Livable Communities: Reflections from a New Mom
EDITOR’S NOTE: Originally published online in February 2008 at the Your Place blog, this is a re-run with permission from the author. Megan Olds is now the associate director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and was recently appointed to the MDOT Complete Streets Advisory Council. Megan was a little reluctant to run this as life has evolved since 2008; examples being, she’s now an experienced mom, her kid count now equals two and she references the Cool Cities program that…well, we can say it has a website, but not sure what’s come of it. My hope is that we can convince her to write a part II in the near future.
Livable Communities: Reflections from a New Mom
~ By Megan Olds.
As Baby Boomers enter their golden years and the population in Northern Michigan continues to age, discussions have begun to coalesce around the idea of designing communities that help people “age in place” – that is, stay in their current neighborhood so that their lifestyle, or much of it, can be maintained as they get older and need different types of services and amenities. My experience as a new mom has reinforced my understanding that the community design principles that focus on the needs of elders are also relevant for families with children.
Oh, The Places You’ll Go
Suburban-style housing and strip commercial development has changed the way we shop. For older people who do not drive an automobile and for families who have to pack kids into the car and drive 30 minutes just to make a grocery trip, this pattern of community design poses some barriers. Either way, going out can be challenging!
As any parent can tell you, having a little one opens your eyes to a different way of experiencing the world. I am thankful for a lot of things that I once took for granted, but sidewalks are, for me, the most ubiquitous formerly under-appreciated amenity. Living in Traverse City’s Old Town neighbor, sidewalks are my preferred connection to friends and a variety of services. However, uneven, broken pavement and overgrown bushes all complicate navigation for sidewalk users, particularly those using wheelchairs or walkers or pushing strollers. Just in the past week, I’ve jostled my girl from a sound sleep going over the Cass Road bridge and nearly tipped the stroller on East Ninth after encountering a stubborn ridge.
Weather can also create complications. During my daughter’s first few months, my neighbors and passing motorists along Front Street probably chuckled – or winced in commiseration – to see me trudge the stroller over uneven snow and ice piles as we headed to the bank, the corner grocery, and the pharmacy. Those snow piles were a major hurdle, even for my stroller, an “off-road” friendly model! While there’s nothing we can do to keep snow from falling, we can, as a community, change how we respond to its accumulation. Heated sidewalks or frequent and complete sidewalk plowing go a long way toward encouraging neighborhood accessibility in the winter months for people experiencing a variety of mobility issues.
I have yet to take my daughter with me on a shopping trip to Meijer. My husband has made the big grocery trips. But I’ve watched parents struggle to safely juggle kids, carts, and grocery bags in the parking lot, and it doesn’t look like fun. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen in other cities.
When I visited my sister in Ithaca, N.Y., I noticed that Wegmans – a large grocery store chain – had designated special parking spaces for shoppers with children. Like parking for the disabled, these spots are close to the entrance. These kid-friendly parking spaces also are wider to accommodate children’s safe passage in and out of the vehicle.
The family-friendly feeling in Ithaca continued when I visited the Farmers Market. Waterfront sculptures at the market doubled as kid-friendly “forts” and climbing equipment. The Farmers Market also had clean, accessible public restrooms — another important component of kid- and senior-friendly community spaces. Believe me, after being pregnant — and other mothers out there will understand — I can tell you the location of every clean public restroom in a 60-mile radius! Whether related to safety and accessibility, the relentless need for youngsters to exercise their bodies, our human desire to be inspired by the aesthetic, or the practical considerations of the “call of nature”, planning and design considerations can, and do, work to fulfill multiple needs.
A House Is A House For Me
Affordable housing in town is important for both young families and seniors. Both groups share a common benefit from being close to services such as schools, health care facilities, friends, and places of worship. Unfortunately, a recent study by Homestretch — a non-profit developer of affordable housing in the Grand Traverse region — found that housing prices were rising three to seven times faster than incomes in Traverse City. For those who are early in their careers, those working relatively low-wage jobs, or those surviving on a fixed income, securing affordable housing can be a challenge. Luckily, my husband and I entered downtown Traverse City’s housing market before the housing bubble; otherwise, like many families, we would only have been able to afford a home in the suburban townships. I look forward to the day when I can walk my daughter to Central Grade School. I only hope that enough families with children remain in town so that the school is able to stay open.
Over The River and Through The Woods
Traverse City is blessed with a number of parks and open spaces in and around the downtown. My daughter and I enjoy our walks to the Commons, Hannah Park, and the Open Space. We enjoy using the TART Trail daily. This wide, paved trail is a perfect course for a cruise with the stroller as there are no cracks along the ride to jostle the little one. This well maintained, wide, continuous route through town — with very few traffic conflicts thanks to two underpasses and a convenient crossing median — is ideal for all forms of pedestrian travel. Along the Bay, there are spots to rest in the shade or stop for a picnic – perfect for those young and old who might need to take a break from the sun. The recent design charettes held to gather community input about the future of the Open Space present promising opportunities for the creation of additional amenities that meet public needs. Recreational opportunities for young and old are one of the things Traverse City does well.
“Life Cycle Communities”
For the past few years, Traverse City has worked on its image as a “Cool City.” As Michigan experiences the drain of its youth to cities like Chicago, Boulder, Austin, and other metropolitan meccas, the Cool City campaign strives to create cities and surrounding communities that retain and attract innovative people and businesses that can stimulate and sustain the economy. The brand focuses on a target demographic – people in their 20’s and 30’s. However, the Grand Traverse region — with its relatively older population and influx of retirees — might do well to focus on the current demographic as well consider what happens as the “Cool” folks age, perhaps have children, and eventually retire, aspiring to maintain their lifestyle without moving. Many of the Cool Cities principles are really just aspects of smart, intergenerational community design — creating green parks, encouraging dynamic arts and entertainment options, maintaining quality neighborhood schools, having a job within walking distance of your home, and safe paths for getting there.
By focusing on the needs of folks at every stage of their lives, we can create “life cycle communities” – an idea popular with proponent of aging in place – that are designed in a way that is mindful of the needs of the young and old, as well as those who have disabilities limiting their mobility. American educational philosopher John Dewey said: “There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication.”
As we continue to learn and grow as a community, we will become our best selves by communicating with our neighbors and responding by designing the type of place that honors the common child, adult, and elder in us all. And that would be pretty cool.
MyWHaT is interested in publishing more perspectives on what defines a “livable community” from whomever else that has a unique perspective that they are looking to share–if you’re interested, please send a message.