Note from Alan: One of the toughest challenges for families with young children living in cities is the lack of safe, accessible outdoor play space for kids—a narrow urban balcony is no substitute for a fenced backyard. But Seattle-area planner (and mother) Alyse Nelson, who spent six months in Copenhagen documenting how to make a city bicycle friendly, discovered the Danish solution to this problem. She discovered it by looking out her kitchen window. Here’s her report.


Our Copenhagen apartment was in an old neighborhood. It was on a commercial street full of shops, with buses passing every two minutes. Our street was lined with marvelous Danish bikeways that made the entire city our two-wheeled home. I had lived in a compact neighborhood in Seattle, so I was already sold on urban life.

But I discovered that Copenhagen, though far denser than Seattle, is also dramatically more friendly to children. Like much urban housing in the City of Cyclists, our apartment overlooked a green and spacious courtyard. Gated where it met the sidewalk and shared only with others in our building and adjacent buildings on our block, it had play equipment, benches, chairs, and barbeques set amid gardens, lawns, and full-grown trees. It filled the interior of our block; it was like having a park inside your house. (The photo above is the wintertime view of the courtyard from my kitchen window.

Our courtyard made all the difference for me as a mom. I could walk downstairs and spend a quarter hour with my son on the courtyard’s play equipment, then pop back inside to avoid a rain shower or get a snack. I could look out my kitchen window in the very heart of the city and watch scenes of family life unfolding: a father hanging a hammock, a boy learning to ride a bicycle, a woman tending her garden, a clump of neighbors chatting while their children dug in the sandbox. I could picture my son growing older there, playing by himself in the courtyard as a toddler, throwing a ball with a friend as a school-ager, and as a teen, returning from the city beyond to this safe haven of green.

Google Earth aerial image of my Copenhagen neighborhood.

When I came back to Seattle, I felt deprived. I wanted a courtyard, but they’re rare in North America. Perhaps as a result, families with children almost all strive to live in single-family houses with yards. Urban lots (and therefore lawns) are expensive, so families often head far into the suburbs to find affordable, private outdoor space for their children. Perhaps that’s why urban areas have fewer children than suburban areas. In the city of Seattle, for example, families with children account for only 20 percent of households, while in the rest of surrounding King County, families with children make up 37 percent of households. This outward spread of families with children contributes to sprawl and long commutes; it also undermines community stability as adults move outward to have children and inward again as empty-nesters.

Still, I’m hopeful for the future of courtyards in our region. A few buildings here and there have them, and a national organization is promoting them under the name community greens. Community greens convert existing city blocks, turning underutilized places into community spaces. Private backyards become shared residential greens by taking down fences and designing the space to fit the residents’ needs. Community greens offer safe, accessible places for children’s play; increase community bonds, which improves safety and security as neighbors get to know each other; raise property values by turning often-neglected spaces into amenities; and make urban living more inviting and attractive to families with children.

Copenhagen_play_courtyard_500      copenhagen_courtyard_500
Old and New: A passive open space area in Charlotthaven (right), and the play area outside my apartment buildingin Amager (left).

In Copenhagen, many new developments continue to feature courtyard-style housing. Charlottehaven, for example, (pictured above) provides a variety of courtyard spaces including a basketball court, passive landscape areas with seating, and children’s play structures. In existing neighborhoods, Copenhageners are redesigning the courtyards of some older apartment buildings. In such areas, different apartment buildings are grouped around the block, but the courtyard of each building is fenced from the courtyard of the next building. Now, the renewal efforts are combining these piecemeal courtyards into larger, block-wide ones—the same strategy as community greens.

When parents I know talk about the limits of compact communities for young children, I nod with understanding. And I wish they could experience Danish-style courtyards as I have. Once you’ve lived in a building wrapped around a park, a fenced yard just seems second best.

Thanks to Dara P. O’Byrne for the use of her 2006 University of Washington Master’s thesis Reversing the Trend: Strategies to Make Center City Seattle Livable and Attractive to Families with Children.