The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2018
Berkeley Prize 2018

[ID:1901] People to Know, Places to Grow: Children in Downtown Eugene

United States

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.

If you would like to contact this author, please send a request to info@berkeleyprize.org.


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