DC’s New Parents Aren’t Fleeing to the Burbs

Reading this sentence in a mainstream publication just validated everything I feel about the kind of parent I want to be: “It doesn’t mean millennials put parenthood second, but their definition of what makes a good parent is Mom and Dad being happy, and exposing their child to all the things that they have enjoyed.”

DC's central city playgrounds and libraries are getting more crowded. Photo: Matt McClain/##http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/district-dwellers-deliver-a-baby-boom/2013/10/20/f4b41e54-31dc-11e3-9c68-1cf643210300_story.html##Washington Post##

That’s what MaryLeigh Bliss, trend editor of New York-based marketing firm Ypulse told the Washington Post in an article about DC’s baby boom.

Post writer Carol Morello reports:

In the past three years, the number of children younger than 5 has grown by almost 20 percent, from 33,000 to 39,000, according to census figures. The number of babies is expected to soar as more millennials, who tend to marry and start families later than previous generations did, reach their early and mid-30s.

It’s encouraging to see the model of parenthood changing. And as Bliss said, these attitudes toward urban parenting aren’t about Mommy and Daddy wanting to party, and to hell with the kids. They — we — are raising kids in cities precisely because we believe the diversity of experiences and interactions make cities an enriching place to grow up.

Still, naysayers like Joel Kotkin, booster of all things suburban, maintain that cities are playgrounds of rich singles and hostile to the needs of families with children.

But the current baby boom in DC tells a different story. It also may signal the final demise of white flight. The ranks of white infants and toddlers grew by 34 percent in the District “even as white children younger than 5 declined by 3 percent nationwide.” Not only are whites coming back to central cities, they’re putting down roots.

How deep are these roots? It’s hard to say. While there are almost 20 percent more babies being born in DC now than three years ago, the number of children ages 5 to 13 rose just 7 percent, and the number of kids 14 and up actually fell. That means city parents are still giving up on urban living — and, perhaps more to the point, urban schools — by the time their kids hit high school.

Education has been the last frontier in retaining parents in cities. As we covered a few months ago, a recent study by the real estate company Trulia found that there was just one zip code in DC’s city limits where “backpacks” (5- to 9-year-old kids) outnumbered “strollers” (kids aged 0 to 4). Outside of the tony Chevy Chase neighborhood, everywhere in DC has more babies than bigger kids.

Maybe that’ll change as the babies of this boom grow up. There are signs that it’s changing already.

Evelyn Boyd Simmons bought her home in Logan Circle in 1998. “It was a time when the conventional wisdom was, you’ve got to leave when you have children, you don’t have a choice,” she told the Post. “There are a lot more kids in the city now. People are not hightailing it for the hills as they used to once they had kids.”

Despite the hurdle of education, there are more than enough advantages of city living to entice parents to forget the suburbs. One of them, according to many parents interviewed by the Post, is the option to live car-free. “Many of today’s new parents choose walking over driving and hate the thought of commuting to work,” Morello writes.

Father-of-two Eric Asche told the Post that he and his wife have resisted the temptations of the suburbs because he “can walk out my office door and be home in 10 minutes, so it’s much easier for me to participate in my sons’ life.”

“We love Metro, we love walking everywhere,” said Emily Scherer, who’s raising two kids lives in Shaw and says she doesn’t understand why other parents would leave for the suburbs. “I think it’s the idea of what the American Dream was. I would love my five acres and big French chateau, but I don’t want to drive to the grocery store, so it’s kind of a deal-breaker for me.“

  • Anonymous

    I saw a whole bunch of little kids and parents one weekend at the National Gallery for some thing, and I thought how great it would be to walk or bike or quick bus/metro to something like that….instead of some epic suburban schlep. I thought about how many more things you could do in the area with your day with your kid… instead of spending half of it driving and parking.

  • Anonymous

    We are hoping to have our first child in the next year. San Francisco does not have neighborhood schools due to a policy of trying to make all schools more socially equitable. I have already scoped out what I hope are 7 decent schools in a 1 mile radius from our apartment. We will apply in the lottery system for them. I can’t imagine having our children (and us) commuting hours each day to and from schools across town and will resist this quality of life killer. But I would rather move out of the city, if we can’t get admitted to any school where the children are getting truly educated. Improving our public schools by actually having our children attend them and being active parent volunteers will do a lot towards this. But one has to achieve a certain critical mass and school quality for this to work for families that have choices. I imagine DC has similar challenges.

  • davistrain

    Would some young parents who want to stay in the “big city” use the money they save on car expenses to send their children to private/parochial schools?

  • Anonymous

    My impression is that,parents of private school students in San Francisco currently drive their children to school at even higher rates than their public school counterparts. Private schools tend to cost $26-38k annually, so I doubt reduced car costs would go a long way toward the private tuition costs.

  • Chisel

    Not really accurate. SFUSD uses attendance areas that weigh heavily in deciding placement.

  • Anonymous

    My god daughter and her sister are part of tthe DC baby boom. Whether her family stay in the District depends on the quality of the public schools or the affordability of private education. Her parents bought their home next door to a family who were moving to Maryland because of the DC schools. The elementary schools have made strides but the middle and high schools have a long way to go. No school system spends more money per pupil and has less to show for it than the DC schools.

  • Greg Costikyan

    I grew up in NYC, and raised two kids in NYC, and am currently staying in NYC rather than moving (my preference) to SF, because I have an apartment in one of the best public school districts in NY (and SF public schools suck by comparison). Raising kids in the city is great; they have exposure to vastly more culture, and when they get older, can take public transit and get everywhere; suburban culture, with the need to get mom or dad to drive you anywhere, is stultifying in comparison. The problem is that few cities have decent educational systems; NY’s varies from horrendous to excellent but when you know how to navigate the system, it works. I’m astonished that more cities don’t realize that by improving their educational system, they can keep high-earning families around, and the net effect on their tax base will be hugely positive.

  • Remy Marathe

    “Heavily” isn’t really accurate, either. Being in the attendance area is the #4 out of 4 preferences. A lot of schools’ open spots fill up on the first three preferences, so being nearby doesn’t matter at all.

  • Anonymous

    SFUSD is anti- Walk-To-School. Its board members probably have never ridden a bicycle.

  • Adam L

    “No school system spends more money per pupil and has less to show for it than the DC schools.”

    Perhaps, but the statistics are a bit misleading. Beyond the naturally increased costs of operating an urban school system, until recently, ever decreasing enrollment in DC Public Schools has meant: 1. the District is paying to maintain too many schools (being corrected somewhat through two rounds of closures), and 2. the cost per student continually increases as fixed costs remained the same.

    Second, and more importantly, most cost per capita school surveys fail to take into account that the District has a unitary school system. These surveys often take the amount spent on K-12 education by each county, divide it by the number of students and come up with a ratio. This completely ignores the costs shouldered by the state government, but which are included in the District’s total K-12 education budget.

    Finally, the number of students with learning disabilities or special needs in the District is far higher than many suburban jurisdictions. And, given the historical problems with the education system, the District has been forced to spend millions on private education for these students. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, only that such costs skew the average amount of spending per student.

  • Sirinya Matute

    Writing in from Santa Monica, which is a moderately dense pedestrian-friendly grid city on the Pacific Ocean. We’re hoping to stay when we start a family. I never thought I’d say that because I long to live somewhere with more ethnic diversity. But Santa Monica has a progressive bike plan, a strong commitment to pedestrian infrastructure, Expo Rail (coming soon), a Boys and Girls club chapter and really, really good schools.

    I’m also pretty optimistic about a lot of the “gentrifying” neighborhoods in LA, neighborhoods that yuppies like myself are moving into. There are LAUSD schools now, near the neighborhood I grew up in in Koreatown, that I would have asked to attend instead of reverse commuting to magnet schools in the Valley. Yes, there are a lot of charter school options now, but the school district in LA has also opened additional “school choice” options — another gifted middle school magnet in Los Feliz (a post-hipster neighborhood in LA), lots of schools for advanced studies, and beyond. One elementary school in Silver Lake actually makes a case, on its website, to neighborhood parents to “choose” to attend their school. I think that very clear public statement speaks to a very clear intention to appeal to urban parents who might otherwise move away.

  • Anonymous

    Washington, DC doesn’t have a “state government”. Just saying…

  • Kenny Easwaran

    That’s the point – other school systems have a state government to cover certain costs, while DC covers all those costs itself, and so it looks like more money is being spent on the students if you look just at the local level.

  • Jack Jackson

    wait til the babies start 1st grade, and parents begin to think about DCPS vs Arlington, Fairfax or Montgomery

    It’s not even comparable

  • Anonymous

    I would agree with your main points, Greg, but with one caveat. Suburban living can make children’s independence easier, not harder, for parents to enable. That’s because in at least some suburbs the biking and walking is less challenging — fewer cars, intersections, etc. the current widespread practice of driving children to school, music lessons, sports, play dates, etc. is just that — current. When I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco I walked 2 miles to elementary and jr high school, biked 4 miles to high school, walked to my piano lesson, and biked or took the county bus to a tennis place on top of a big hill. Sure, my parents drove me places too,but nothing like today’s parental practices. My point is that suburban parents can relax and consciously choose to let their children navigate their environments. The city, by contrast, can be more hectic and challenging for children to travel through alone, and certainly more difficult to bike in.

  • Joe R.

    It sounds like you lived in one of the older suburbs where it was at least sometimes possible to walk or bike to get around. In a lot of suburbs built in the last 20 years, the distances between things are insane. The school might be 12 miles away, the shopping center 22 miles, etc. Sure, it’s possible to bike those distances, but most people won’t.


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