Denver Street Level… with a Stroller, A Guest Post from a new(ish) Mother

Nothing re-contextualizes a city’s public, street-level environment quite like having an infant in tow.  While life’s errands and events were once a seamless rhythm of transitions from home to mode of transport to destination, leaving the house as a new parent comes with an entirely new choreography.

Six months into parenthood, while I’ve eased up a bit since the early months, I still catch myself considering a list of logistics rivaling a CIA operative about to embark on a strategic mission each time I leave the house. 

What mode of transportation should I bring—a stroller or a baby carrier?   Are there sidewalks? And if so, what condition are they in? How long will I be out?  Can I run multiple errands while visiting one location?  Will this location have a changing station and/or nursing room?  Is the space I am visiting outdoors or indoors, and what additional blankets or shading do I need to temper my baby’s microclimate? 

Prior to parenthood, there were many specific ways in which I engaged with the city’s urban fabric.  As a practicing architect working near the heart of Downtown Denver, I have ridden on my fair share of entertaining mallrides, felt the warm glow of the cosmopolitan bustle at Union Station, and spent many dusky Friday evenings perusing Rino’s cultural and epicurean venues.  A fan of local businesses, seasonal markets, and public parks, I have walked and biked through many of Denver’s unique, rapidly-developing neighborhoods.

Fast-forward to early parenthood.  Suddenly my means of navigating the city has become less about novelty and more about predictability.  Prior to having an infant, I hadn’t considered IKEA’s sinuous walking paths, set amongst the backdrop of carefully-organized living environments, as an exercise and entertainment destination on a rainy day.  Nor did I appreciate the diversity of merchandise available under the roof of America’s beloved Super Target.  Despite my proximity to Cherry Creek North, I didn’t give much thought to what I now consider one of the more well-planned pedestrian environments in the City of Denver.

Borrowing Bob Dylan’s words, things have changed.

As a new mother that aspires to remain an active, urban-dweller throughout maternity leave and beyond, here are several planning features that might facilitate a positive parent outing/ experience.  While most of these planning principles cater to universal design strategies, these features have quickly become important enhancements to the quotidian routines of early parenthood.

  1. Wide, flat sidewalks with curb cuts and generous indoor circulation paths.

Many Colorado parents opt for all-terrain strollers that support the state’s “active lifestyle.”  These strollers tend to have a wide frame and impressively-large all-weather tires.  While navigating narrow, cracked sidewalks and jumping curbs might appeal to those that enjoy testing their strollers’ off-roading capabilities, a smooth and barrier free experience remains preferable while pushing perhaps such precious cargo.

While the Denver Post recently reported that the City of Denver’s 2017 operating budget has earmarked $2.5 million for new or fixed sidewalks on city-owned property.  Perhaps more challenging is how Denver might provide assistance in improving neighborhood sidewalks that fall within the responsibility of the homeowner.

This principle also applies to the idea that indoor spaces have wide circulation paths that might accommodate strollers in aisle-ways and areas surrounding displays in retail environments.

  1. Mixed-use retail environments that mimic the urban microcosm.

Three months into parenthood, I’ve appreciated mixed-use developments that necessitate only one trip via car or public transportation.  Upon arrival, being able to accomplish many activities and tasks on-foot without having to open and fold a heavy stroller or strap a sleeping baby in-and-out of a carrier numerous times creates a more enjoyable experience for all participants involved.

My new-found appreciation of Cherry Creek North stems from its rich diversity of programming and thoughtful attention to the pedestrian scale and public space(s).  In many ways creating a parallel to a small village, one might meet a friend for coffee or a meal, pick up groceries and other household items, fit in a workout, stop by the library, and/or engage in a round of retail therapy all in one trip.  These activities are enhanced by a pleasant pedestrian scale that boasts wide sidewalks and pedestrian-preferred crosswalks, ample landscaping and benches, continuous stretches of active, ground-level retail, and fairly inexpensive metered parking.

  1. Clean, sanitary restroom facilities that go beyond code. 

On a recent trip to Japan, I was struck by the universal design features in the majority of public spaces, transportation hubs, and cultural institutions.  Besides the elaborate electric toilets with multiple cleansing options, each accessible stall had an infant seat in which a child under six months could be placed while their mother used the facilities.  This small addition to public amenities would make a seemingly simple need safe and less awkward for parents out with their child.

Upon expecting, several new mothers I met told me of their appreciation for Nordstrom bathrooms, which boast comfortable couches and areas for privacy in nursing/resting while shopping with an infant.

A little extra care and investment in public restrooms for functions such as nursing and changing enable parents to feel more comfortable in leaving the house for extended stretches of time.

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of public, urban parks.

During the first two months of life, a newborn is not vaccinated, and it is typically recommended by the Pediatrician that parents avoid confined areas.

So where to go to get out of the house?

Public parks and open spaces within walking-distance of neighborhoods are critical resources for exercise, fresh air, and an opportunity to “reconnect” with the outside world.

I can’t count how many times I walked around Washington Park during the first few weeks of my child’s life (sometimes twice in one day,) but I know that this beloved public park served as a savior of both my sanity and post-pregnancy recovery.

While babies grow quickly, the first several years of life provide parents with numerous considerations that seem counter to a spontaneous, out-the-door approach to small and large outings.  My hope is that as Denver continues to grow, design features that demonstrate empathy and sensitivity to parents with young children might be incorporated in new and existing public spaces, cultural institutions, and neighborhoods and mixed-use developments.

 

Inclusive Growth

By definition, gentrification is the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper and middle-income people, which ultimately improves property values but displaces low-income families and small businesses.

As architects, planners and urban designers we often struggle with the idea of gentrification. Specifically, in Denver, we are often attracted to the eccentric neighborhoods that exist because of the diversity of families, lifestyles, cultures and businesses. This in turn attracts many people to those neighborhoods; therefore, becoming more attractive places to develop and build new homes, apartments and businesses. What we may often forget or deliberately choose to forget, is that when we develop these neighborhoods with the uses that stimulate the economy, we are displacing families and businesses because of the rise in property values, residential rents and commercial rents.

The question then remains; how do we create economic opportunity in our neighborhoods while remaining inclusive?

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This week, the Downtown Denver Partnership hosted their annual CityBuild event “CollaborEAT”. For one night, the CityBuild team activates a space in the city to demonstrate how activity can influence our urban spaces. This year, they turned a surface parking lot between 26th and 27th on Larimer into a four-course dining room. The event featured speakers from the RiNo Community to talk about the very issues of inclusive growth. As an Art District, RiNo’s mission is to smartly grow the district, but maintain the quality, culture and artists within the District. As you can imagine, this hasn’t been an easy task. There have been a lot of partners involved in the development of RiNo as it is today.

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It can be argued that RiNo is not affordable. Part of the CollaborEAT event was sitting and mingling with strangers, discussing how we preserve art in our communities, while also strengthening it. One of our table mates described how her boyfriend had been pushed out of his current RiNo location and priced out of other options within the District.

As our communities continue to evolve, develop and grow, we need to find strategies that allow for inclusive growth. Often development occurs to stimulate economic growth in an area. How can we advocate for inclusive economic growth?

Just this morning I read an article by CEOs for Cities about the role of Economic Development Organizations (EDOs) in Inclusive Growth. This article underlines a different aspect of inclusive growth in communities: jobs. It argues that sustainable communities and inclusive ones exist when communities invest in job creation, job preparation, and job access. The article also outlines three major strategies for ensuring and achieving inclusive growth. These strategies being:

  1. EDOs have a vital role to play in achieving inclusive growth.
  2. Inclusive growth is not an add-on to business as usual.
  3. Inclusive growth requires a good ground game.

I feel there are contrasting strategies that can be employed to ensure that the neighborhoods we love, maintain the people, character and culture that exists within them today. First, as residents, activists and artists, we must work together to support strategies and policies that work towards this goal. Second, business owners and Economic Development Organizations need to work together to provide opportunities and jobs so that residents can stay within these communities.

It seems the bottom line is, there is no one strategy to mitigate gentrification. But if we all work together to improve our communities, we might just be able to strengthen the aspects of it that we love.

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