Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


What my child has taught me about urban design

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

I love walks, but in the walking/exploring department, I think my son has me beat. He lives for walks.

In the year or so that I've had my son, I must have walked thousands of steps, trying to keep up with the him. When he was smaller, and less mobile, walks were a perfect way for me to get out and take in the sunshine, while introducing him to a little bit more of the world. Now that he's moving more, he's become his own explorer.

While accompanying my son on these walks, I've learned a few things about living in the city myself. Here's what I've picked up:

Walk, rest, repeat.
My son loves to walk outside. He does it incessantly. Since he needs company, I find myself dragged outside, even on days when I'd rather not.

Our walks have become so routine that I've started to see the same people out sharing the streets with me. At first, I shared a few nods and greetings with these strangers, but as the months went by, and a sense of familiarity settled on both parties, we began to have longer conversations.

Soon, it didn't feel as if we were walking in intimidating new territories; it felt as if we were extending the range of our home base. Every few blocks, a familiar person or pet came into view and we'd fall into easy how-do-you-do conversations.

I realized, this is how neighborhoods used to be made. Neighborhoods aren't just blocks of similar homes. They were places where people interacted on a daily basis and thus created a sense of belonging.

No walks? Just hang
Walks aren't the only way to get to know your community, so is staying in one open place.

My son's favorite hangouts are usually in front of multi-family staircases, or a particularly leafy, patch of sidewalk. As the minutes ticked by, we'd see neighbors walking their pets, people cycling or other children taking their adults outside. It gave me the perfect opportunity to say "hi."

A little mess is a good thing
Cities love clean, manicured spaces. It's our instinct to keep things organized, but to be engaging, sometimes you need a little clutter.

Falling leaves are nature's toys. Photo by: Carren Jao
Before he learned to walk, one of our favorite activities was simply wiping a leaf on the concrete and listening for that low scratching sound. Or throwing pinecones in the air, like makeshift balls.

Now that he's walking, it's a new opportunity to explore the same place in a different way. A few days ago, I set him down by a patch of dried leaves. I stomped on a few, which produced some satisfying "crackling" sounds. With this, my delighted little one promptly plodded all around the sidewalk, crunching leaves as he went.

Variation adds interest
Children love texture, and so do adults. We love varied environments. It's great to walk by a block and find a Zen rock garden on one hand and then a grassy spot with a sign in the other.

The same principle goes for heights. My son loves stairs and little overlooks, because of the new sights at that elevation (I think.)

When we're looking to design something for the public space, it's great to have more than one kind of texture and color in a small space. We've all walked through large concrete parking lots and those are never fun to navigate, right?

Have you walked with a child? What did they teach you about the city?


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