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The Moms Aren't Wrong: Why Planning for Children Would Make Cities Better for All

Alexandra Lange explains why building New York around the unique needs of children would help all its residents lead happier, healthier lives.

When urban parents, particularly mothers, complain about the public realm they are often caricatured as whiny and overprotective. Your child was burned by the climbing domes at the new park? Kids are too coddled. You can’t carry your stroller and child down the subway steps? Make him walk. You can’t find a public bathroom? Stay at home. But what if the mothers, in many cases, are right? Access to safe, green open space, to accessible transportation, to clean bathrooms and places to rest are not solely the needs of children. What if catering to our youngest citizens, rather than dismissing them, would help us all live happier, healthier urban lives.

An article in The New York Times this summer detailed an initiative, spearheaded by the New York Academy of Medicine and Deputy Mayor for Health & Human Services Linda Gibbs, to make New York more "age-friendly." Longer walk signals, more public restrooms, minimizing corner puddles, "perches" in stores on which to take a break.

All these measures sounded admirable—but they would improve the lives of more than the elderly. The incentive to fix New York for seniors is money: According to the AARP, a third of the nation's population is over 50, but they control half the discretionary spending. Kids don't have cash, but their parents and grandparents certainly do, and more families staying in the city would have general economic and social benefits. Seniors and juniors aren’t the only groups whose interests align, but are balkanized in their advocacy. Children could lead cyclists, developers, school officials, and health nuts to their more perfect city, if only we would listen.

Not planning for children in New York leads to all sorts of problems, small and great. For parents and caregivers, navigating the city can seem like a triathlon. You try holding fast to a three-year-old, carrying a shopping bag, folding a stroller to sling it over your shoulder, and not holding up the line to swipe your MetroCard on the bus—while six months pregnant. The most skilled at this maneuver do a graceful, quad-burning double or triple dip to pick everything up. But many turn to online shopping, and Fresh Direct, which isn’t good for city tax revenues or the environment.

A recent essay on Grist questioned the assumption that good middle-class parenting requires a car, for safety, for access, for fun. Car crashes are the leading killer of American children, and automobiles both pollute and promote a lack of exercise. Getting children on the bus, walking to school, taking the subway to activities are better exercise, as well as daily lessons in diversity and humility. The desire for a more active lifestyle for children also dovetails with goals the Bloomberg administration has for adults.

The NYC Department of Design & Construction’s Active Design Guidelines made headlines by pushing basic measures like taking the stairs—and making those stairs more obvious and appealing by design. The guidelines also stress access to open and green spaces, and increasing opportunities for walking and biking to work. The PlaNYC proposal to transform schoolyards to playgrounds, putting every New Yorker within a ten-minute walk of open space, is another example of the dovetailing interests of the large and the small. The boom in urban procreation has packed playgrounds, but the open space and green children require cleans the air and offers respite and exercise for everyone.

Sensible improvements to public transportation would also allow more people to be more mobile. On the subways, seniors, kids, the handicapped, and the able-bodied with luggage, carts, and bikes would all benefit from elevators direct from platform to street (they can’t install MetroCard readers in the elevators?). New buses should have low platforms and on-board stroller, wheelchair, and wheelie suitcase parking, which would speed loading and make the double-dip unnecessary. Just this week, fourth graders issued a report (with the NYC Department of Transportation) documenting unsafe driving speeds on the four-lane avenue near their school; safer streets for kids and seniors mean a citywide speed limit of 30 miles per hour.

At a macro level, not planning for children leads to urban schools alternately overcrowded and under-utilized, a shortage of affordable childcare at every income level, and the underground nanny economy. It leads to clumping of children in what are perceived as the best school districts, and uneven distribution of children and families across the city. To be a 24/7 city, children and their caregivers are an important daytime source of activity, commercial and recreational.

Frank Gehry and Forest City Ratner's soon-to-be-completed 8 Spruce Street building in Lower Manhattan includes a 630-seat elementary school for an oversubscribed district. The Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment in Brooklyn is now rumored to be planning the same. More neighborhoods would benefit from targeted requirements to include spaces for not just public schools, but pre-K and daycare centers. As at 8 Spruce Street, such uses are ideal for hard-to-rent lower floors and the backsides of buildings. In my neighborhood alone—highly popular partly because of its P.S.—there are five huge, unrented ground floor spaces in new construction buildings. The physical requirements for daycares are quite specific, making spaces intended for another bank or another Starbucks hard to retrofit. But if developers build three-bedroom apartments, they should also build family infrastructure—their sales are predicated on the steadiness of the real estate market in family neighborhoods with good schools and low inventory. Empty retail isn’t good for the tax base or for safety.

Roger K. Lewis, a columnist for The Washington Post, has argued that there is no way to increase density (as smart-growth planners advocate), without developing and subsidizing larger units, in good school districts, with access to public transportation. If the suburban model of parenthood is already subsidized by tax deductions on mortgage interest, he asks, why not instead subsidize sustainable planning—including three- and four-bedrooms without multi-million dollar price tags?

Buses and subways are operated by the state-run MTA. The city Department of Health & Human Services is working with the elderly. Design & Construction created the Active Guidelines, but it is the School Construction Authority that builds new schools, the Parks Department new parks. The Economic Development Corporation offers developers financial incentives for things like building day care facilities. All of these improvements would fall under different agencies, even out of city control.

What I propose is a mayoral task force, called something catchy like NYChildren, to look at the child-friendly city holistically. The crux of a solution, and a better and more manageable urban environment, is old-fashioned planning, but it needs to be coordinated across city agencies. New York has a Fatherhood Initiative, focused on parenting skills and material and financial support for children. Urban interventions would immediately give parents of both genders more time and likely more money to “reconnect with their children.” We have to stop focusing on children as test scores, or as innocent bystanders. We need to think about children as future New Yorkers. Don’t we want the paying population, circa 2030, to be healthy and active, well-educated and fans of public transportation, with their parents still living in the city and using its parks, museums and libraries? That’s what the moms want too.

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