Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Children In the City: Carol Bellows and Sebastien Rake's Berkeley Prize Submission

Final Update: We've finally received word that we placed third overall in the Berkeley Prize competition. Sebastien is now off to do postgraduate work in Africa under a grant, and I'm heading to the U.N.'s World Urban Forum and Growing Up in Cities conferences in Vancouver, B.C. We'll keep you informed!

Update, May 1, 2006:
We received notice last night that after another round of cuts, we are among the eight finalists (out of over 200 entrants) in the Berkeley Prize competition, and the only Americans among those final eight! The list of finalists can be found at the link above and include individuals or teams from Kampala, Glasgow, Karachi, Melbourne, Singapore, and cities in China and Iran. Eugene, Oregon is finding itself in interesting company! The final winners will be announced later this month.

I'd also like to note that the Washington Post has an excellent article today about what landscape architects do. Sebastien, an architecture student, and I, a landscape architecture student, study very different approaches to the same fundamental question of how humans fit into their environment. We both do much more than design buildings and gardens, and we brought complementary but distinct skills to the challenge of crafting a vision for Eugene's downtown core. --Carol
*****
Carol Bellows, a landscape architecture student at the University of Oregon, and Sebastien Rake, an architecture student at the U of O, are participants in the international 2006 Berkeley Prize competition. After an initial essay and round of cuts, the semifinalists were asked to submit a final proposal on the topic, "Growing Up in Cities." Following is Bellows and Rake's submittal:

A Day in the City: Envisioning a Different Downtown

One Spring morning, you walk out your front door and notice that your next-door neighbor, who’s walking her Afghan, has a trendy new haircut that makes her look uncannily like her dog. Resisting the urge to pat your neighbor’s head, you scratch her dog’s ears and tell him he’s a good boy. She asks how your big report is going; rolling your eyes, you reply, “Luckily, I got an extension.” After a minute of chitchat, you continue to the corner coffeehouse.

The barista knows you well, and asks, “Your usual?” Juggling your change, a steaming cup of chai, an apple strudel and your messenger bag, you drop two quarters into the tip jar and sit at a small table. Picking up an abandoned newspaper, you skip the uninteresting headlines and flip to “Peanuts,” then to your horoscope: it’s going to be a five-star day. Terrific! Your cell phone beeps, and as you glance down to read a friend’s text message, you notice the time: yikes! You stuff the last of the strudel into your mouth, drain your chai, and rush out. As you walk briskly down the street, you notice a cute sweater in a store window but decide to wait until you’re on your way home to check it out. As you rush past a small bookstore, you notice a man – the father of a good friend – arranging books in the display window, and wave hello.

Arriving at school, you stuff your coat and bag into your locker and make it to your seat with seconds to spare. You are a twelve year old middle school student, and you live in downtown Eugene.

You love living like this. When you lived in the suburbs, you were stuck at home if your mom wasn’t available to drive. You usually arrived home before your parents did, so you locked the door and screened incoming calls on the answering machine. That wasn’t so bad; with most parents away at work, your suburban street was empty most of the time anyway.

Here in the city, however, there are always friendly people around. With interesting, safe. public places nearby, you’re able to explore your surroundings -- your city -- on your own terms, see it through your own eyes. There are lots of child-oriented things to do near your home -- parks, the Willamette River, the Shedd where you take clarinet lessons, the Magnet Arts elementary school you used to attend -- and you are increasingly comfortable in grown-up places too. People worry that children are growing up too fast, but they forget that growing up is the business of childhood, and you are learning to be an adult: how to get around, relate to others, manage your time and money.

You’ve come to feel safe downtown, because your life is interwoven with the lives of the people around you, and familiar people are in the streets even in the evening and on weekends. Eugene’s downtown has evolved into a place that embraces and protects, rather than excludes and endangers, the children who inevitably live there. For a 12-year-old you possess surprisingly sophisticated and competent life skills, and you carry a sense of self-confidence wherever you go. You love living in the heart of your city.

You were surprised to find out how much your parents love it, too. You didn’t realize it before, but your parents used to be urbanites themselves, before you and your brother were born and they fled to the supposedly “family-friendly” suburbs. When your family re-embraced city living, they were pleasantly surprised to realize that many of the things they thought they had sacrificed by becoming parents actually had nothing to do with being parents at all – it was suburban living that was the problem. The suburbs just weren’t as family-friendly as your parents expected, but since your family moved downtown, just blocks from where your parents work, the hassles of “family life” -- long commutes on crowded surface streets, the logistical nightmares that arose whenever they needed to meet with a teacher during their workday or a child became sick, the expense of maintaining two cars and a large house, the inability to move fluidly between work and home and back again as needs arose -- all those frustrations were now things of the past.

Even the downtown businesses seem to like having you live downtown, because they’ve come to realize how profitable the families in their neighborhood can be. The shopkeepers in your neighborhood used to market mainly to singles and childless couples, and would blanch when children entered their stores, but they’re learning that children and families, formerly relegated to suburban malls, actually have the real economic power in Eugene. According to http://eugene.whiteyellowpages.com/statistics, the average income of Eugene families is $74,291; over 40% of Eugene’s families earn between $50,000 and $99,999, and nearly 20% of them earn over $100,000. That’s a terrific market compared to non-family households, 55% of which earn less than $25,000 and which have an average income of only $31,593. And while retail economists used to focus on childless people’s relatively high discretionary income, they apparently forgot about families’ obligatory spending: kids outgrow their clothes and toys, which makes their parents reliable, repeat customers. In fact, children -- whom shopkeepers used to see as nuisances -- are now some of their best customers. According to Dan Casanova of the UWEX Center for Community and Economic Development, American “tweens” (children between 8 and 14) personally controlled $38 billion in spending in 2004, while their parents spent another $126 billion on them. In a city the size of Eugene, that means “tweens” like you contribute roughly $82 million every year to the economy -- money that used to flow through suburban shopping malls dominated by out-of-state chain stores but now, thanks to Eugene’s increasingly family-friendly downtown, is starting to flow to local merchants, like your neighborhood’s coffeeshop, independent bookstore and clothing boutique. Yes: the merchants in downtown Eugene are becoming very fond of kids like you, and families like yours! For your family, for the merchants and businesses and other residents in your neighborhood, for your parents’ employers and your schools, having families living in a family-friendly downtown is a very good thing.

Pipe Dream or Real Possibility?

This story may seem like merely a pleasant, unrealistic fairy tale. It’s not. It’s true, and it’s attainable.

The market -- families who are willing to at least consider living in a family-friendly downtown -- not only exists, but is larger than the market of childless people. There are 9,000 more family units in Eugene than there are singles and childless couples, even notwithstanding a large University student population, and families by definition have more people per household. That’s a significantly larger customer base for developers to market to.

Families are more interested in urban living than one might expect. Anecdotally, the authors of this proposal are a 22-year-old architecture student who grew up in Eugene, and a 51-year-old landscape architecture student who is raising two children here. From both perspectives – that of an unmarried adult who remembers what being a child here is like, and that of a married parent watching her own children grow up here – the concept of living in downtown Eugene is not only plausible, but attractive.

Real children are interested in urban living. Ten-year-old Amelia talks about the prospect of living in downtown Eugene:

“there would be so many interesting people to meet, places to go and things to see. My dream is to live near the library and the columns [a retired quarry used for rock climbing] and Pearl Street [an ice cream parlor].”

Interesting people and places; cultural resources; recreation and restaurants. Amelia and her parents want to live downtown for the exact same reasons. And Amelia’s not alone. As part of researching this proposal, one of the authors conducted a charrette in a Eugene middle school architecture class. Eighty percent of those budding architects and planners, ages 12-15, said with surprising passion that they want to live within walking or biking distance of school, friends’ home, stores -- and their parents’ workplaces. Nearly all of them wish that they could visit their parents at work, even briefly, during the day. When asked to design ideal communities, they consistently placed their parents’ workplaces near their home or school.

These children are open to the possibility that cities may be better for children’s social development than suburbs are. Suburban children can be surprisingly isolated; one of the authors has observed four children, each shooting solitary free throws at his own driveway basketball hoop, all within sight of each other -- none apparently even considering the possibility of walking down the block to play with the others. At basketball courts on urban playgrounds, on the other hand, children play together, and learn social skills in the process.

Children need an embracing and inclusive neighborhood which encourages connections with other people. Academics call it “collective efficacy.” Businesspeople call it “networking.” On the street, it’s called “watching each other’s back.” All those terms reflect a deep societal understanding that humans are social animals who need to interact with each other to be healthy. The denser populations of cities provide opportunities for children to experience that kind of interaction in a way that suburbs not only don’t, but discourage. Child psychologists theorize that kids need to be exposed to the situations they will face and roles they will play once they’re adults, instead of insulated from them. Our job, as planners and designers, should be to show children their role society by building places where they can interact with other people, talk, play, explore, experiment, and observe. Cities, not suburbs, provide such experiences.

People perceive urban areas as dangerous or unhealthy for children, but there is nothing inherently unhealthy for children about the urban environment. Urban environments that house few families and few children, unsupported by physical and social structures, can be bad places to grow up. But family-friendly, child-safe urban places do exist. The difference lies in the ways the physical environment and social structures are constructed, not in some inescapable characteristic of cities themselves.

Getting There From Here: Creating A Family-Friendly Downtown

Making downtown Eugene attractive to families with children means more than coming up with good ideas; it means seeing those ideas to fruition, altering downtown’s current physical and social structures in ways that welcome and support children and families, and encouraging “pioneer” families to move downtown in sufficient numbers to create a self-sustaining family culture. To those ends, our proposal has three prongs: (1) establishing a built environment that serves the basic needs of urban families, including family-sized residences and relocating the Eugene Magnet Arts elementary school; (2) sponsoring charrette that serve both design and marketing purposes; (3) soliciting additional input from area youth and their fellow-travelers, the elderly and disabled; and (4) establishing community organizations.

1. The Family-Friendly Built Environment: If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. But if you don’t build it, then certainly they won’t. In a radio interview in February 2006 on KOPT radio, one of Eugene’s principal downtown developers described his target market as singles and childless couples. That view forecloses any possibility of creating a family-friendly downtown. Families require larger apartments and rowhouses, and they need a different type of city plan (e.g., alternating streets of family rowhouses and businesses rather than small apartments located directly above “destination retail” shops). We propose family-friendly residences and zoning in downtown Eugene.

Second, families need schools to serve children’s educational needs and to create a community that helps keep children safe. Neighborhood elementary schools give such a center to the common concerns of parents, and provide a social and support network for parents who are moving to a new area. In short, schools are essential to the creation of cohesive communities.

Some Eugene parents currently are criticizing the practice of co-location (placing “traditional” elementary schools and “magnet” schools in the same building). The City could entice families downtown by relocating the Magnet Arts elementary school to there. Parents who have chosen to place their children in an arts-oriented school are especially likely to appreciate many of the values of urban living, and parents who currently drive their children to a non-neighborhood magnet school should be attracted by a lifestyle that promises to eliminate both the parent’s and the child’s commute.

2. Charrette: We would sponsor a series of separate charrette for children and their parents, both to generate creative new ideas for transforming downtown and to help market the feasibility and benefits of urban family living to the precise group of people we want to consider actually taking the plunge and moving there. As participants, we would target demographic groups with demonstrated interest in the downtown area who could become downtown residents, including parents who already work downtown (and their children), families who already live downtown or in nearby areas; and parents who currently drive their children to alternative schools such as Magnet Arts. Since evenings are a difficult time for many families to break away from household responsibilities, our charrette series would occur at various times and places, including (for parents) near businesses during lunch hours and other convenient times, and (for kids) in schools serving potential re-urbanites.

3. Youth, Elderly and Disabled Input: Children get around differently than adults, and have different experiences, needs, and insights. Since they experience places primarily on foot, not from automobiles, they are unparalleled knowers of the terrain, and often are able to identify inconsistencies in systems for which adults easily compensate. In surveys and colloquia, we would ask: Where can you bike safely? Why or why not? What places do you like? Which ones are scary? What are the obstacles to you going to the library, the columns, the ice cream parlor?

In this phase, we would solicit input and facilitate collaboration among children, the elderly, and the disabled, since those groups face similar difficulties with independent mobility, have similar needs, and possess political and social capital that, joined together, is much greater than those of children and families alone and could represent a juggernaut, able to effect significant change.

4. Establishing Ongoing Community Organizations: Finally, we would seek to sustain the charrette’ temporary energy by creating, and enabling charrette participants and then downtown residents to join, nonprofit advocacy organizations to lobby for implementation of charrette ideas and advocate for the interests of families in the development process, and which ultimately will become actual political entities, such as neighborhood associations and downtown park districts, that will play an ongoing political role in a family-friendly downtown.

Conclusion

Children and families know what they need and appreciate about city living; by asking them to share their wisdom and empowering those families, creating a family-friendly downtown is a feasible, and powerful, goal that will empower children, parents, and the community at large.

5 Comments:

At 3/22/2006 9:35 PM , Blogger Bruce Mulligan said...

Like the vision, particularly the intergenerational piece. I still remain a little unclear about how we get there though you have outlined some great initial steps. As in any journey one must begin with that first step out the door. I have posted your link at http://mulliganforcitycouncil.blogspot.com/

 
At 3/23/2006 10:39 AM , Blogger Thersites D. Scott said...

One place to start is to pressure the builders of downtown housing to include family-oriented housing -- 3 and 4-bedroom apartments and rowhouses -- in the mix. The developers don't want to build that now, because they don't think they'll sell, but Carol and Sebastien's essay explains why they're wrong, and that the real money in Eugene resides in families, not singles and childless couples. In other words, family housing should be a moneymaker for builders; they just need to be convinced of it (or bullied into it by zoning etc.).

Once family residences are underway, it'll be in the developers' best interests to cooperate in creating a downtown that's enticing to those families, to maximize the market value of those residences.

The developer of studio apartments has little incentive to support a new park across the street. The developer of family rowhouses has a huge incentive to support a new park across the street, because that park would significantly increase the value of his rowhouses. (Carol has the research on that issue, too, btw -- that proximity to parks and similar public spaces significantly increases housing values.)

So, I'd start by having the downtown plan and associated zoning ordinances spell out the kind of housing that's to be built, and include a significant amount of family housing in the mix.

 
At 3/23/2006 11:53 AM , Blogger Lyricdancer said...

I still remain a little unclear about how we get there though you have outlined some great initial steps.

Bruce: Thanks for your support! Answering your question:

My intention with this first essay was to persuade the city that they should consider children when they are planning our downtown. Right now, they scoff at the thought.
Concrete ideas? Let's start with residential spaces and configurations that would accommodate a four person family; i.e., three or four bedrooms. And instead of building schools farther out, let's invest in some of our schools close to the inner core. My dream would be to have a professional office or studio adjacent to where I lived – separate so that I can lock the door and leave it at night, but right there so that my girls have access to me – a kind of hybrid between working at home and away at an office. With two parents in the workforce, I think there will be demand for spaces such as these. And if both parents are working, they can’t be chauffeurs. The central location of our downtown to transit is a big plus.
Kids need and want parks too. I heard from city officials that land downtown is too expensive to squander in parks that would improve our quality of life. If land is so valuable, why then, couldn't Oregon Research Institute get its funding because of low property values right in the heart of the city? Experience has shown that the state-of-the-art parks such as Jamison Square and Tanner Springs in Portland’s Pearl District, and Millennium Park on Chicago’s lakefront have caused the nearby real estate values to go through the roof. In fact, Tanner Springs was financed by one of the wise adjacent developers who knew how much value its existence would add to his condos. Elegant, but old office buildings on Chicago’s South Michigan Avenue have been converted to expensive condos, and the population hungry for downtown living can’t be satiated quickly enough. (By the way, Millennium Park is one big green roof built over underground parking. Imagine how different the character would be if that valuable land was a parking structure instead.)

 
At 3/23/2006 2:16 PM , Blogger Lyricdancer said...

During conversations in general, I find that many people can't conceive that the city could be a good environment in which to raise children. Sociologists have found that children are not "growing up faster" these days, but slower. They are talking about the ability to take on responsibility; how responsible is a sixteen year old when he/she is handed the car keys after their parents have been ferrying them everywhere? How much life have they experienced that some very responsible adult hasn't mediated? And, face it, how much fun is it to chauffeur kids everywhere? My mom practically threw the car keys at me when I got my license!

 
At 3/23/2006 3:05 PM , Blogger Bruce Mulligan said...

Agree with your comments on mixed use and type of residential housing. I believe 3 & 4 bedroom rowhouses would sell as well as 2 bedroom flats and lofts. A mixture and diversity of housing types will be the best guarantee for success. See also the international making cities livable movement. They argue for multi-functional public places, parks, squares and marketplaces. They note that to be vibrant these public places must exist within a truly urban fabric, http://www.livablecities.org/index.htm

 

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