Mother knows best

A couple of months ago the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz presented Kids Day Downtown, a celebration of, for and in many ways by, the young and very young in our community. We hosted activity booths all throughout the Downtown, performances, exhibitions and demonstrations from youth groups.

The premise behind Kids Day, and really a lot of the programming that we support is based on the idea that if we can build a successful downtown for children, we can build a successful Downtown for all people, and, if our Downtown is not successful for children, it is ultimately successful for no one. Children are, effectively, the indicator species of a healthy neighborhood.

There are many things about Downtown Santa Cruz that work very well for children; There is actually a range of activities for kids and teens, from exploring nature and science to arts and sports to great reading or just passing time. Downtown is relatively dense and quite walkable, in its physical makeup, which is important for children. There are also, however, many things about our Downtown that don’t work for kids. There are ongoing challenges, and growing, constraints on the cities legal ability to manage our public spaces, our transportation systems don’t necessarily support kids as well as they might, and there is, perhaps a shortage of comfortable places for youth of varying ages, to just hang out and spend time.

The shortcomings of urban design, as it relates to children, is not terribly surprising, when you consider the designers. In a recent study by San Jose University’s Mineta Transportation Institute, it was cited that women account for 15% of the transportation workforce. Yet women make 15% more trips out of the home than men and are 80% more likely to make stops along the way, as compared to men. Women also are less likely to utilize public transportation. One could only speculate as to the many reasons, which is perhaps what 85% of the transportation planners do. Certainly, the historically maternal role in parenting is being shared more across gender, but the data suggests that the concerns of a parent as caregiver, and by extension of children have been greatly absent from the planning process. This is obviously not limited to transportation planning.

So how do we incorporate the needs of children in our policies, in our designs, in our planning? This question is not a new question, and it is being asked by thoughtful and successful city planners the world over. Today in Santa Cruz, we have many very important issues that will require great thought, understanding, debate, risk, and compromise. It’s not likely that a large contingent of school-aged children will show up at the city council meetings, or at the planning department to voice their opinions. It’s also reasonable to assume that most parents, especially working parents of young children, don’t often have a lot of time to participate in government meetings.

Yet theirs is a perspective that is essential. Like many planners and policymakers, I am informed in many ways. I read journals and white pages on many topics, I collect data and research, I go to conferences and consult with my colleagues, and yet some of the most important ‘data’ I have received is just watching my children grow up in Downtown.

Following a toddler around Pacific Avenue for an hour will give you more information about urban design than a dozen books on the matter.

As we celebrate Kids Day Downtown and think about how to best promote Downtown as a place for families, we are also committed to finding more ways to ask families how we can better shape Downtown to meet their needs. What is missing in Downtown? What are obstacles and deterrents in Downtown? What is attractive in Downtown? What can be expanded or enhanced? Do the connections work as well as they could? All of these questions need to be asked, not just of those behind a desk in an office, but of those behind a stroller on the sidewalk.

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