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What are the Ingredients for Designing a Family-Friendly Downtown?

2013 April 3
by Sarah Snider


Having grown up in the suburbs, and as my husband and I consider starting a family of our own, my interest in this topic continues to grow. It seems to peak when I travel to other cities and countries where there is a stronger presence of children downtown than the average American city. For example, seeing Italian mothers toting their children to daycare through the heart of Milan on bicycles made me reflect on my childhood mode of transportation to school. My school bus ride or trip in the family car courtesy of my parents certainly didn’t include a bike ride past a cathedral. Additionally, seeing young Japanese elementary school children, crisply dressed in their school uniforms, independently navigating the Tokyo subway system on their way to school made me think of the first time I independently rode public transportation . . . in college. And seeing high school students run their track workouts through Grant Park in downtown Chicago made me consider the land use ramifications of the typical one-story suburban school and surrounding playfields and single-family homes.

Today, however, certain North American cities are seeing a growing number of parents choose to stay downtown after they have children rather than immediately flee to the suburbs. Thanks to the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and their Emerging Professionals Travel Scholarship, I was able to dive head first into my passion and travel to a handful of these cities to see what, if anything, was the secret to creating a family-friendly downtown. I dug into issues of neighborhood design, urban housing, recreation, and transportation. I also looked carefully at the incredibly important link between education and housing for parents, as Jon Scholes recently described on this blog.


After my bags were put away and I had time to synthesize the neighborhoods I visited and interviews I conducted, I noticed a series of trends that are happening nationwide. One such trend is that these new urban parents are organizing to change cities, hoping that they can stay in the downtown neighborhood they love while still supporting the needs of their growing family. They are using their collective power to fundraise for playgrounds and to make their voices heard at school board meetings and city council meetings. I also came away from my travels with a number of suggested policy and design solutions to help make cities, including Seattle, more family-friendly. Those research findings are compiled in a Family-Friendly Urbanism exhibit, currently on display at AIA Seattle’s gallery space through the end of April. (1911 First Avenue, open Tuesday through Friday from 9 am to 5 pm).

Additionally, and most importantly for the future of Seattle’s family-friendliness, AIA Seattle, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, the Seattle Planning Commission and the Downtown Seattle Association are co-hosting a day-long forum about the topic. Ingredients for Designing a Family-Friendly Downtown will take place at City Hall on April 11th. International, national, and local speakers will be in attendance to discuss housing, education, recreation, transportation, and the market realities of retaining families with children in urban neighborhoods.

Will you join us on April 11th to further the conversation?


Sarah Snider Komppa is an architectural and urban designer and former Seattle Planning Commissioner. She recently finished a year-long research project about family-friendly cities thanks to AIA Seattle’s Travel Scholarship and the support of her employer, LMN Architects.

All photos by the author (click to enlarge).