What happens to kid culture when you close the streets to cars?

In the Spanish city Pontevedra, a family-friendly “pedestrianization” policy has helped increase the population of kids, despite the country’s low birth rates.

PONTEVEDRA—Once a city with narrow streets invaded by traffic and city squares more like parking lots, the roads of Pontevedra, Spain, are now often filled with baby strollers and children playing. Kids carry their toys in small backpacks and spread them on the pavement to share with other kids. Playgrounds with swing sets and slides are deliberately unencumbered by fences. “We want children to play all over our city, and to play whatever game comes to mind,” said Cesar Mosquera, the Urban Councilor of Pontevedra.

By restricting traffic and eliminating physical barriers, the city council has redesigned Pontevedra from the sight line of a child. Doing so, Mosquera believes, helps the city address everybody’s needs, especially the disadvantaged. “Where there are children, there are healthy adults,” Mosquera said. The policy, which has been expanding for almost two decades now, has had many impacts on the community. One of the most tangible: The once-languishing historic city center has become a friendlier space for kids and their caretakers.

This trend is reflected in the demographics of Pontevedra. The city has attracted young families from throughout Spain’s northwest region to settle in the city, even as Spain overall grapples with low birth rates. In the last decade, Pontevedra has experienced the most growth compared to other major cities in the region of Galicia. The newly revitalized, now pedestrian-focused town grew from 73,871 neighbors in 1998 to 82,671 in 2017, according to the Statistics Institute of Galicia.

Since pedestrianization started in 2000, the population of kids age 0 to 14 also increased by 8 percent in Pontevedra, compared to 3.2 percent in Galicia’s capital Santiago de Compostela and 2.4 percent in Vigo, the region’s economic hub.

“Here you don’t have to hold your child’s hand all the time. In any other city that would only happen inside a mall,” said Willy García, father of three-year-old Mauro, standing at the pedestrian “Children’s Fountain” square, once an intersection with 25,000 cars passing daily.

Rather than go for suburban life in the big metropolitan areas, the García family opted for a mid-sized town. It’s a common refrain among those who relocated to the area. Marolia Otero, mother of Gabriel and Lola, ages five and three, said she moved to Pontevedra because in places like Vigo, the region’s economic hub, the costs of housing were much greater. In larger cities, those costs would mean living in the far-out suburbs, with longer commutes that leave parents less time with their kids. In Pontevedra, many services are within walking distance.

Carlos Ferrás, an expert in demography and a lecturer of Human Geography at Santiago de Compostela University (USC), says the urban planning-centered approach has been more effective at fostering a parent-friendly environment than other policies some governments have adopted to try to directly increase birth rates.

“Birth-incentive policies—like one-off compensations per newborn—have proved to be unsuccessful. If we want to end Spain’s aging drama, we must look for parenting policies, measures that help parents raise their kids, starting with urban planning,” said Ferrás.