Cities are magical places to raise children. Zooming trains turn everyday journeys into wide-eyed adventures. Urban plazas echo with shrieks from delighted toddlers darting into splash pads. From bustling streets to hidden pockets of nature, around every corner is something new, just waiting to be discovered.
But big-city living with small humans can be hard. Urban environments are not always designed with kids in mind, and parents need all the help they can get. We’ve tapped designers, policy experts, and our in-house parents for their tips on how urban families can flourish, as well as various ways to advocate for a more kid-friendly city.
Because cities built to support families are better for everyone.
In your neighborhood
- Plant a tree.
Trees are essential for improving public health, which is why some cities are planting a tree for every child born. The effort is more than symbolic—52 percent of the U.S. population under 15 is breathing toxic air, and trees can help prevent chronic respiratory illnesses like childhood asthma.
- Help open a toy library.
Since the 1930s, toy libraries have distributed free toys on a rotating basis to families. At programs like the Northwest Denver Toy Library in Colorado, kids can play with toys and then check out three items for three weeks at a time using their library card. There are over 400 toy libraries in the U.S.; ask your local library about starting one in your own community.
- Host a lemonade stand.
Encourage youth entrepreneurship and score a few chats with your neighbors. A lemonade stand—or perhaps a crowdfunding campaign, knowing kids these days—helps a neighborhood feel more connected.
- Flip your backyard to the front.
There’s plenty wrong with the traditional American front lawn. If you have some rare urban acreage, ditch the grass and move your vegetable garden, swingset, or sports-playing to the front yard to connect with neighbors and make new friends.
- Screen a movie outdoors.
From a small gathering with neighbors to a larger, site-specific event, cinema can expand horizons and bring people together—and an impromptu movie night isn’t as hard to organize as it may sound.
- Door-knock for a cause.
Teach kids the importance of community organizing. Gather signatures for a local effort and get to know the neighbors, all at once. The group Little Lobbyists, which advocates for kids with complex medical needs and disabilities, has tips for canvassing with future voters.
- Turn your parkway into a play space.
Okay, there’s going to be a ton of regional slang to fight through here: You know that little sliver of property between the sidewalk and the curb? Whatever you call it, replace whatever’s there with a space that encourages people of all ages to stop and play.
- Open a little free library.
Libraries may change and evolve, but the joy of reading a book remains. The Little Free Libraries movement is a network of 80,000 (and growing) tiny outdoor libraries that anyone can take from or contribute to on a “take a book, return a book” basis. Dallas’s Little Free Libraries/Libros Libres project constructed and decorated little libraries around the city as part of a wider literacy and community design initiative. Here’s a guide to starting your own.
- Share your street.
The Dutch shared street, known as a woonerf, is designed to allow pedestrians, cyclists, and cars to safely mix in a barrier-free corridor. Ask local engineers for traffic-calming devices like curb extensions, short posts, or raised crosswalks that can help drivers slow down and notice other people on the road.
- Take the “popsicle test.”
Urban planners have a test for walkability that’s also a fun summer activity. Can your child walk to a store, buy a popsicle, and walk back home before the popsicle has melted? If your child can’t, what can you do to make your neighborhood more walkable?
- Consider grandparents in living situations.
Family units are changing as the U.S. population lives longer, and grandparents can play a more active role as caregivers, provided they can live close by. That could mean backyard ADUs, or “granny flats,” or requesting kid-friendly facilities like playgrounds and gardens at senior housing developments.
- Take full advantage of your library card.
In today’s tech-driven world, your local library likely offers many resources beyond books. Kids can check out DVDs and take classes—often for free. Most libraries have free Wi-Fi, and older tweens will love downloading e-books and audiobooks. Many cities also offer discounts for library card holders to other services like classes or complimentary access to cultural institutions.
- Volunteer for story time.
Most libraries have a kids section, but they don’t always have the funding for a weekly—or even better, daily—story time. Ask your local library if you can start a story time; we’ve got a list of recommended titles.
- Dine at every walkable restaurant.
To turn dinner into an adventure, and support local businesses, make a map of all restaurants within walking distance from your house. Make it a game by trying to visit new places one by one.
- Legalize family-friendly pubs.
Many U.S. cities don’t allow kids and alcohol-consuming adults to mix. Advocate for social spaces that welcome everyone. For inspiration, Germany’s beer gardens are famously family-friendly, providing menus for kids and even play areas.
- Throw a kid-organized block party.
The only thing better than gathering for a neighborhood celebration is making the neighborhood kids do all the work. Let kids create committees to advertise the date, plan the menu, and provide the entertainment. They can even get a taste of local bureaucracy by securing the proper permits—with a little help from adults.
- Organize a clothing swap.
While kids are outgrowing pants monthly, there’s no reason to keep buying new clothes. Get together with local families and go home with new-to-you outfits. Donate the leftovers to a local nonprofit.
- Look into play streets.
The play streets initiative creates temporary car-free blocks that help neighborhood residents engage in physical activity. When you apply for Los Angeles’s Play Streets program, you’ll get a kit that turns the asphalt into a pop-up playground, including plastic “wobbles” to encourage free play.
- Teach urbanism through video games.
Kids are natural city-builders—just look at the popularity of SimCity or Monument Valley. Check out Block by Block, a program that uses Minecraft as a collaborative design tool to engage younger residents in municipal decision-making processes.
- Thank your public employees.
Have kids write thank-you letters to letter carriers, sanitation workers, bus drivers—anyone who keeps the city moving.