Reflections on the Urban95 Expert Assembly

Published February 4, 2019 – by Tracy McMillan

Last autumn the Bernard van Leer Foundation gathered a group of experts in the fields of early childhood development, mobility, transportation safety, public space, urban form, recreation, and air quality at the Urban95 Expert Assembly in Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). BvLF’s Urban95 initiative is rooted in the belief that when urban neighbourhoods work well for caregivers, babies, toddlers and young children, they also tend to nurture strong communities and economic development.

The 95 of Urban95 is a reference to the average height of a three year old—95 centimetres (approximately 3 feet). Do you recall what the world looked like at that height and your level of emotional and intellectual development? While it’s undoubtedly challenging for many of us to remember life at that age, we may have recent experiences as a caregiver to a person of that age. Our charge at the meeting was to dig deep into the opportunities and challenges of urban mobility for young children and their caregivers.

How do we as caregivers move around cities with young children?

  • Where do we go, how do we get there, and how easy or hard is it to reach our frequent destinations, such as childcare, school, open spaces, shopping and health care?
  • What is the physical distance between home and frequent destinations, and what are the physical barriers or impediments to getting there efficiently?
  • Are there resting places if distances are longer?
  • Are there kerb ramps for wheels? How big is that step up to the kerb?
  • How long are we given to cross the street at a signalised intersection?
  • Is boarding public transport physically easy or hard? Is it understandable how to use the system (wayfinding, rules regarding strollers, prams, etc.)? And do we have designated space once we get on board?
  • What will engage and distract young children in our urban environments? As caregivers, where do we need the former and not the latter? As one attendee pointed out, having things of interest at young children’s eye height – such as along building walls – is sometimes better than having them at their feet, on sidewalks. That way the children can be engaged as the caregivers move them through the urban environment, rather than stopping to look down at engaging items. Sometimes caregivers just need to get places!

Honestly, these questions are important for us to consider for all transportation system users, not just those moving about our cities with young children. Who doesn’t want transportation in their cities with destinations of need closer to residential development, better and more understandable connections between transport modes, the relative cost and burden of travel reduced, and safer, more accessible travel via infrastructure designed for all ages and abilities?

Being a part of the Urban95 Expert Assembly reinforced my interest in working on the transport issues of vulnerable populations, such as young children and caregivers. It also brought back memories of travelling with a young child (my son is a ‘tween’ now, as he loves to remind me!). Lastly, once you see through the lens of a child and/or caregiver, you can’t ‘unsee’ urban mobility environments and issues from that perspective, or at least that is the hope of the Bernard van Leer Foundation and their growing network of partners working in this important area of early childhood development and sustainable, livable communities.

Author: Dr. Tracy McMillan is a Senior Policy and Project Analyst at the University of California, Berkeley SafeTREC. Tracy has worked at the intersection of public health and transportation planning and policy for over 15 years, with a focus on transportation safety, mobility and active community environments for children/youth and older adults. She holds a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of California, Irvine; a Masters in Public Health from Emory University; and a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from SUNY Buffalo. Tracy lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her family and enjoys exploring places by foot, bike and transit.