her Free-Range Kids movement, and Mike Lanza, on his quest to re-establish the culture of “Playborhoods.” A lot of other parents are doing likewise. These are folks who realize that, for a child, having increasing opportunities to navigate the world around them, explore, invent, fall down, scrape knees, make decisions, screw up, get into — and solve — conflicts and, ultimately, achieve a sense of personal identity and self-sufficiency is a good thing. The right thing.

But you can’t do it easily just anywhere. Place matters. It matters in the design of the streets and the things they connect to. It matters in the variety of uses, opportunities and activities. It even matters in the diversity of housing types. After all, smaller homes or accessory units end up housing people who appreciate, and want to be able to afford, the prospect of being a stay-at-home parent. Or seniors offering options for drop-off babysitting. Not because it’s their corporate value proposition and you’re paying them a thousand bucks a month but because they’re your neighbors and they care about you.

Place matters: The Market, a community gathering spot at The Waters,
a new urban community just outside Montgomery, Alabama.

Now here’s the rub: There’s only so many neighborhoods that offer this type of environment and, more often than not, they’re historic. That means, on the lower end, that they often come with crime, poor schools and disinvestment issues or, on the upper end, are cost prohibitive for everyday, middle class families.

There’s just not enough good ones to affordably meet a demand which, as talk of teacups finally brings down the era of helicopter parents, will only grow over time.

That brings us back to where this post began. Talk of how it takes a village to raise a child sounds — and feels — good but, to make it work, you need a village to start with. Which means you need politicos willing to push it, and developers willing to build it.

Want to do right by your kids? Then cuddle up with your councilperson until they see the value of compact, mixed-use, walkable, kid-friendly neighborhoods and bake a plate of cookies for the first developer who shows up to build it.

–Scott Doyon

The city, town or village is not a bad place to raise a child: Exhibit A.

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