Crawlable Urbanism: Cities Are for Kids, Too

All of a sudden, I feel like all anyone is talking about is whether it’s a good idea to raise kids in the city. I’m raising a kid in the city. I feel great about it when she has a blast on the back of the bike, or makes friends on the bus, or gets excited about pressing the beg button at the corner. I feel a little less certain when we toddle down the sidewalk and come upon guys peeing on the dumpster or passed out on the stoop. When I look at the test scores for our neighborhood schools, I get a knot in my stomach.

You knew I was going to post a picture of my kid in this story, didn't you? There's Luna at the fountain in Columbia Heights.

A few days ago I visited my friends’ new home in Potomac, a wealthy, second-ring suburb with enviable schools. Their new house sits on two acres with a pool and a basketball court. After a few hours sipping beer in their landscaped yard and watching our children frolic in the pool, I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself why I didn’t pick this path for myself.

This City? Childless?

But the fact is, despite its obvious allure, that path is being chosen by fewer and fewer people. Even among families with kids, many who could afford 5,000 square feet with a pool are increasingly opting for a smaller house, a pool club membership, a shorter commute, and transit access.

In the current issue of City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres pretty much erased this reality — my reality, mind you — with their silly article, “The Childless City”:

Even the partial rebirth of American cities since [the 1960s] hasn’t been enough to lure families [with kids] back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class” — a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students — occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

Joel Kotkin's idea of city life. Woo-hoo! Photo: Splash News/Corbis via ##http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_3_childless-cities.html##City Journal##

“The Childless City” is illustrated with a picture — I’m not kidding you — of “the casts of The Real World and Jersey Shore party[ing] it up at a New York nightclub.” That, to them, illustrates the modern city.

I’d like to take Joel Kotkin on a child’s-eye tour of Washington, DC, a city emptied out a few decades ago by crack and riots and mayhem. Talk about a rebirth.

I’d bring him along to the bilingual story hour at the local library, which is walking distance even for my toddler. I’d show him parents taking the bus with their kids down to the National Mall to see dinosaur skeletons and war planes in our world-class museums. I’d encourage him to play in the fountain in the plaza of the transit-oriented neighborhood of Columbia Heights along with scores of wet, shrieking children of all colors and incomes. And after he got his soak on, I’d even buy him frozen yogurt, Chilean empanadas, vegan cupcakes, or Central American fried chicken from the establishments lining the plaza.

All of these child-friendly urban amenities are invisible to Kotkin. “We have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children,” he declares. The rent is too high, the yards are too small, the schools are too bad, the neighbors are too sketchy.

Indicator Species

A few months ago, Washington Post business reporter Jonathan O’Connell wondered whether DC can grow up with the 20-somethings he says have fueled its revitalization. “What D.C. hasn’t yet figured out, or even really planned for, is what happens when this raft of newcomers grows out of one-bedroom condo living,” O’Connell wrote. “What happens when their lives evolve past the urban-playground stage and they are less interested in speakeasies than in parks for their kids?”

The funny thing is, Jonathan O’Connell lives two blocks away from me. We met up at a neighborhood bar a few months ago to talk about education after he wrote a counter-intuitively glowing review of the public elementary school we’re both zoned for. I sometimes see him walking his daughter to school there. His wife helped organize a Saturday-morning Zumba class and other great programming at the shiny-new recreation center that just opened a few blocks away. If proof exists that the city can be a great place to raise a family, the O’Connells would seem to be it.

But he doesn’t want his kids stepping over passed-out dudes on the sidewalk any more than I do. If he’s questioning how long his family will stick around, who am I to question his judgment? With any luck, though, he’ll continue to find the urban charms of our neighborhood and our city more compelling than its deficits.

That cul-de-sac might be a safe enough place for kids to roam, but the minute you want to get anywhere you're on that lonely highway at the bottom of the picture. Photo: ##http://www.enquirer.com/editions/2002/06/13/loc_no_outlet_you_cant.html##Cincinnati Enquirer##

As Vancouver planner Brent Toderian wrote recently (and others have said before), “Kids are the indicator species of a great neighborhood.” Cities — even downtowns — aren’t just for singles and seniors. Toderian says in Vancouver, they got developers to build and sometimes even operate daycares and schools as part of “density negotiations.” And cities across North America are following suit, focusing on attracting families with kids downtown.

“Oslo, Norway mandated in 2007 that half of all new homes be sized for 3 bedrooms and families,” Toderian wrote in his article on downtown living with kids. “Minneapolis’s mayor has been asking the tough questions around attracting downtown families. Edmonton, Alberta’s mayor recently hoped that their development of former inner city airport lands could specifically attract families.”

Then there’s the question of whether suburbs or cities afford kids and parents more freedom. Leigh Gallagher’s new book, “The End of the Suburbs,” illustrates the way car-centric street design traps parents into shuttling their kids around all day instead of letting them just “go outside and do something with their friends.”

It’s worth noting that parents in cities also do a lot of hand-wringing about the age at which they can let their kids in cities just “go outside and do something with their friends.” Author Lenore Skenazy set off a storm of controversy a few years back when she let her 9-year-old son take the subway in New York by himself. But do parents in “safe” suburbs let their kids ride their bicycles and scooters around by themselves? Within the gates of the subdivision, maybe. Step off the compound and you’re on a high-speed connector road without sidewalks and you’re walking miles till you get to a place that’s zoned to sell your kid an ice cream cone.

Gallagher says you can measure walkability by how much you need to spend on Halloween candy. If the kids bypass your neighborhood because it takes too long to get from one house to the next, you’ve got density problems. If you buy out CVS and don’t even have one measly Kit-Kat to yourself November 1, you’re living in a WalkScore paradise. Welcome to my world.

  • dk12

    In Boston – only the number of kids in the poorer neighborhoods declined – it actually went up in wealthier/gentrified neighborhoods.

  • dk12

    your observations are correct, in fact. recent census data shows that the number of kids actually increased in Boston neighborhoods like the south end, back bay, beacon hill, north end, and west roxbury – all of which are upper-mid to upper class neighborhoods. The numbers only declined in poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods that are only more recently gentrifying. The only conjecture is that lower-income families are getting priced out – which I think is pretty likely

    http://southend.patch.com/groups/opinion/p/opinion-bostons-population-growth-masks-youth-migration-2

  • Anonymous

    What a relief that nobody important is being inconvenienced 😉

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, well you can buy your way out of most of the various urban problems such as poor schools, need for supervision of children, etc., so that’s not surprising. Besides the obvious which is that poor and working class families are simply being priced out.

  • True Freedom

    The biggest problem with both articles is that they are trying to infer causation from a correlation. The data shows that families with children are leaving cities, but it does not explain why.. nor explain preferences… so we are left with anecdotes and personal biases to explain the data.

    For me, personally, we paid a premium to purchase a SFR in Pasadena that had an acre of land. Our search criteria for our realtor was: “don’t show us a house with a lot smaller than 1/2 acre”. If we were unable to find one, we’d move to another city further away.

    All of the families we know (except one), would gladly trade up, move further away, pay more to have room.. a yard, etc. The one other family does love living in an urban core.. and they live in San Fran.

    Really, we should try and ascertain what people’s true preferences are… because trying to infer them directly from data is problematic and too simplistic.

  • dk12

    Most of those families are actually opting for Boston Public Schools:

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2012/04/04/demand_for_kindergarten_seats_rises_sharply_in_boston_public_schools/

    The main problem is that child-care is very expensive in the city, and if you have a kid between the ages of 0 and 4, you either need a stay-at-home parent or a two-earner household making good money. it’s also not cheap to live here – so if you’re on the margins, you really don’t want to add another mouth to feed unless you can afford it.

  • Nate

    Let me rephrase: unless both parents are committed urbanists willing to sacrifice certain conveniences, then it I don’t think it’s realistic to see a huge shift in parents with young kids switching to a car-free lifestyle. I didn’t mean to imply that you were lucky in your circumstances- merely that there are certain attributes in the work-school-shopping-home relationship that make a car-free lifestyle more possible than others, and due to the fact that these variables often change locations, it can be hard to roll with the changes without a car to bail you out. From your story, it sounds like your family are committed urbanists and are willing to tough out things like biking in the rain, in urban traffic, with a full shopping load, etc. A solid commitment to a car-free life makes a huge difference, but I think expecting people to make this car-free jump right now makes it seem much easier than it is. (I think this is an unspoken theme in conversations about this issue is that if one member of a family is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to go car-free, the other needs to be on-board too. Very difficult to convince someone who is car-dependent to go car-free.)

    Plus, I would agree that bikes are the essential factor here. You and your husband seem adept at doing things like dropping off kids, shopping, and getting to work on your bikes. I’ve been unable to convince my wife that bikes in the city are safe, and thus must rely on walking and the bus to do these things car-free. For us, the bus would be too slow (caught in the same traffic as cars, yet stopping every block to load and unload), and the distances to far to walk. It’s frustrating, because I would love to car-free and have a car share for longer trips and emergencies.

  • Anonymous

    There was an earlier piece posted by Angie that included a great deal of subsequent conversation surrounding the notion that the mortgage interest deduction is a primary driver of sprawl and, by extension, is the primary driver for one’s choice to buy in the suburbs rather than the city.

    It is refreshing to see a lot of different comments here offering anecdotal insights into why people choose one environment over the other. Not so ironically, the mortgage interest deduction is not included in discussion below citing primary criteria influencing one’s decision to either live in the city or the burbs.

    Of course, the deduction is available for both city and suburban housing choices, among many other flaws in the theory that the mortgage interest deduction drives sprawl . . .

  • I take issue instead with the shared assumption behind both Kotkin’s original article, and Snyder’s response. Those of us who are child-free are real people who make real choices. We are a large and growing share of the population both inside cities and outside of them.

  • Anonymous

    You can write off the interest on a home in the city, too, so mortgage interest deduction is little more than a co-benefit of buying, not a primary criteria in choosing whether to buy in the city or the burbs.

    There are a lot more significant variables driving decisions to buy, and where to buy.

    The observation about low-to-moderate income persons is a serious issue and one that the “suburbanization of poverty” body of research continues to explore. When Chicago’s highrise public housing projects all started to come down, where did everyone go and why did they go there?

  • Paddington

    I say stop worrying. Demographics are the core driver here and neighborhoods are always in flux. Millennials are getting older and the core driver of many industries and movements right now; most are single or only just coming into child-bearing age. Compounded with the fact that many individuals are having children later in life, we will indeed see an increased demand for larger living spaces. However, the caveat is that simultaneously we will see an increased demand for elderly and empty nest living spaces. There’s no need to criticize suburban living nor urban living, but we do need to recognize coming shifts in demographic makeups.

    Personally, I don’t worry too much about it. Smart developers should anticipate market moves to get the biggest bang for their buck. Also, it’s the ebb and flow of various neighborhoods that really lends character to places, so a little awkwardness or strain isn’t always a bad thing.

  • Justin Lee Miller

    This article should be titled: Cities Are for White Kids Too.

    There have always been children in American cities. Who do you think attends all those “bad schools”?

    In order for this article to make sense, you must insert the word white in front of every mention of children. In cities like DC & New York, neighborhoods that once swarmed with kids are now swarmed with young people with no children or fewer children than the families they displaced.

  • Aneuk

    I live in Jakarta and i disagree totally with this article, the author should point out that it works at cities in developed country. Because if you let your small kids do those things here, you can prepare yourself to lose them, just sayin

  • Aneuk

    I live in Jakarta and i disagree totally with this article, the author should point out that it works at cities in developed country. Because if you let your small kids do those things here, you can prepare yourself to lose them, just sayin

  • Aneuk

    I live in Jakarta and i disagree totally with this article, the author should point out that it works at cities in developed country. Because if you let your small kids do those things here, you can prepare yourself to lose them, just sayin

  • Miles Bader

    Simple things, like taking the kid to school, can get expensive and time-consuming really fast without a car.

    Maybe you’ve spent too much time in the suburbs. Kids get to school fine in many cities, without the parents doing a thing…

  • Anonymous

    Five-year-old kids don’t. In fact, NONE of the kids pictured in the article are old enough to go anywhere alone.

  • Anonymous

    The deduction drives an over-investment in housing. We all live in houses that are a little bigger and more expensive than we would without the deduction. To the extent that living in larger houses is a driver of sprawl, I suppose there might be some validity to the original claim.

  • Joe R.

    The mortgage interest deduction is a bad idea whether or not it subsidizes sprawl. For one thing, it results in a net subsidy of one type of housing (owner occupied) versus another (rental), effectively skewing what gets built. For another, it subsidizes people who borrow to buy their homes, while giving those who buy outright with cash nothing. It could be argued that low interest rates resulted in the ability to borrow greater sums, which in turn fueled the housing bubble. None of this might have occurred if the government didn’t subsidize borrowing. The problem with any type of borrowing is it places a time value on money, which in turn fuels inflation. We may make the argument that borrowing is necessary because housing prices often rise faster than a person can save. And yet that wouldn’t be true if borrowing for both homes and goods was very rare. There was a time when prices were stable for generations, people could save to buy their own homes, and people lived without borrowing. Once we got off the gold standard everything went to hell in a handbasket. Now people get rich literally doing nothing except profiting off the rise in prices due to inflation. Anyway, in my opinion the most onerous thing about the mortgage interest deduction isn’t whether or not it might encourage sprawl, but the fact that it enables, even encourages, borrowing, with all the negatives that entails.

  • Miles Bader

    I dunno what current-day American-helicopter-parent theory is, but a first-grader is perfectly capable of walking to a neighborhood school by himself/herself, and older grade-school kids do great on transit and/or bike.

  • Joe R.

    Yep. My mom walked me to kindergarten but I was on my own from first grade onwards. Because I was born in November, I was a few months shy of 6 years old when I started first grade. The walk was roughly 6 or 7 blocks long if I recall.

  • Nathanael

    Some history here.

    Originally ALL interest was deductible. Credit card interest, student loan interest, loan-shark interest, ALL of it. In that context, the mortgage interest deduction made sense.

    During the Reagan era, almost all the other interest deductions were abolished, except for “business” interest and “investment” interest… and “mortgage” interest.

    As a result, the leftover “mortgage interest” deduction is a distortion which creates a mess. Personally, I’d bring back the deductions for all interest, but if we don’t do that, then we have to get rid of the mortgage interest deduction.

  • Nathanael

    Uh, the mortgage interest deduction is a thumb on the scales in favor of buying and against renting.

  • Nathanael

    Kotkin is just lying — as usual. As dk12 points out, the number of kids in the city is actually going up.

  • Nathanael

    (1) Absolute utter bullshit, all of it.
    (2) In the richest, most tony upper-class neighborhoods, with the best test scores, you are going to see the nastiest, most vicious, aggressive, evil, sociopathic child bullies in the schools. I went to such a school; I saw it.

  • Nathanael

    “My late father used to play stickball in the street.”

    That would be before the automobile lobby forced kids out of the street, right?

  • Nathanael

    “The problem is that these cities seem to be places for the rich and the poor, but not the middle class.”

    What middle class?

    One of the national problems in the US is that the middle class is being eliminated entirely, due to deliberate action by the 0.1% to shove the middle class into poverty.

  • Nathanael

    Being robbed at knife-point happens in rich suburbs, too. Stereotype much, Andre?

  • Nathanael

    They aren’t quieter. Have you heard of people having parties in their houses?

    There is a serious issue with drinking. Sober people want to live far away from drunken people, because drunken people are loud, obnoxious, and violent. But drinking isn’t limited to commercial districts — it happens in cul-de-sacs too.

  • Nathanael

    ” It just encourages people to get together and share an apartment as roommates.”

    And what is the problem with that? There’s actually unfulfilled demand for “roommate living”.

  • Nathanael

    Nothin’ wrong with naturists.

  • Nathanael

    “while they are still too young to know certain things”

    No such thing. I finally get where you’re coming from: you’re what I call an “ostrich conservative”, who believes that sticking one’s head in the sand helps.

    It doesn’t.

    Your average, healthy kid can learn about all kinds of things, and will have the reaction of “Oh. Some adults are weird, I’ll stay away from that.”

  • Joe R.

    “In the richest, most tony upper-class neighborhoods, with the best test scores, you are going to see the nastiest, most vicious, aggressive, evil, sociopathic child bullies in the schools.”

    I wasn’t aware of this but it actually makes sense. Those evil, sociopathic bullies later go on to become equally evil lawyers, corporate raiders, CEOs, etc. who all bully those under them to get their way. I guess when you have parents who push you to be better than everyone else, regardless of the costs, that’s the end result. I can also argue that the concept of unbridled capitalism is sociopathic at its core but that’s a long post all by itself which I’m too tired to write.

  • Joe R.

    Yep. My dad was born in 1934-a time when there were relatively few cars on the streets. My mom remembers the same thing. When her aunt came to visit by car it was like a big deal on the block. That’s how rare cars were back then. Nowadays even minor side streets have too much traffic for children to safely play.

  • Anonymous

    Nonsense.

  • Anonymous

    Not even a crumb on the scale . . .

  • Anonymous

    I admire how your family is thriving along with your commitment to public schools. We had mostly a very positive experience with SFUSD schools, stuck with them (buoyed by some terrific teachers and amazing families), and saw both our kids get accepted into, flourish within and graduate from UC. We were also car-free: Muni was our chauffeur and schoolbus. The kids had some trying times, but also developed excellent street smarts and great inner compasses. Looking back on what education our kids got in San Francisco, and especially for what price, we are only grateful.

  • shell

    Let’s not forget all of that TIME wasted on long, hellish commutes. Then you never even see you kids.

  • shell

    You live in Queens? Why not just take public transportation?

  • More on this subject it can be organised event in places like community rooms, theaters or elsewhere if it is cold or unsafe. Read this article:
    http://www.mecene.com.au/blog/urbanism-for-kids/

    I would like to be a guest post on your blog. Contact me via info@mecene.com.au

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