I ended the last post alluding to ways to make the built environment appeal to young families. Now I'll pull from some of my father's experiences growing up in Ridgewood, New Jersey to illustrate features of what I would consider a family-friendly suburb. Today, these kinds of places are so rare most younger families are completely priced out of them (and many were priced out then too), but the fact that they have existed in the past means they are technically possible to build.
|The downtown of Ridgewood, near the New Jersey Transit station. Flickr Credit: Here in Van Nuys|
Of the 600 students that my father attended elementary school with in Ridgewood, he recalls roughly 90% of them walking or biking to school every day. If you lived within a mile of the school, this is what you did. You also went home for lunch. The remaining students were mostly residents of a new subdivision built in the mid-1950's. These homes were so isolated from the rest of town, the school district had no choice but to use buses to bring them in. Of course, the rest is history. By the time my generation rolled around, walking to school in the suburbs was a rarity and we all bused. These days, mom drives the kids in and accompanying a child to school on foot is a good way to get yourself fined in some school districts.
The walk to school stats are a good litmus test for a family-friendly community. It has to be fairly compact to yield over 500 kids within a mile radius. The streets have to be well connected to allow a safe route away from the main auto thoroughfares. There's probably sidewalks everywhere, which is the case in Ridgewood. Growing up, my father remembers stopping by a neighborhood convenience store on the way home from school. Another neighborhood store next door gave out licorice in exchange for empty soda bottles. Uses were mixed somewhat.
My father doesn't remember any neighborhood parks, but the limits of the town were within easy reach for him. A wide swathe of undeveloped land and a creek separated his town from Paramus to the east, creating a distinct boundary and sense of territory, at least for a 10-year old. An abandoned trolley track had been used as a de facto walking and biking trail through the town, which made it easier to get around. As long as he was in by dusk, there were a wide range of places to explore.
The center of Ridgewood organically formed around the transit station to New York City, and not much of the development my father knew of as Ridgewood lied more than a mile from it. This is where he went for church, grocery shopping, clothing shopping, the library, the pool, and the weekly YMCA classes. Even the transit station had only a small parking lot attached to it, preserving the valuable central space for use by humans to do all of the things humans like to do.
Is the Ridgewood my father remembers a suburb? Yes, it's a suburb of New York City. But in contemporary planner-speak, it's also a transit-oriented development surrounded by walkable neighborhoods. It really is a town in it's own right. In many of the respects mentioned here, this living environment is as far removed from the late-20th century suburbia as it is from the dense Manhattan its connected to. Most families will probably not choose to live in high-rise condos anytime soon, but if there were places like Ridgewood more widely available, I can imagine many making this choice.