By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
In case you haven’t heard, Somerville is in the midst of a bit of a baby boom. The past six years have seen an upward spike in the number of births for Somerville residents. We’re approaching more than 1,000 births per year – we had 970 in 2012 – which is a figure we have not seen since the 1970s.
It fits in with a national trend. The Millennial Generation is hitting its prime parenting years. The children being born today will become part of the next mega-generation, like their parents (the Millennials) and their grandparents (the Boomers).
And this is particularly important in Somerville because the Millennials make up roughly 40 percent of our population. As those young families start having babies, it’s going to completely change the makeup of our city. This is a transformational occurrence for Somerville, and it’s a good thing.
If I had to make one criticism of Somerville, it’s that we need more kids. We have great neighborhoods, parks and playgrounds, but there are not enough kids in them. Those of us who grew up here in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s can remember when there were children everywhere you looked, on their bikes, playing sports and just goofing around in their neighborhoods having fun.
When people talk about what they miss from the good, old days, they mostly mean that Somerville was a tight-knit community with lots of families. Well, here comes a new generation of young families capable of bringing back those good, old days. Our challenge is to keep them here in Somerville.
What drew these Millennials to Somerville in the first place is that the city is an awesome place to live. We have great neighborhoods, bustling city squares and cool events happening all the time. We have an immensely diverse city filled with artists and musicians. Somerville is one of the most stimulating, positive and culturally enriching places in America.
Now we need those young families, who already love living here, to recognize that their kids can have awesome childhoods growing up in this awesome place to live. With that in mind, we are kicking off the SomerPlay initiative to turn our neighborhoods into what some have started to call playborhoods.
The playborhood idea is to have groups of neighbors band together to turn their blocks into play zones. It could be as simple as setting a designated time when parents take to their front porches and let the kids have the run of the neighborhood.
Others are looking to throw more block parties, and the city is streamlining the permitting process for that and other good SomerPlay ideas. Some are even thinking of having a regular street closure so that the neighborhood kids can get out without having to worry about traffic.
Half a dozen neighborhood groups are already drumming up ideas and I hope to see proposals streaming in from across the city. I also hope you’ll come to our SomerPlay brainstorming session on Thursday, May 16 (visit the city website for details). We want parents brainstorming about ways to make the neighborhoods more play-friendly, and we want to see that on every block. If you haven’t heard of a group working on this where you live, then I hope you will start one.
It’s going to take some creative thinking. What we hear back from parents is that traffic is their top concern when it comes to sending their kids out to play in Somerville. We do not have the sleepy cul-de-sacs you find in the suburbs. We have a lot of cars driving around on our streets. Eight new T stations will help cut down on that traffic, but we’re trying to figure out ways to lessen cut-through traffic on side streets.
We’re thinking about creating pedestrian paths to our parks and playgrounds, so kids don’t have to cross busy streets. We’re establishing walking school buses to and from our neighborhood schools.
We want to create more indoor recreational opportunities during the cold weather months. We want to add cool new play features like forts. We want more picnic tables and outdoor grills to encourage families to get outside together. We want more community gardens and gathering spaces. In general, we want to make the idea of you and your kids outside in your neighborhood the most natural thing on earth.
The demographic shift is happening right now. We have the opportunity to make Somerville the most family-friendly city anywhere. What we need is neighborhoods to band together and for people to share their best ideas.
I always talk about making Somerville a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. The last two items in that list are not just throwaway notions. I know Somerville can be a city teeming with children at play. I’ve lived it.
I want this new generation of kids to claim our neighborhoods as their own.