How to Design a Vertical City for Kids

Public Domain. City of Toronto

In many successful North American cities the cost of housing is going up and the suburban house with a yard is an unaffordable dream. Others want to live close to work, close to amenities and transit. More and more people are raising their families in apartments, as is common in much of Europe.

But the buildings being built often don’t take kids into account. A new study by the City of Toronto, Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities , looks at the issue and comes up with guidelines, including a minimum number of two and three bedroom units in every building. But it when they get into the urban and unit design that it gets very interesting and provocative. They start with the obvious:

As an integral part of the city’s landscape, vertical communities are the predominant housing type to accommodate Toronto’s growing population. A successful city is measured by its diversity. The number of children is often used as a metric to measure success – if we build a city that allows children and youth to thrive, we are inherently building an inclusive, sustainable city for everyone.
At the neighbourhood scale, it is all about parks and connections and promoting independence. Or have we have often said, the city is your
park large scale

City of Toronto/Public Domain

The public realm is an integral part of any neighbourhood. In many instances, components of the public realm, such as parks or the library, become an extension of the home. Vertical communities become more livable when the public realm is designed and planned to support the specific needs of households with children and youth. Vertical living then becomes a more desirable and feasible option for more households.

The report would probably make some helicopter parents crazy, given that it is full of recommendations designed to make it easy and safe for kids to get around on their own. There are guidelines for different scales and forms of parks and open space, but unfortunately not a peep about dogs, which are overrunning every park downtown.

park configuration

City of Toronto/Public Domain

The ability of children to move independently through their neighbourhood fosters social and physical development and provides opportunities for play. Children are granted increasing independence when caregivers perceive a sense of safety and security in the public realm.

City of Toronto/Public Domain

Streets are configured to have a big six foot landscaped buffer between the sidewalk and the bike lane to make it safe for walking. There are recommendations for child care, schools and all the infrastructure needed to support families.

unit interior

City of Toronto/Public Domain

The ideal units are full of good ideas: big vestibules for those big strollers, lots of storage, the laundry near the entrance so that it can act as a mudroom. This is how single family houses in the suburbs work, where everyone enters through the garage and laundry area; it makes perfect sense to do the same in an apartment. Then it is straight to the kitchen:

Social Nucleus The kitchen is the family hub. It is more than an area for food preparation, but is also where the family gathers.
Family Time A generous dining area accommodates the whole family and is also flexible for other uses. There are proven health and social benefits associated with eating together as a family.
Teaching Opportunity Cooking with children teaches the importance of nutrition and skills such as math and planning.

City of Toronto/ how a unit might change/Public Domain

There is the recognition that things change, kids grow up; Three bedroom units are designed to evolve over time, perhaps even down to generous one bedroom units.

transformer apartment

© City of Toronto

Units are designed like transformers, to adapt.

This is a remarkable document that should be examined closely in every North American city. Whenever we write about living in dense urban environments readers complain that this is no way to raise kids. But the city offers so much, from friends to play with to places to go and things to do within walking distance. It is also inevitable and necessary if we are going to control sprawl, get people out of cars, and build housing that young people can afford. A detached house and a yard is a nice dream, but this all looks pretty good too.