Since having a baby, I have been experiencing my city through a new lens. Before parenthood, I could move through the city relatively freely on my own schedule, with my two feet to move me around.
Now I have a mini companion who needs to nurse every 2-3 hours, frequently soils his pants and mostly travels in a stroller that I haul in and out of stores, onto buses and into public washrooms. This makes getting around my neighbourhood a challenge.
Spacing has written about how to create a family-friendly city. But, I don’t yet have a kid, I have a baby whose needs are somewhat different than those of an older child. As a result, I am learning that cities aren’t as baby-friendly as they could be.
As I was writing this article, results of the 2013 US census revealed that the strongest population shift toward big cities in the past year has been among the stroller set. It’s time that cities paid more attention to the needs of young families. I am only three months into motherhood, but here are some suggestions for the baby-friendly city.
1. Walkable Neighbourhoods
Being on maternity leave, I walk every day with my baby, either with a sling/carrier or stroller. It is often the one thing that puts him to sleep and allows me to run errands, get some fresh air and relax. Parents and babies benefit from this type of experience more than hauling all their equipment into a car and going to a big box store. I am incredibly fortunate to live in a neighbourhood with a bustling street called Commercial Drive that has everything. I am within walking distance of cafes, restaurants, banks, post offices, salons, clinics, grocery stores, pharmacies, health food stores, boutiques and more.
2. Curb Ramps and Elevators
Pretty much all of the sidewalks in my neighbourhood have curb ramps to accommodate strollers, wheelchairs and motorized scooters. This is not the case in all communities, or even some buildings. I was downtown one day trying to get around Pacific Centre Mall, where it was impossible to find a functioning elevator to get down to the main mall area, as I couldn’t use the abundance of escalators. My husband and I finally gave up and left.
As much as I love hurling my stroller into traffic and hoping someone stops, a safe crosswalk is preferable.
4. Wider Sidewalks
Sidewalks can usually only accommodate the width of one stroller. I didn’t notice this until I started going for walks with friends who are also new moms: often we can’t walk side by side. This is a minor inconvenience, but it also results in my stroller getting in the way of other pedestrians or people with wheelchairs, which brings me to my next suggestion…
5. Wider Store Aisles
There are a lot of small stores that make it impossible for people with wheelchairs or strollers to manoeuvre around narrow aisles of merchandise. I can understand the lack of wide thoroughfares in restaurants, where babies aren’t always welcome, but this should not be the case in, for example, a grocery store. If you can’t accommodate my stroller, I won’t be shopping at your store.
6. Automatic Doors
Before I had a stroller, I was sure that all public buildings had automatic doors and that I just didn’t use them. Well, turns out very few places have automatic doors — and that many people don’t open doors for a new mom hauling a stroller backwards trying to simultaneously open a door and get her stroller through at the same time.
7. Areas for Nursing Privacy
Breastfeeding in public continues to be a controversial issue for some people, which I find incredibly pathetic. The benefits of nursing to the health of mothers and their children far outweigh someone’s slight discomfort at the site of an uncovered breast. Often babies get hungry and upset while mothers are out and about and they do not have a choice but to feed their child. Not every mother is comfortable nursing in public because of these attitudes, (myself included, although I do it anyways with a cover). Often, malls and department stores have a ‘family room’ with a nice chair and changing station, where mothers can nurse in private. Cities could provide support to mothers by providing similar rooms in community centres, parks and other public
buildings that families frequent.
8. Community Programs for New Parents
Being a new mother — or father— can be very isolating and emotionally and physically exhausting. In the beginning, a new mom is typically healing from childbirth, learning to nurse, and trying to take care of herself, her house and her baby all at once. New mothers and parents need a place where they can share their experiences with other parents and know that they are not alone. In addition to support groups, cities should provide programs for new parents such as mom/baby yoga, developmental play classes, “Movies for Mommies” and more. These usually take place at the local community centre.
9. Childcare for Babies
This may not be the case in all cities, but I have found that in Vancouver, most daycare centres — even those operated by the city — rarely provide care for children under the age of two. This means a parent who is typically on leave for no longer than one year, has a hard time finding someone who will care for his/her child when s/he returns to work. Cities could also provide services that match parents with appropriate childcare in their neighbourhood, rather than having them search Craigslist or Google.
Every new parent and baby should be within safe walking distance to nature. My husband and I often take our baby to Trout Lake, a local park with a small lake that we can walk around. There is a community centre nearby and and a farmer’s market on Saturdays.
11. Reliable Public Transit, More Designated Space for Strollers/Wheelchairs
In order for a city to be truly walkable, there must be access to reliable public transit. If you are taking baby on public transit, you are probably out for awhile and need to use a stroller. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to take transit with a stroller. A new parent and writer for Vancouver’s Georgia Straight wrote about it here. In the past, this has lead to a “war” between parents and seniors as to who needs the courtesy seats more. This should not be the case, as transit should provide enough accessible seats and a clear policy that respects both the elderly and parents.
12. A Map of Services for New Moms
To tie this all together, it would be helpful to new parents if cities created resource maps online and mobile apps that showed where all of the support and services for new parents are located, (childcare, community programs, private nursing areas, parks, etc.)
13. Family Advisory Committees
Most cities have public committees. Vancouver has loads of them, on everything from LGBTQ issues to food policy. Yet the city does not have a family advisory committee that focuses on issues for young families. A family/children’s advisory committee would help inform the current city council on issues that matter to new parents.
Families with young children are a vital sign for healthy cities. Many parents don’t find it appealing to be totally car-dependent in a large house with a big backyard surrounded by suburban sprawl, big box stores and malls. If cities can provide baby-friendly amenities for new parents, we give them a better, healthier alternative to raise their children— in walkable urban areas. These kids may grow up to be city-lovers too.