A consultant's reference to "free-range children," reported in Friday's Journal-World, probably drew a chuckle from many local residents, but the philosophy behind that label is important for the community to consider.
"Free-range children," according to Bruce Appleyard, a Portland, Ore., planning consultant, are an endangered species across the country. This rare breed are the children who are allowed to walk through a neighborhood by themselves to attend school, visit friends or simply explore.
Many people who grew up in Lawrence - and any number of other towns across the country - remember what Appleyard is talking about. Walking to school, playing outside with neighbors until a parent calls, meeting friends at a neighborhood park or ball field now are in danger of becoming part of the "good ol' days" in Lawrence and many other places.
How do we preserve that feeling and get that atmosphere back? First, as City Commissioner Sue Hack noted, the community needs to reach some kind of consensus on what our future should look like. If that vision includes safe, connected neighborhoods, we need to put some clout behind planning and development that fosters that atmosphere. That may not be an easy sell to developers who connect such efforts with increased costs and regulations, but it's not an impossible goal if we think creatively about providing incentives for the kind of development the community wants to foster. If such efforts and development are going to cost more, who will be expected to pay the costs?
Perhaps a community visioning process is needed to give Lawrence residents and officials an opportunity to dream about the future and identify what principles should guide Lawrence's future. It's not all about how we build and develop; it's about how we live and connect as a community.
Building on the strengths of downtown may be one goal, but Lawrence needs more than one center of activity. Big "destination" parks are nice, but we also need neighborhood parks and facilities that are easy to walk to and safe for children to visit alone. There's a lot of charm and comfort in both children and adults being able to wander to a neighborhood school or park rather than having to jump in the car every time they want to visit with people or watch a game.
Lawrence is a wonderful town, but like most towns, its character has changed as it has grown. We can simply accept that and think wistfully about the past or we can try to be the city that tries to come up with innovative ways to create a more desirable future. We can't turn back the clock, but we might be able to identify some of the best things about Lawrence's past and make sure they also are a part of Lawrence's future.