Vancouver, Canada is considered a model for infilling with compact, densely populated development. But there is a problem to this. As Regarding Place points out, a map of the distribution of children in the city shows that few of them are in areas that have seen the most concentrated development in the past few decades. This brings to mind an excerpt out of Mark Hinshaw’s great book True Urbanism, in which he devotes an entire chapter to planning for families. One of the elements Hinshaw makes particular mention of is parks — specifically, smaller parks that can address families’ needs.
As with schools, many city parks departments have in the past invested in peripheral locations, with the result that few downtowns offer green spaces. But this is changing as well. Jamison Square, within the central city area of Portland, was designed specifically with children in mind. Tucked into single 200-foot by 200-foot block is a large grassy areas where kids can play. But the most brilliant element is a water feature that gurgles up successive waves of water that then drain into a basin.
On any given sunny day – even on some that are not – children scamper about, get soaked, lie in the shallow pool, or lounge on the water-covered rocks. Parents sit nearby on stepped stone walls or benches and chat. On weekends, some families have picnics in this wonderful bit of open space right in the middle of the city.
Older cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago have long traditions of building parks that accommodate children right within dense urban neighborhoods. They may be small by suburban standards, but they are green and active nonetheless. As with many other elements of our culture in the last several decades, we have confused quantity with quality; we have held fast to the belief that bigger and more is always better.
But that is a false sense of what makes communities work and it may not even be sustainable over the long term given the costs of maintenance, water, and energy. Small, thoughtfully designed, and well-managed spaces can serve families with children within urban neighborhoods quite well.