More Urban Family Values

Carla Saulter may be my favorite writer. A few months ago I cataloged some of her work on raising kids car-free in the city, and in the six months since I last commented she has written many more stories for Grist. Here are three of my favorites.

‘Mom, can we get the kind of car that we keep at our house?’

In this article, Saulter discusses a conversation she had with her daughter about why they don’t own a car. As car-free kids grow up, they start to notice that most of their friends’ families own cars. There are many reasons they might be interested in owning a car: cars convey social status; they are often “the travel choice of least resistance;” having to walk in the rain or other unpleasant conditions while their friends are chauffeured in sedans; what for many is a life milestone, getting a driver’s license and a car; or even industry propaganda.

Saulter explains that she listed a number of factors that influence them not to own a car, including health, pollution, traffic and noise. During a later discussion with her husband, they also came up with reasons like that they didn’t need a car, or that they enjoy using transit and having time to pay attention to their family, read or do other things that aren’t possible while driving.

Saulter is very concerned about telling her children the truth about her decision, but in a way “that doesn’t scare them, or alienate them from their peers, or cause them to question the choices of everyone else they know.” While these are admirable goals, I think a lot of the truth about living a car-free lifestyle is because the things that car dependence have done to our cities can be scary. Living car free will alienate you from some peers. For example, Mormons, generally, are not a terribly urban people, and Holly and I are virtually the only people in our ward who live in our transit-friendly neighborhood and choose not to live with a car, which does ostracize us a bit. As far as questioning others, it is important to teach children to be tactful, but at the same time it is important that they know that living car-free isn’t a decision you came to on a whim, it’s something that you do because you think it is right, and that they should be proud of the positive impact that such a decision has on their own lives, the neighborhood, and the world at large.

Seven ways to live in a small space with kids and not go crazy

Holly and I have been on a bit of a small space kick (we recently watched every available episode on Hulu of Small Space, Big Style), and this was a perfect article for us as we begin to think about having kids in the city. First, she established that “small” for her means 500-1,000 square feet, and that there are a lot of variables, including storage, outdoor space, configuration, number of residents, and urban amenities, that can affect how livable a certain place is. However, these seven techniques are very general and can be applied almost everywhere.

Make “stuff” earn its keep – Think long and hard before you load up on baby junk. Saulter’s rule of thumb is “wait until you have a demonstrated need for an item before you acquire it.”

Think vertical – Shelves and other vertical storage are your friends. Check out how this guy uses his whole wall, as well as other secret spaces, to take care of all his storage needs. Also take advantage of things you can hang on a wall such as pots and pans, or things like magnetic knife racks that you can get at Ikea.

Choose multipurpose, foldable furniture – Almost all furniture can have a storage element to it. Things like futons and hide-a-beds can turn living rooms into instant guest rooms. Foldable tables and chairs can be brought out when needed and stored efficiently when not.

Downsize appliances – Most standard appliances (water heaters, refrigerators, washers and dryers, dishwashers, etc.) are not designed for small urban spaces, but more compact models are often available. There are even combination appliances, such as a combination washer and dryer, that could save even more space.

Digitze it – Instead of saving physical mementos, take more pictures or scans and make digital scrapbooks. Rip CDs onto your computer and get rid of the cases (I save the liner notes because I like having the artwork), or buy from iTunes or Amazon, which is often cheaper. Be sure to back up your files regularly on an external hard drive.

Stash stuff with your neighbors – Sharing with your neighbors can save space and money. Saulter shares an example: “If you’re finished with your baby swing but anticipate needing it in the future, you can pass it on to a co-op member with a tiny one, who will then pass it on to you when (if) you need it again.”

The world is your backyard — go play in it! – Part of the process of suburbanization has been the privatization of functions that were once public. Living small often requires making these functions public again. Use parks instead of a back yard, the library instead of a book room, and people watching instead of TV watching. Public amenities are what makes cities great, and their lack is what makes suburbs boring. Take advantage of this.

The sane person’s guide to bringing kids on public transit

Saulter is the first to admit that there are challenges involved in taking kids on transit. The required extras, particularly strollers, are hard to handle. Other passengers don’t always behave the way they should around children. ON the other hand, children don’t always behave themselves, either. But car-free parents aren’t going away, and there are little things that transit agencies, parents, and other people can do to make the experience better.

What agencies can do

Publish and publicize child-related policies – Make sure requirements are posted on websites and in vehicles and use easy to understand language.

Emphasize Safety – Most parents are unaware that buses are much safer than cars (the #1 cause of death for children). Transit agencies should emphasize their record and include tips on safe transit ridership.

Provide accessible vehicles – Most transit agencies are moving toward low-floor vehicles. These are easier for both children, the elderly and the disabled to board, and actually cut down on boarding time, making for faster transit trips.

Provide better driver training – While SEPTA has more capable drivers (I dare you to try and drive a bus with about two inches to spare on either side down 4th Street), UTA drivers are much more personable. Drivers have to know that there’s more to their job than steering the bus. Also, simple things like not driving until people are seated make transit riding more pleasant.

What parents can do

Set yourself up for success – Pack light. Use a carrier, pack or wrap instead of a stroller or, if you must, a lightweight, foldable stroller. If your kids can walk, let them. They will quickly develop the necessary stamina.

Set your children up for success – Make sure that your child is content and won’t bother other riders. Bring water, snacks or games, and pay attention to them.

Be prepared – Know your route and any connections you need to make ahead of time. While mobile apps are available, it might be hard to handle them and the children at the same time.

What everyone else can do

Relax and offer to help. Be patient with people who are trying their hardest to be patient with their kids. If all else fails, put in your headphones.

These three columns are all full of wonderful advice for the urban parent. My days as a parent may still be ahead of me, but I think that, thanks to Saulter, I will be better prepared than I would be otherwise. I hope to hear more of her wonderful advice at a later date.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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