Many years ago, when my youngest niece was a baby, I took her out and about to give her mom — my sister — a break. It was then I learned how difficult it is to move around Edmonton with a young child.
We had the contraption where you strap the baby to your front torso and step out into the world as though you are a kookum out hunting moose (mine’s never hunted moose, by the way). But when my back couldn’t take it anymore I would bundle my niece up in a stroller. And then came the lessons.
Have you ever tried to take a baby in a stroller on an ETS bus? It is awful. People roll their eyes before (or if) they make room. Even worse, just getting to the bus stop can be difficult because you have to navigate puddles, people and deteriorating sidewalks.
So, between the clunky stroller barely fitting our often narrow, often poorly-lit sidewalks, the bus challenges and the cat calls — yes even while pushing a baby stroller — I came to realize that Edmonton is not designed with all women, mothers or caregivers in mind.
But who are cities like ours made for, then? It helps to look at who it works best for.
Mo Bot, an urbanist who works as a planner for the City of Edmonton, is passionate about the concept of universal design. Bot says different groups use city infrastructure differently. Take the bus, for example. “Studies [have] found that men tend to take the bus twice a day — to and from work,” she says.
Women, on the other hand, tend to use public transit with far more variance, and tend to make more trips on foot, too. Bot says they do something called “trip chaining,” which essentially means they often make multiple stops while riding the bus between home and work. You know, to pick up the dry cleaning, then the kids from school or the doctor, and then the groceries.
What matters here is whose life you make harder if you design, say, a transit system that works only for your city’s purely work commuters (a majority of whom, in this case, are men) and not its many other users.
I can already hear the “But-what-about-the-men?!” cries. Yes, parenting can be done by any gender, and there are more than two binaries to consider when discussing universal design. But the point is if you make a city accessible to everyone you’ll make it better for everyone.
The question is how. And this was Kalen Anderson’s point for her recent Pecha Kucha presentation on urban design.
Anderson is director of planning coordination for the City of Edmonton. She started her presentation with a quote from urbanist Gil Penalosa, that the best way to evaluate a city is to ask how well it treats the most vulnerable people — “The children, the older adults and the poor.”
She says core neighborhoods are the most important places in the city. “They need to provide holistic opportunities for people to live.” But, Anderson says, Edmonton’s core is not doing that well enough at the moment. “If you want to see how a community works look no further than the way it welcomes children,” she says — noting the core could well improve on that front.
My trips with my niece taught me about the importance of bus seating, wide sidewalks in good repair, better lighting. City design should serve those caring for children, or those with different abilities or of different ages, just as equally as everyone else.