Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Growing Up Boulder created the nation’s first printed kid-friendly city map, designed to help parents and children find their way in the Colorado city.
When Mara Mintzer moved to Boulder 11 years ago, she felt a little lost. “I had trouble figuring out what to do with my year-old daughter in the city, especially on days with bad weather,” she says. “I wished there was some resource to guide me and help me feel less isolated.”
Mintzer, a Boston native and co-author of Placemaking with Children and Youth, came to the Colorado city from the San Francisco Bay Area. She’d seen printed maps that directed residents to area playgrounds in suburban Sydney, Australia; such a map might help, she thought—but something more comprehensive would be even better. “I wanted something I could use that would prepare me for the day,” she says. “Are there going to be changing tables? Will my kid need a bathing suit?”
More than a decade later, Mintzer has created her dream map—and it’s not just for adults. As program director of Growing Up Boulder, an initiative housed at the University of Colorado that works with kids to include their input in urban planning, Mintzer produced what she believes is the nation’s first child-friendly city map designed specifically with and for kids up to the age of 10.
Growing Up Boulder collaborated with more than 30 organizations and 700 children, caregivers, and teachers to complete the map, which points users to such spaces as nature trails, libraries, dog parks, museums, and even a goat dairy. The text is in both English and Spanish, but small icons also allow children who don’t read yet—or don’t yet read well—to navigate the city.
Ten thousand copies were distributed around Boulder and to the city’s public preschool and elementary school students just as they were embarking on summer vacation. And it looks like the kids are using it: A mother of a fourth grader reported that the family visited a nature center for the first time because her daughter found it on the map and suggested it, and a mom of a six-year-old told Mintzer her daughter invented a game in which her father gets lost and she uses the map to help him find the way.
The map’s popularity with kids is likely in part because of their role in creating it. “They gave invaluable feedback,” says Mintzer. The map’s background, for example, was originally a beige color. “When a group of second-graders saw that iteration, they were confused and asked why Boulder was full of sand,” she says. “We realized that a green background was more user friendly.”
Mintzer also made sure that children from different backgrounds and with different abilities were consulted. Growing Up Boulder met with kids, for instance, through the organization Imagine!, which provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through a drawing activity, the Imagine! children made their love for field trips to the Humane Society clear, so its location was included on the map.
The project was committed to inclusivity among the city’s adult demographic. “I realized the map could not only serve as a practical guide, but could support social justice,” Mintzer says. “It’s about connecting people to low-cost or free activities within their community that they may not know about.”
Mintzer and her team reached out to families living in the city’s public housing and to the Latinx immigrants who in part comprise Boulder’s lower-income population. From this outreach came more design tweaks, such as denoting which city parks include grills. Mintzer repeatedly heard from Latinx residents of their interest in spending days off grilling and picnicking with their children and extended families.
Since the rollout of the printed map, Growing Up Boulder has also spearheaded a map for teens, done in consultation with 400 Boulder-area adolescents, and has made the child-friendly map available online. The digital version includes kids’ original artwork: if a user clicks on a library, for example, a child’s drawing of it pops up, with recommendations on why to visit. The online map also includes walking and biking routes of an appropriate length and level of difficulty for young legs.
To further awareness and encourage other cities to follow suit, Growing Up Boulder is planning a February 2020 webinar that will outline the factors to consider when creating a child-friendly city map, such as literacy level, methods for engagement, types of locations, and cost. “We want other cities to be able to do this,” Mintzer says. “We really believe it has a lot of potential.”
Such a map is particularly important in the U.S., which some argue is becoming a landscape of urban childlessness, especially in high-cost metros whose central cities are increasingly dominated by affluent young professionals and the amenities they demand. The United States is also the world’s only country that has not signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which outlines the rights of children—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—as defined and mandated by international law. The lack of this framework often translates into a community’s lack of understanding of what a child-friendly city is and does, says Mintzer.
“Part of our goal with the map is to get the idea of a child-friendly city out there,” she says, “because we don’t have a sense of it in this country.”