How to Build a Family-Friendly City

By Jim Dalrymple II, IFS

To get to the nearest playground from my house, my family must cross four wide streets. Cars whizz by at 30 miles an hour, and—depending on the route—some intersections lack stop signs or marked crosswalks. Thankfully, we’ve avoided car crashes thus far, but we also live in one of the most walkable neighbourhoods in our city. Other parents in our sphere have to contend with a lack of sidewalks, further distances, and faster and heavier traffic flows. It’s dispiriting to ponder kids ranging freely through the neighbourhood while watching Cybertrucks and Hummer H2s pass like wrecking balls. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

In a recent interview, Tim Carney—author of the new book Family Unfriendly—argued that building a more family-friendly world is in part a matter of urban planning. Neighborhoods, according to Carney, should be walkable and bikeable. They should be filled with sidewalks and playgrounds. A place that is conducive to families is a place where kids can walk to school and “roam around all summer with no supervision and not get run over by cars.” 

Carney’s comments are in line with the observations of many urban planning professionals—those associated with the New Urbanism movement and the Strong Towns organisation come to mind—but in practice, such places are often difficult to find in many U.S. cities. One of many reasons modern life has become hostile to families is because the built environment itself is hostile. 

Not every place, though, is like the U.S. In fact, during a recent trip to Spain, I was surprised to discover extensive networks of kid-friendly urban design. From frequent playgrounds to calm and mostly car-free streets, these design elements were transformative, giving my kids more independence than they ever previously had in a city—and freeing us parents up in ways I never would’ve thought possible. It was fantastic and left me convinced that pro-family Americans should push to copy this approach. If Spain can do it, so can we.

I first noticed the kid-friendly infrastructure after landing with my wife, three kids, and in-laws in Barcelona. After settling into our rented apartment a few minutes walk from the city’s famed Las Ramblas pedestrian promenade, we set out to find food. But we didn’t walk more than 30 seconds before we happened upon a shady playground. My kids insisted on stopping. Eventually, we pulled the kids away from the playground, but before we settled on a restaurant, we came across yet another playground. Of course, we had to stop there, too.

This happened again and again. In the city’s Gothic Quarter. Down the hill from the Gaudi-designed Park Güell. Outside Sagrada Familia, which has not one but two playgrounds, just steps away from its doors. In the end, a significant amount of our time in Barcelona was spent at playgrounds. 

After a few visits, it also wasn’t hard to spot similarities between many of these spaces. For example, the first playground we visited in Barcelona was located in a square called Plaza de Vicenç Martorell. On three sides, the square is bounded by small-but-colorful apartment buildings with restaurants on their ground floors. On the fourth side, a street passes the square—but it’s a street that’s mostly pedestrianized.1 There are basically no cars even passing the playground’s edges. 

The result of this arrangement is that the parents were free to eat a meal or get a glass of wine at the nearby restaurants while kids climbed on slides and monkey bars. If the kids wandered away, there was basically no chance they’d get hit by a car. Meanwhile, the buildings created a natural enclosure that limited the chance for kids to actually wander out of sight. It was a kind of lab for free range kids—and free range parents. These features were common across many playgrounds we visited in Barcelona and other Spanish cities. 

The playgrounds were also connected via a network of safe streets. One day, we walked from Plaza de Vicenç Martorell to another playground in a square called Plaça de Sant Miquel. The walk lasted about 12 minutes and mostly took place on pedestrian-only streets. The streets that did allow cars were narrow, which forced drivers to slow down. The result is that kids could run ahead, go around corners, admire the old architecture, and do pretty much anything else they wanted without us hovering over them. The brief journey illustrated a concept known as “walk appeal,” advocated by urban planners such as Steve Mouzon, which posits that a truly walkable place needs destinations that are both near each other and connected by pleasant spaces that people enjoy. 

The first few playgrounds we visited in Spain were located in Barcelona’s charming and mostly car-free Gothic Quarter. But even the playgrounds in busier areas offered lessons. For instance, those near the Sagrada Familia cathedral — one of Europe’s most popular tourist attractions — are bounded by busier streets. But the biggest of these streets is about 32 feet wide from curb to curb. By comparison, the main thoroughfare down the street from my house in Salt Lake City is a bloated 58 feet wide. The wider street means cars travel more quickly, making them more dangerous, and prolongs pedestrian crossings. Unsurprisingly, families in my neighborhood rarely cross that street on foot. 

Barcelona is a massive city, but we saw the same design principles in other cities, big and small, across Spain: Frequent playgrounds, narrow and charming streets, slow or non-existent car traffic, and a mix of uses that appeal to both kids and their parents. Before long I was surprised to find that going to Spanish playgrounds did not feel like a stressful chore as it often does in my neighborhood, but instead like a pleasant respite. 

Anyone who has visited an old European city has probably been charmed by the narrow streets and public squares. But the specific amenities my kids loved so much last fall are mostly not ancient. Indeed, when I previously visited Barcelona in 2012, many of the playgrounds my kids would later end up loving did not yet exist. Barcelona was still charming back then. But over the years, the city embarked on a plan to add and improve dozens of playgrounds, with the aim of placing such spaces within a 15 minute walk of 90% of the population. This beefing up of family-friendly infrastructure has happened despite the fact that Spain has a relatively modest economy—the country’s GDP of $1.6 trillion is orders of magnitude smaller than the U.S. GDP of $28.3 trillion—and despite space in ultra dense cities like Barcelona being scarce. In other words, if Spain can do this, there’s no reason the U.S. with its greater prosperity and comparatively abundant space couldn’t follow suit. 

Obviously more abundant playgrounds and safer streets would please kids and parents. But the stakes are higher too. As has been widely covered this year, including prominently by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Anxious Generation, childhood mental health has fallen off a cliff over the last decade. And writing for Haidt’s blog After Babel earlier this month, author and Johns Hopkins lecturer Seth Kaplan argued that part of the problem is a change to neighborhoods themselves. 

“Kids used to play in the streets, wander neighborhoods, visit classmates, stop at stores, and gain daily life experience in the community,” Kaplan argues. “Changes in everything from cars to careers to churches to schools to the built environment to shopping patterns had largely emptied streets of children by the 1990s.”

Kaplan goes on to focus on civic institutions, but the bigger point is that reversing this “emptying of the streets” is about more than just fun. It is, in fact, about creating a better version of childhood. It’s about building places that are safe enough for kids to play and learn resilience on their own, and where families feel safe and valued. 

Spain, of course, hasn’t solved all of its problems. It’s far from perfect. But the playgrounds that sit front and center in many of its public squares are at least a powerful signal that Spanish families are welcomed and cherished.

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