One of the most unique differences between my life in Brooklyn and my life here in Waco is the frequency with which I’m surrounded by little children. At my church, children make up a significant portion of the population and most of my friends are parents with lively homes full of energetic little ones.
Spending time with these families and their children reminds me of my past days as a nanny, a job I found interesting because children are always discovering something new and challenging how you see the world. As was the case then, I now find myself discovering interesting and valuable truths from observing how my friend’s move through the world. Here are three things children can teach us about cities.
Lesson 1: The need for flexibility
Not long ago, friends of mine received a box of Lincoln Logs in the mail as a birthday gift for their five-year-old son. He loves spending hours building new houses, taking them apart, rebuilding them, and improvising based on his imagination and new information.
Now imagine for a moment what would happen if, instead of receiving a box of logs, he received a finished house for him to enjoy. Imagine if the house was glued together, preventing him from taking it apart, adding furniture, or experimenting?
He might like that house, but without the opportunity to adapt it to his needs and imagination, it would quickly lose his interest and it would quickly lose value as a child’s toy.
This can teach us something important about how we have been building cities since the 1950s. Most suburban residential and commercial areas are built to a finished state from the very beginning. Basically, they are houses glued together, locked in place, unadaptable to changing human needs and very costly to maintain.
This is problematic because the one thing we know for sure in life is that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Uncertainty is the one constant of life. Smart cities are those that embrace as many agile policies as possible (for example, embracing zoning codes that allow for adaptive reuse, accessory-dwelling units and accessory-commercial units, also known as ADUs and ACUs). Smart cities embrace incremental design and avoid top-down big box styles that are bright and shiny but unadaptable in the long run.
Looking back on the last several decades of American urban design, it’s clear that the “finished form the start” development model isn’t one that allows us to easily adjust to new information. Rethinking this model is challenging, but it is possible.
Lesson 2: Design matters
Recently, I asked a nine-year-old girl who had lived in England for a few months what she liked about trains. To my surprise, she described them as “rooms you can explore.” In other words, trains felt like a space she could move around in and explore.
I’m not a neurologist by any means, but from my years of working as a nanny, I saw how children instinctively responded to the design of the environment around them. I saw how some spaces made children feel comfortable and goofy, while others made them socially retreat. Some environments made them bored, while other environments made them curious.
The instinctive response of children toward the built environment around them is a good reminder that design has a powerful effect on us. By the time we become adults, it’s so baked into our subconscious that we don’t think about it or even notice it, but it’s still there.
For example, think about how you feel in a small, cute café compared to how you feel when wandering a parking garage looking for your car. Think about how you feel standing at a busy intersection waiting to cross six lanes of busy traffic, and compare that to crossing a short street in your neighborhood where there are only two lanes. Think about how it feels to walk past a blank side of a large, block-sized building; now compare that to walking down a street lined with a variety of cute storefronts.
This sensitivity to design is important when we think about our cities because design can have a huge impact on behavior. Human-centered, amiably-designed places encourage convivial, amiable behavior.
Lesson 3: Exploration matters more than predictability
At my church, there is a playground where several families gather after the service ends. If you’ve ever watched children at a playground then you know that there is no predictable order to how they move around, yet there does exist a mysterious kind of harmony. At any given time, a playground can be holding a variety of games and activities, yet there’s no central planning. Children are free to explore, invent, and re-invent.
We see this exploratory instinct outside of the playground too. I’m sure we’ve all seen children use toys in all kinds of surprising ways. It’s probably a trademark characteristic of being a child to repurpose toys and non-toys according to the dictates of their imagination. In their shameless embrace of such creativity, they remind us that exploration is more essential to being fully human than predictability.
If we take a look back in history, those who designed cities understood this. The idea of unpredictable but orderly cohabitation is at the heart of plazas, public squares, and parks. These environments create spaces for humans to explore, play, engage with their imagination and push at the boundaries of “normal” behavior.
When I think of the ultimate adult expression of exploration, I think of wandering . . . of taking a semi-aimless walk around town and responding in the moment to what shows up. But most American cities are not designed for this kind of unstructured exploration. Most North American cities require planning and precision. Getting to most places requires a car which requires having a destination and a premeditated plan. Most of our cities are predictable, homogeneous and not the most safe places to explore outside of the lines.
In wander-friendly places (Lisbon and Rome are among my favorites), wandering is a primary mode of engagement. You can leave your apartment and just start walking and the city will be there to meet you, full of interesting corners, twists and surprising turns.
The good news is that many conversations about urban design are pointing back to the historical mode of design because of its financial and environmental sustainability. More and more designers are starting to advocate for dense, walkable places that not only utilize public funds and land in a more efficient manner, but where wandering can once again become a viable way to spend a lovely Sunday afternoon.
All cities contain stories. Even the most predictable suburb has a story waiting to be discovered and a future waiting to be created. Discovering these stories and potential is one way to become more connected to the place where you live and to discover opportunities for meaningful civic engagement.
One way to get to the heart of your city’s story is to pause and take some time to look at your street, block, neighborhood, and city through the eyes of a child. What parts of your city are flexible and agile? Are there parts of the city that make you feel lighter and happier than others, and, if so, why do you think this is the case? Are there parts of town that inspire and invite your exploration, where you can wander? What would it look like to wander around your neighborhood?
When in doubt, you can always ask the children around you . . . you might just be surprised and inspired.