Will Cities Hold on to Younger Residents as They Have Children?

Many American cities are proving to be more resilient than suburban areas thanks in part to the shifting preferences of today’s young people. But as USA Today reported in a talked-about article earlier this week, the cohort that has flocked to cities is now reaching a stage of life which, historically, has been more closely associated with suburbia.

Photo: ##http://gab.giggle.com/2011/06/city-mom/trrrrransportation-getting-around-nyc-with-2-kids-and-a-metrocard/##Giggle Gab##

The oldest “millennials” — a generation that is larger than the Baby Boomers and many degrees more urban — are turning 30 this year. Many will begin settling down and having children — and their priorities will inevitably change.

Smart cities are doing what they can to prevent these folks from moving “upward and outward” like the generations that came before, USA Today’s Haya El Nasser reports. According to the sources USA Today consulted, this transitioning generation will be looking for good schools and recreational opportunities, but they’ll still want strong transit and walkability — a key advantage of city life over the suburbs.

Places like Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma City are looking at ways to help young families stay. Denver been mapping “day care centers, preschools, grocery stores and jobs” to see how well-served they are by transit. Cities like Charlotte, Anaheim, and Dallas are looking at ways to provide larger, more family-friendly housing choices within smaller urban lots. The school reform movement and the push to improve the quality of public education is another major piece of the puzzle.

There’s a lot at stake for all the residents of these cities, El Nasser points out: “Hanging on to residents as they age, make more money and have kids is a plus for cities because it strengthens and stabilizes the tax base while creating an involved constituency.”

Richard Florida told El Nasser that he expects 60 or 70 percent of millennials to move to the suburbs when they start families, compared to about 95 percent of their predecessors.

37 thoughts on Will Cities Hold on to Younger Residents as They Have Children?

  1. We’ll probably move to Minneapolis from San Francisco because of cost/space issues but also because of family.

    We are going to do everything in our power to be car-lite (we are car-free right now) when we move.

  2. One way to play to this demographic’s greater desire for sustainability might be to appeal to them to just not start families in the first place. This might not be as much of an uphill battle as it would appear at first. For one thing, many millennials are saddled in student loan debt. For another, as a whole they probably won’t earn as much as previous generations. Faced with a choice of starting a family and watching every penny, versus living as couples but enjoying the amenities cities have to offer, I suspect a significant minority would choose the latter. We just need to let people know they can have happy, very fulfilled lives without procreating. And in the end it’ll be better for the planet.

    I’m saying this as one who practices what they preach. I’m single, never married unfortunately, but wouldn’t have had children even if I did get married. I felt any advantages would have been outweighed by the disadvantages. And I never would leave the city for any reason.

    Another approach is to show the many ways suburbs really aren’t “best for the children”, even if this is how they sell themselves. Children in urban areas where they can get around on their own earlier become independent sooner. And even if some urban schools may not match the achievement level of suburban schools, the streets are a great teacher. You learn so much more of practical value living in a city than you even could in a suburb. The ongoing stimulation breeds creativity. This is actually what attracts people to cities in the first place.

  3. The biggest barrier to keeping families in the city is incredibly simple: 

    Not enough multiroom apartments. 

    What little of that supply exists, gets taken up by young people living the roommate lifestyle. A two earner family of four cannot pay as much in rent as a 4 person group of roommates. 

    Every other issue can be addressed. The schools, the parks, all that can get resolved by the city and the parents working together once the parents are actually living in the city. But without the housing stock, and the affordable rents, forget it. 

  4. As it has always been, education is the key.  The higher up you go in grade level, the harder it seems to be for central-city schools to match the level of high standards that exists in schools in more affluent suburbs.  And if the only way for a child to get into a good school is to go through a battery of high-stakes tests, some parents will leave the city to avoid the stress.

  5. @ocschwar:disqus High rents are really a barrier to all groups, not just young people starting families. Cities used to build housing projects to solve this issue (I grew up in one), but they’ve been stigmatized and fallen out of favor. Regardless, I think we can build a lot more affordable housing stock in urban areas if we changed zoning laws and encouraged more businesses to offer telecommuting. Doing the latter would free up a lot of office space, which could then be repurposed into housing. Part of the reason we’re not increasing the supply of urban housing is because it would drive real estate prices down. Those currently owning real estate will lose, but everyone else will win. Real estate lobbyists unfortunately hold a lot of sway over legislators. Regardless, there’s still an urban real estate bubble if you compare current prices to CPI-corrected prices from, say, 25 years ago. Sooner or later the bubble will burst, and there will be less resistance to building new housing stock.

  6. This is not a transportation issue. Really, it’s all about the schools.  I was just visiting friends in Washington, DC where I met a woman who told me that she and her husband are selling their home in the District. They are moving to Bethesda, Maryland because of the schools.  Their 10-year old is in a great elementary school, but next year she transitions to middle school, and they all suck. A friend who lived in San Francisco was told by the school district that she should enroll her son in a school across town in a poor neighborhood so he could be part of a great social experiment.  Her response was for the family to up and move to Corte Madera.  And sorry @JoeR.:disqus, the lessons the streets teach, most parents don’t want their students to learn.

    Moving to the suburbs is what people do when they can’t afford to stay in the city and send their kids to private school

  7. @abb249055208c7af4d35568e422dfd63:disqus : ahem. High standards? I admit suburban schools are better – though that mainly comes down to resources, parental involvement, demographics, and funding – but they’re still crap. American children come out of even the best suburban schools with a poor quality of liberal education and very few useful skills. Even basics like critical reasoning and personal finance tend to be sorely lacking. The deficit has to be made up for in college, which explains a lot of the problem with student load debt.

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus : I gotta say, given the social problems that housing projects seem to attract, I’m not surprised they’re out of favor. What is wrong with infill anyway?  I doubt it would be a challenge to fill a 25 floor building anywhere in Manhattan or inner Brooklyn or Queens, and setting a city-wide height “minimum maximum” of six stories or so would probably do wonders to encourage smarter housing.

    I also am not sure I agree about the bubble bursting, at least not in the same sense. The bubble isn’t a speculatory bubble the way the suburban bubble was. Not to say there isn’t speculation, but people really want urban housing, and they’re willing to pay for it. The way to “burst” this one would be to do what we should do anyway: increase supply.

  8. when my youngest kid reaches school age i’ll probably move out to the burbs and trade the day care payment for the NJ Transit ticket

    NYC is OK and has good schools but little things like having your own washer and dryer are considered luxury here

  9. @ce548db5af27b21a99f4ec46f70f7d21:disqus Infill is just fine. I see lots of places where we could do that. As for the housing projects, as I recall they were working just fine when they had mostly working families. Our building started going downhill when they let in welfare families in the early 1970s. Besides my mother and sister having to deal with catcalls whenever they went out, you had the woman downstairs parading boyfriends in and out constantly, and we also got roaches from her apartment. Until then, none of us even knew what a roach looked like.

    If you compare historical housing prices to present ones, you’ll still see that prices are too high. The house I’m currently living in with my mother (dad died in 2006) was purchased in 1978 for $52K. If you correct this according to the CPI you come up with a figure of $225K, perhaps $250K tops. Houses like this are easily going for twice that. I know demand has something to do with it, but the hard fact is prices are still unaffordably high, even with today’s lower interest rates.

    @pchazz:disqus I wasn’t referring here to lessons a kid might learn on the streets in a bad inner city neighborhood. Rather, I’m referring to learning from the all the interesting neighborhoods and the myriad other intangible things life in the big city offers. The suburbs are just sterile wastelands of grass and trees and roads and cars with no street life. One suburb looks just like any other. The schools might be better just going by academic achievement, but that seldom correlates with real world success. A lot of our most creative, productive citizens got their start in cities, sometimes with just a grade school education. Schools and formal education are highly overrated if you ask me. Environment is so much more important.

  10. @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus : yeah, it’s the same throughout the region. My grandfather’s house in Edgewater was a similar story, except he bought it for (I want to say under) $20k or so in the early 1950s.  At $20k it should have sold for $172k in 2007, but sold for closer to $600k after he died.

    Regardless, there is definitely a supply squeeze, and there has been in a sense probably since the 1970s. Nobody wants to admit it though. Maybe it was even concealed in NYC by the availability of convenient-ish, gritty neighborhoods like Williamsburg and the LES until the early 2000s.

    Part of the “Texas miracle” is that housing is miraculously plentiful down there. (The other part might be that the job market at least stayed stable, and the kind of speculation seen in Arizona, Nevada, and Florida was avoided by sensible regulation.)

  11. 1980 the rates were almost 20%. even if you figure a 15% mortgage rate on a $52,000 house that is $7500 a year in interest costs for the first few years. $700 or so a month on a 1980 income

  12. @yahoo-BGNRXB6JCU7H5ESMJ76F64WMZM:disqus We were paying 8%. The mortgage payment was roughly $450 a month if I recall, and that included real estate taxes.

  13. “A friend who lived in San Francisco was told by the school district that she should enroll her son in a school across town in a poor neighborhood so he could be part of a great social experiment.”
    “the lessons the streets teach, most parents don’t want their students to learn.”

    Ah yes, it’s time once again for the windshield perspective of the (in this case, San Francisco) urban school district. It’s awfully easy to pick and choose anecdotes rather than actually care and read about the issues, isn’t it?

  14. “The deficit has to be made up for in college, which explains a lot of the problem with student load debt.”
    Wrong. Student debt is reaching critical levels because university fees have far outpaced inflation and because universities continue to enjoy a cozy relationship with banks. Student loan consolidators can pile fees upon fees and bankruptcy cannot erase debt obligations.

    Not to get away from the topic at hand, but this all figures into the complicated future of our economy. We’ve had waves and waves of foreclosure owing to bank overreach and now the wave of student-loan defaults have begun. The bright spot in that gloomy scenario is that it helps young people take a second look at staying in the city and doing more with less.

  15. “The deficit has to be made up for in college, which explains a lot of the problem with student load debt.”
    Wrong. Student debt is reaching critical levels because university fees have far outpaced inflation and because universities continue to enjoy a cozy relationship with banks. Student loan consolidators can pile fees upon fees and bankruptcy cannot erase debt obligations.

    Not to get away from the topic at hand, but this all figures into the complicated future of our economy. We’ve had waves and waves of foreclosure owing to bank overreach and now the wave of student-loan defaults have begun. The bright spot in that gloomy scenario is that it helps young people take a second look at staying in the city and doing more with less.

  16. This is becoming a big issue in SF, I see brave parents with sub 5 year olds every day and always think where they will be in 4 years, especially those who can’t afford private school, if you can afford private school (plus SF rents) in SF you will stay. There is a debate concerning who will step up first, will urban public schools get better or will brave parents choose to live in the city and MAKE the schools better by raising expectations and parent participation. For SF parents living near the ball park, GG park, the beach or presidio provides a lot of the recreation and activity, it’s up to the city to place good schools and transit in those areas. Before you raise kids in the city ask yourself this, are you comfortable riding city buses? Because if you’re not you’re really going to hate riding those same buses with a stroller and loud children, while sitting (or more likely standing) next to someone you wouldn’t trust to take out your trash.

  17. i remember the rates being around 8% in 2000.

    NYC has some of the best schools in the USA, but the districts are the suburban districts where you almost need a car. but the houses will run you some ridiculous price. i can buy a $250,000 town home now in a decent NJ town with decent schools and pay almost nothing because i have close to $200,000 in equity in my co-op now. 

    at some point you have to ask yourself, why stay in NYC? the air is dirty, exposure to the wrong kids is easier. the idiotic parking rules make it a PITA to own a car even if you take transit most of the time. some of the rules make you drive to work.

  18. @465e3c020e944cc091ce94c6ffbb5c7d:disqus : No, not wrong. I don’t very much disagree with the comments on student debt, but what part of “a lot of the problem” do you not understand? People are going to college to pick up skills, basic skills often, they could and should have learned earlier. It’s true that such demand for college is raising tuition and fees, and straining public subsidies for higher education, but the over-demand for college/university is fundamentally to blame.

  19. Cities have an uphill battle if they want to keep families with children.  Behold the DINK, dual income, no kids. who drive today’s urban planning decisions:

      “With no kids and need for less space overall and a strong desire for walk-(or bike)-ability to both work and daily essential services and amenities, DINKs have potential to influence future housing construction. Their priorities—and buying power—encourage small scale homes, closely centered near an already established retail/business area. This preference for a more close-in, clustered style of living has already made its stamp on American real estate. As pointed out in DINK Life’s recent article “DINKs Quickly Becoming the Power Couples of Real Estate,” the performance  of suburban property in this country during the recent recession shows that ‘as U.S. home values declined from 2008- 2011, areas located far from urban hubs have lost value most dramatically. Areas close-in, however, have either held their value or increased it.'”


  20. I think a big reason Boston is suddenly aggressively trying to change their school assignment system is because they’re suddenly getting heat from young, upwardly mobile, parents who are threatening to leave if they can’t send their kids to neighborhood schools.  Plus, they recently had a huge spike in enrollment the past year (something like 300 unexpected new kindergartners – all trying to get into the same elite schools – mostly in the west zone – which is where all the yuppie parents live).  change is afoot.

  21. Raising 3 kids in a North Beach flat of 1025 sq.ft., I can tell you it ain’t easy being a city family. What our kids get in terms of the City’s cultural exposure (opera, ballet, museums, public defecation), they surely miss out when it comes to the experiencing the pleasures of the suburbs (greenery, space to be on your own, a big carbon footprint).

    There is no easy solution.

  22. Anecdotally, the number 1 reason I hear for people deciding to move to the suburbs is the schools. 
    There are important secondary factors, some of them probably only indirectly considered, like the relative prices of suburban vs. urban housing and the transportation infrastructure which make suburban living easier.  (Let’s face it, it is easier to get in your car and drive to work than to ride the subway.)
    But a better public school system would go a long way toward retaining families who have the option to move.

  23. its not the schools per se, but the fact that your zoned school is only for kids in your area.   if your kids are in a good school you don’t have to worry about bussing from outside the district to bring down the standards.

  24. J_12, I would argue that commuting by car is only easier if you live in a lower population. If you’re in a populous area with a lot of congestion, car commuting can be a nightmare. I’d much rather spend 45 minutes on the subway as I currently do than in a car fighting traffic into Manhattan every day. 

  25. I think school is the major and fundamental issue there. Not the only issue, as some commentators pointed, but the most relevant one (as least for parents that are above the welfare threshold and that intend to be actively involved in giving their children the best education in their metro area).

    Usually, a person or a household who is fond on the inner lifestyle can be convinced to put up with certain short or even medium term inconveniences such as a transit system that will not be world-class for at least another 30 years, some boarded up buildings whose renovation with take a decade, maybe even a bit of unwanted neighbors on welfare or drugs or both that gentrification will take a while to displace. It could be all part of a trade-off for certain attractive factors of inner city life.

    However, hardly any responsible and engaged parent is willing to bet the future of his/her child some “let’s improve this place together” experiment. The stakes are much higher, and a crappy basic education might damage chances of getting into good colleges later. Moreover, for obvious reasons, children are naturally more vulnerable for inner city perils like beggars on the home-school walking route, or being badly influenced by other children whose families are completely dysfunctional, lest they date some neighborhood gang member’s child at age 13 and starts patronizing a stash flat. 
    Still, in any case, education is the elephant in the room. It is also a very hard issue to solve, much more than transit or quality of sidewalks or even retail/neighborhood improvement through gentrification (for a middle class perspective, that is). Education cannot work well without parental involvement and engagement. A high proportion of kids that are dysfunctional from having parents that “couldn’t care less” will just kill virtually any chance of a public school to succeed, poisoning the learning environment. Many inner city school are most on the business of warehousing bored kids than educating them, and children are extremely sensitive to peer stimulus (or lack thereof). 

    Being more homogeneous (in terms of income and home ownership, which indirectly excludes very dysfunctional households whose adults couldn’t afford to live there and their children), suburban school districts usually start with some advantages in having a less problematic student body (notice well: at any moment I’m talking about race, national origin, religion or similar factors) that is easy to engage with a more economically homogeneous economic base that can consent to higher taxation knowing they are paying more property taxes but so are most of their neighbors in exchange for good schools.

    I really don’t know what, short of some widespread educational funding reform coupled with ample school choice, could be ever done to address those issues. Parents are not willing to be part of “social experiments”, and I’d call a parent on my income-age cohort irresponsible if he/she decides to enroll his/her young kid in a more problematic school just so that the kid is ‘exposed’ to a more problematic reality. I’d rather insulate my child from the harsh life some other people have to deal with at least until late teenage years (and never compromising their education so that me and my child can be the “role models” inner city dysfunctional kids desperately need to succeed) – I do charity and mentoring on the church context already. 

  26. @andrelot:disqus You hit the nail on the head as far as the reason why many inner city schools don’t function. Ironically, in a place like NYC you have a paradox where the good schools with high parental involvement are located in areas where many parents with children simply can’t afford to live, while the affordable areas are often packed with kids from families who couldn’t care less. For a while (in the 1960s) we thought the answer to this was to bus the inner city kids to better schools. Of course, this didn’t sit well with parents who moved to neighborhoods with good schools, only to learn their kids would be bused to crappy schools. And this social experiment didn’t work anyway. No matter how good the school, children generally won’t learn if they come from a dysfunctional family. Unfortunately it’s hard to change the poor attitudes of some families towards education which were formed over generations.

    I don’t really have an easy answers to this. Gentrification eventually solves the school problem, but at the same time it results in housing becoming unaffordable. Maybe the answer is to flood inner city neighborhoods with enough decent, affordable housing to attract lots of working class families from around the country who want to live in the city. The schools will have a much higher ratio of parents who care, and as such will be forced to improve in short order thanks to parental pressure. And you might even help the inner city kids with dysfunctional families in the process. When 75% of their classmates take school seriously, the peer pressure might be enough to turn things around for them, despite their families. There would also be a lot of parental peer pressure on the parents in the dysfunctional families if their kids started making life miserable for all the other kids.

  27. I also forget to add that the situation I just described is pretty much analogous to what existed in the area where I grew up. The local schools served a lot of kids from the housing projects, and also some others. You had a percentage of kids from dysfunctional families who caused trouble. However, there were enough with parents who cared so that the schools gave a good education to anyone who wanted it. Now if the percentages were reversed that might not have been so. That’s really the issue here-schools need to have a critical mass of students whose parents are serious about education. Maybe for the sake of everyone, it might be better if the inner city dysfunctional families were dispersed throughout the city instead of concentrated in a few neighborhoods. Yes, that’s social engineering, but so is warehousing people in neighborhoods where they have little hope of ever doing better than their parents.

  28. andrelot – I think you are “falling for the stereotype”.

    Several San Francisco schools have gone from poor quality to being among the most sought after schools in the city, simply because multiple families decided to lift the schools up with their own hard work. Google “Miraloma Elementary” for one example.

    We recently moved from San Francisco to Healdsburg. When we discuss this, people in Healdsburg almost all say “This must be so much better for your son”, while my wife and I pretty much agree he has suffered from the move. We used to live on a street with dozens of children, now we live on a street with 3 other sub 10 year old children – the more density you have, the more of each population you have. In Noe Valley we did not have to plan play dates, anytime we noticed our son getting a bit restless we could just ask him if he wanted to go to the park and without fail there would be multiple children there for him to play with. In Healdsburg, there are several excellent parks/playgrounds and they are almost always *empty*. Restless children go out to the backyard. Dogs can roam in their backyards too, so there is no social interaction for him at dog parks either (this also sucks for the dog).

    Or if we needed to get some toothpaste, we could use it as an excuse to take him for a walk, half the time we would return home without the toothpaste having been distracted by toy stores, getting a snack, conversations with someone we knew, and stopping in the parklet to paint. Maybe we would ride the MUNI train just because. Instead, if only one of us is home, and we need something urgently, our son has to endure a ride in the car seat where he sees things out the window he is not able to touch or stop to look at. We never get distracted and do something interesting walking from the parking lot to the door of Safeway.

    A music class is miles away in Windsor, not 8 blocks away. And it’s only on Fridays, not every day because the student population is smaller. It is for children from 2-6 years old, whereas in San Francisco there were classes with narrower age ranges and the material could be better focused. We used to go to the zoo a couple of times a month. We gave up our membership. Ditto Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium. No spur of the moment BART rides to the airport to go watch planes.

    These are the “street” benefits of a city.

    Selecting a pre-school was much simpler, in large part because there were few choices.

    The primary upside from a school perspective will be certainty – if we want to go to Healdsburg Elementary, we get to. Period. If we don’t like that school, a different school will be miles away with no public transportation even when he is old enough to take it on his own.

    There are a lot of upsides as well, no doubt or we would not have made the move. But it was not a move we made because it was a slam dunk benefit for our son.

  29. i don’t know about SF, but in NYC and the burbs a lot of things like music class are in after school activities. its why people pay such high taxes here. NYC public schools you have to pay for the after school, at least in my school.

  30. Murphstahoe, reading of your move from SF to Healdsburg and the loss of casual adventures, my heart kind of broke.  My family made a similar move back in 1970.  At first, I missed the city, but life on the edge of woods came to be a blast.  I spent so much time in them, watching animals, making forts, going hiking, riding my bike.  At 6 and 8 my brother and I played outdoors all the time.  One day, a herd of horses got loose, explored the suburb and thundered down our long driveway.  By the time I was ten I was going on bikerides and taking the county bus to tennis lessons 6 miles away,  and walking to my piano lesson 2 miles from my house.  We walked 2 miles to school, sometimes crashing through the woods on self-made short-cuts, and mostly loved it. My brother and I and some friends who had to walk a mile to our house somehow managed it.  We built bike ramps and jumped our stingrays and got hurt and hid it from our parents.  In high school I rode 4 miles to school.  Your toddler may have only the yard to play in now, but he may find a very inviting natural world in and beyond Healdsburg.  Maybe you can start him out by taking him for bike rides with you?  I wish you and your family well.

  31. As to whether cities will hold onto urban-loving, middle-class families with children: it depends almost entirely on the quality of the public schools, and almost nothing else.  All other amenities cannot substitute for a poor education.  Diversity is a plus, but it is also a sham if little learning can get done in dysfunctional classrooms.  Families unable to send children to private schools or do home schooling will be reluctant to leave.  But leave they will.

  32. Yes, quite.  I sometimes shop around for 3-bedroom apartments in San Francisco, and there are basically not any.  If you do find one, they tend to be the kind where the “living room” is the size of a doormat and also contains the dining room and the kitchen besides.  Also typically you find the 3BR/2BA variety, because they have been remodeled for the roommate market that you mentioned.  These generally have stupefying prices (> $5500/month).

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