Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy Holidays Hanging out with Children in Austin

hanging out in Austin with children
Our holidays are still in full swing here in Austin -- and have been filled with all sorts of fun outings with the kids. Austin is spectacular for families during the December holiday season. Some of our family's all-time favorite holiday outings here:

1. Trail of Lights. It was back this year after a sabbatical, although too crowded. We witnessed lots of children melting down towards the end.
2. Ice skating at Whole Foods. We only do this once a year, and so it is a bit comical as we stumble around on the ice, but oh so nice.
3. Capitol Tree Lighting and Sing-Along. We did not make it this year (see number #4) but love this annual festive event. Kids galore running around the Capitol grounds. And fun to see downtown Austin come to life with families.
4. Johnson City. Ok, this is not actually in Austin, but only 45 minutes away, and a discovery we made this year, sacrificing the Capitol Sing-Along. One of the prettiest county courthouses and fun light displays and activities for children, including tours of LBJ's childhood home. We made part of the trek there on bikes (our first long country ride with kids), which added even more adventure to the outing.
5. First Night--New Year's Eve. This event is no longer here in Austin, and we still mourn its passing. This was our family's and many other Austin families' favorite event of the year here. Truly magical with Austin showcasing what makes our arts community so wonderful for families. The toned down "family festival" offered downtown cannot compete with First Night and its focus on the arts.

Capitol Holiday sing-along in Austin with families
Capitol Holiday Sing-Along
ice skating at Whole Foods in Austin with children
Ice skating at Whole Foods

Austin trail of lights
Trail of Lights

family-friendly bike ride near Austin to Johnson City
Bike Ride to Johnson City
Austin First Night New Year's Eve celebration
First Night parade
Texas Capitol Holiday Sing-along
Capitol Holiday Sing-Along
Johnson City light display outing with children
Johnson City light display
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Monday, December 17, 2012

Row Houses

D.C. row houses as a form of family-friendly housing
Row houses in D.C.
I just got back from a short and delightful trip to D.C. (without my children!) to visit friends. D.C. is a city I always enjoy exploring on foot. During my pedestrian travels on this particular trip, I was especially struck by the row houses I came across everywhere: more dense than single family houses, but still family-friendly if designed well with access to open space (either private or shared). Also great curb appeal if designed well. When we visited our friends with kids in Brooklyn in their row house this past spring, we were also impressed by the family-friendly suitability of this denser housing form.

Row houses are pretty unique in Austin, although there are some new ones that went up recently in Mueller (but these seem to lack the curb appeal of the D.C. or Brooklyn row houses). 

Just last week, Seattle adopted its first new low rise zoning regulations since the 1980s to encourage more row houses and a broader diversity of lower-density multifamily housing types. Part of the changes include new design standards to help ensure high quality designs that integrate better into neighborhoods, and also the elimination of parking within a quarter mile of transit zones. 

 I'm curious to know what other cities are doing on this front.  A quick Internet search brought up this American Society of Planning Officials report from 1962 on row houses. A very interesting read. 

D.C. row houses as a form of family-friendly housing
Row houses in D.C.
D.C. row houses as a form of family-friendly housing
Compare the neighborhood curb appeal of this row house in D.C. with the stale building below, which is just a few blocks away. The contrast shows what a difference good design makes.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

Attracting Families to Live Downtown: The Vancouver Model

A great blog post on Planetizen came out earlier this fall on how families will choose to live in downtowns if they are designed for children. As the article points out, the issue of creating family-friendly downtowns is an issue many cities around the world are trying to tackle because  “a neighbourhood that's designed to work for kids works for everyone.” 

Austin's new comprehensive plan incorporates this vision of livable complete communities that work for everyone, as does the City's one-year-old downtown plan. Austin's downtown currently performs poorly for children, as revealed by the paucity of them that live downtown. And the upcoming move of the Austin Children's Museum out of downtown--a huge magnet for families--will only make matters worse.

family-friendly housing in Vancouver
Vancouver (from our family's last trip there in 2004)
What will it take for Austin to attract more than a paucity of families downtown? The lesson from other North American cities: Big and bold planning and a set of robust implementation tools.

The North American city that has made the most progress in attracting families with children to live downtown is Vancouver.  As a result of strong urban design and planning tools that specifically incorporate the needs of children, Vancouver has been able to attract thousands of children into its downtown urban core.  Vancouver requires 25% of housing units in the downtown area be created for families and has endowed its downtown area with a number of incredible kid-friendly public spaces and great public schools.  In setting forth design guidelines for what makes a high rise development family-friendly, Vancouver goes beyond just requiring multiple bedrooms. Developments covered by the City's family-friendly high density design regulations must include outdoor play areas as well as common rooms for indoor play, and the family units must overlook the outdoor play areas (so parents can whip up dinner while watching their kids run around outdoors). And a percentage of the family units must also be affordable. Families have responded to these smart design and planning policies by moving downtown in droves. 

Vancouver high rise with townhouse wrap for families with children

One of the greatest design elements of the Vancouver family-friendly housing model is the incorporation of two- and three-story townhouses that wrap around the residential high rise towers. This design feature is brilliant because it provides for density as well as a housing typology that is preferred by families with children (including quick access to outdoor spaces). The townhouse wrap design also brings in more light and allows for more residential street front interaction. I am hoping to find more pictures of this design feature to post here.

Next up: Seattle.

Our one-year-old in a downtown Vancouver park back in 2004.
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