Cities plan for kid-friendly downtowns
For nearly five decades, the irresistible attraction of more space, better schools and increased safety led many Americans to abandon cities in favor of suburbia. Now, however, many families are returning to cities to raise their children, drawn by those same factors, and city officials are implementing programs to support them.
In 2004, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels created the Center City Seattle strategy to improve the city’s neighborhoods, including those in its downtown core. In addition to building new housing, expanding public transportation and improving parks, the initiative also includes the Family-Friendly Urban Neighborhoods (FUN) project, which addresses ways to make the central downtown area more attractive to families. The ideas include the development of affordable housing with design elements that appeal to families with children, a Web site to connect families with each other, and transportation options for children, teenagers and downtown public schools.
Although some of Seattle’s initiatives are still being developed, others already have been successful in attracting families to the urban core. The city’s public library system offers reading programs for children, and outdoor concerts are attended by a group not originally targeted for that activity — young couples with children. “What we’re trying to have success with is families actually living downtown so that the presence is not there just on a special occasion or just for special events but on a daily basis,” says Cheryl Sizov, a senior urban planner in Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development.
The department is trying to create areas of the city where families can interact and share services, such as childcare. “We’re thinking that this kind of enclave, rather than scattering families across the entire center city area, might be the best way to really create family communities,” Sizov says.
More than one year ago, the Chicago-based CEOs for Cities, a network of mayors, university presidents, and business and civic leaders, commissioned a study to determine how municipalities can attract and retain families in downtown areas. The study identified three key issues — safety, space and schools — and suggested ways to address the issues, including using shared spaces like parks to compensate for limited housing space, creating designated areas on public transit for children and organizing school fairs.
Such changes could help retain the young singles that gravitate to downtown areas but tend to leave after having children, says Carol Coletta, president and CEO for CEOs for Cities. “Very few urban leaders recognize the opportunity that they have. But, the opportunity is now,” she says.
But, cities must understand how they can work for families and the specific actions that they can take to bring families downtown, Coletta says. “We want their tax dollars as they enter into their most productive working years. We want their advocacy for public schools. We want their advocacy for neighborhoods. We want those people in cities,” she says. “They provide good stuff that cities need, and it’s ours for the taking right now.”
Over the last eight years, the population of downtown Chicago has increased 50 percent with about 150,000 residents living in the urban core. To attract more residents, including families, the city plans to build new downtown schools and improve existing schools, says Benet Haller, director of Urban Design and Planning for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. It also is working with developers to make sure that open space for parks is included in their plans.
Chicago officials expect downtown growth to continue, and some of the 2,500 residential units expected to be built downtown over the next 13 years will be in less dense neighborhoods, an attractive characteristic for many families. “Within the city as a whole, more single families [and] more lower density neighborhoods exist,” Haller says. “It’s not necessarily a case where a family is either living in downtown Chicago or the suburbs. There are more suburban locations within the city itself where they might go.”