Making Melbourne child-friendlier

By Dan Ong

When north-sider Deanne and her south-sider partner made peace by moving into their CBD loft-conversion, raising a child in an apartment among the alleyways hadn’t yet crossed their mind. 

Ten years later, you’ll often find Deanne kicking a ball in a local laneway with her seven-year-old son, Florian. Families like hers play an important role in making the CBD a more inclusive community for all ages and abilities. And there’s great value in retaining and attracting more of them.

Strong communities are underpinned by stable representation across all generations. But although there’s never been a lack of incentives for young workers and students to live in Melbourne, many still choose to leave when it comes to having children. 

Parents like Deanne rave about car-free accessibility to the city’s schools and kid-friendly places, from the Queen Victoria Market (QVM) to the State Library’s Children’s Quarter and local community gardens. Yet word still needs to spread that a city pad in Ramsay Lane has some distinct advantages over a suburban backyard in Ramsay St. Despite a steady increase in the number of children growing up in Australian inner-city apartments, CBD Melbourne’s zero to 14-year-old population in 2016 was a mere 3 per cent of its total, compared to around 18 per cent for Victoria and around 14 per cent for Paris in 2017.

Allowing this gap to persist leaves us open to vulnerabilities. Our neighbourhood links and social capital take time to nurture but can fracture with the constant departure of young workers and their children. 

COVID exposed our heavy dependence on suburban workers. Even as some return, it’s understandable that many will choose to stay where they are to create their own 20-minute neighbourhoods for their families. Convincing some of them to move closer to workplaces here should be our goal.

Commerce plays a vital role in any city. Those who support quicker economic gains might say that goal should prevail over families, who may require more infrastructure and may pay less taxes. But providing more neighbourhood work-life options for professionals with children could be a sustainable foundation for a more local, resilient and well-balanced future economy. 

The city’s current rent drop has provided a rare opportunity for young people to live in town. Cities like Vancouver have previously retained their share of this demographic by increasing stocks of affordable two- to three-bedroom apartments. We could continue to do the same. Recent improvements to state design standards will mandate more common and green space in apartments, ensuring that quality, and not just availability, prevails. 

Decades-long research has demonstrated the widespread benefits of child-friendlier cities. As we slow traffic to enable children to walk and ride to and from school, and throughout the city, they develop greater independence. Walkability and safety then increase for everyone. Children also moderate our behaviour as adults, giving us reason to slow down and connect with others. And life improves accordingly. 

Our youths provide valuable social connections. For Deanne, the presence of a few community-minded parents convinced her to stay and raise Florian in a vertical village. These days, it’s hard for her not to feel connected with a child who seems to know every neighbour, shopkeeper and construction worker in their locale. 

Kids can also catalyse creative design when we let them play and imagine beyond the boundaries of playgrounds. Streets and street furniture can become more colourful, soft, and tactile. For a child, any well-designed space can become a safe playground, making better public spaces for all.

Continuing the city’s planning and design upgrades requires the ongoing feedback of children and young adults. One-off children’s forums have been appreciated in the past. But having more frequent events to involve children in city design provides valuable feedback and holds us accountable as adults for their wellbeing. Doing so could even help bring out, and keep alive, the child in all of us. 

This city is too good to be just about work. And more suburbanites should hear about and experience it. Perhaps the city’s travel voucher system could be extended to ensure more families try playing and living here. Our message to visitors of all ages, including children, should be, “Stay; just a little bit longer. Not just for a weekend. Hopefully, for some, a lifetime” •

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