Grayson Southwell

Grayson Southwell

City planners want to make Nanaimo child-friendly

NANAIMO – Recent focus has been to provide seniors with services and amenities.

Parents could eventually see a ‘fun’ cityscape and more services for kids, as Nanaimo shifts its attention toward attracting young families.

Nanaimo social planner John Horn will take his first look this year at ways the Harbour City can improve the experience of children and youths, from opportunities for spontaneous play to more civic engagement.

It’s all part of a push to make the city more alluring for families looking for a place to raise children – and it’s far from new.

Municipalities across the country have been looking at ways to balance the needs of retiring baby boomers with the next generation of citizens.

While there is a recognition that child-friendly cities can attract families and build inclusive communities, local governments also say that safe and fun cities benefit everybody.

For example, Surrey, which has a child- and youth-friendly city strategy, has a youth representative on every committee, free community events and neighbourhood tot lots. The efforts have created a community where children and youth are valued and are given the opportunity to be good, healthy citizens, said Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner.

Horn believes child-friendly initiatives and planning is something Nanaimo should be doing, too. Until now, less attention has been spent specifically addressing the needs of youngsters, he said, pointing out the city recently added a youth advisory committee.

“Our motivation in the short term will need to be addressing the needs of people 65 and over because that’s the bulge in our demographic profile right now … but that will not last forever,” he said. “We will have another generation and [it is important] that we have not built a city so focused on seniors that it’s unfriendly to a young family.”

Horn aims to raise the profile of child-friendly planning this year with an initiative to help bolster the environment for kids and make the city a more appealing place for people to raise families. It won’t likely be as comprehensive an effort as Surrey’s strategy, but could tackle children’s physical environment like routes to school and opportunities for play.

Streetscapes can be “relatively sterile” from a child’s point of view, Horn said, adding there is often nothing but concrete, asphalt and bushes until they get to a playground.

In Paris, there are little ‘play things’ every couple of blocks along the sidewalks that catch the attention of children, like a bronze rabbit they can sit on or a little rocking horse mounted on a spring, he said.

By putting in those kinds of elements it becomes “an exciting little world for them going down the street … they think, ‘what’s the next weird thing I am going to come across?’”

Collaboration with youth organizations could also be part of the child-friendly effort, which is still in very early stages.

Ian Kalina, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Vancouver Island, says child-friendly planning is “just forward thinking.”

There has been a heavy focus on planning for senior citizens, but “who is going to serve them?” he asked.

The city needs to attract business and professionals important for the future of the community, but it can’t do that if there are not services available, like childcare, he said.

“The fact this is going on is great news,” he said. “[But] one of the things that has to be on the table is that no one group is going to be able to do it all – the schools, the city, the boys and girls club – it has to be a collaborative effort … and it has to be done with planning in mind.”

Leah Becker, a supervisor with Katie’s Korner daycare, is also supportive of efforts to make the city more child-friendly. She’d like to see a push toward making childcare more affordable and available for parents, but anything that allows families to have fun and spend time together “would be wonderful.”

According to Horn, determining how the city becomes child friendly won’t be easy. There are questions about who is in charge, who takes the risk and where efforts go, but he said it is “the right thing” to do.