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Are we creating family-friendly cities? If not, shouldn't we be?

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 15, 2014 in Green Enterprise, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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  New York City (by: Peter Dutton/Joe Schlabotnik, creative commons)

As much as anyone, I have touted changing demographics in the US that show the growth of childless households as a portion of overall population.  Given that families with kids are the traditional market for sprawling suburban subdivisions, this trend is seen by many, including yours truly, as helpful to our need to establish more compact development patterns that conserve land, reduce rates of driving and global warming emissions, and strengthen walkability.

Indeed, real estate analysts believe that, while there will be a continuing demand for homes with larger suburban lots, that portion of future demand can be met by current supply.  The growth in the housing market will be for small-lot and multifamily housing, for which there is now a shortage compared to future demand projections. 

So far, so good.  But is there a fly in the ointment?  The portion of families with kids may be smaller than in the past, but it is not insignificant.  In our rush to promote higher-density urbanism, are we inadvertently creating child-free zones that are inhospitable to families with kids?  And, if so, are we diminishing part of the cultural diversity that makes great cities?

new apartment tower, San Francisco (by: Sam Breach, creative commons)Aaron Renn, in an article published last week on his popular blog The Urbanophile, is troubled by the trend.  He believes that many inner cities essentially lost the family market some time ago and now appeal mostly to a growing, but nonetheless limited, demographic of “singles, gays, and empty-nesters.”  Aaron writes that, of the 61 municipalities in 2010 that had 300,000 or more people, urbanist exemplar San Francisco ranked “dead last” in percentage of children under 18 at 13.4 percent. “The bottom ten is heavily populated by an urbanist who’s who,” he continues, “including Seattle, Washington, Boston, Portland, and Minneapolis.”

Here’s a chart of the bottom-rankers, their population of children, and the share of children in each city’s overall population:

Rank

Municipality

2010

1

San Francisco city, CA

107,524 (13.4%)

2

Seattle city, WA

93,513 (15.4%)

3

Pittsburgh city, PA

49,799 (16.3%)

4

Washington city, DC

100,815 (16.8%)

5

Boston city, MA

103,710 (16.8%)

6

Urban Honolulu CDP, HI

58,727 (17.4%)

7

Miami city, FL

73,446 (18.4%)

8

Portland city, OR

111,523 (19.1%)

9

Atlanta city, GA

81,410 (19.4%)

10

Minneapolis city, MN

77,204 (20.2%)

The national share of children in the US population (as of late 2012) is 24 percent, down two points from 1990, and expected to decline by another point by 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group in Washington that studies global and U.S. trends.  Roughly a quarter of the population remains a statistically important segment, and a particularly important one given that kids represent our society’s future.

As it happens, Aaron isn’t the only one who has been thinking about the implications.  In the revitalization chapter of my book People Habitat, I discussed a decline in kids in Washington, DC, where I live, even as the population as a whole has been growing (finally, after decades of decline).  Busboys & Poets, Washington DC (by: stab at sleep, creative commons)According to Jonathan O’Connell in the Washington Post, a census analysis published in 2011 showed that almost all of the city’s population increase since 2000 can be accounted for by an increase in residents between 20 and 35 years old.  The number of children younger than 15 actually dropped by a fifth.

What happens when these 20- to 35-year-olds outgrow their one-bedroom condos?  Is it good for the city to lose them to the suburbs? 

In his article, Aaron takes the question a step further.  What if the overwhelming majority of kids left in the city are from families who have no choices about where to live, and are dependent on government subsidy for their well-being?  Aaron writes:

“My impression is that a large percentage of the urban stories [in today’s urbanist media] that are about children involve hand-wringing over the need for social service spending. Notwithstanding the real need for social services, a life of public housing, food stamps, and Medicaid is not aspirational. The fact that so many children in the city are in fact those whose parents are too poor to get out and who need extensive public support just to survive is not something to be celebrated.

“If we expect cities to be part of the answer to the problem of climate change, the financial unsustainability of sprawl, or anything else, then it has to be a place where children can be raised to thrive in the world . . . This doesn’t mean necessarily junking the urbanist agenda, but it does mean building a bigger tent and not overly obsessing the needs of niche market segments.”

Intuitively, I agree.

A big part of the answer, of course, lies with improving the unfortunate state of urban education in the US.  My very imperfect sense is that some school systems, including Washington’s, are indeed making progress, but at a snail’s pace.  I wish I were qualified to make suggestions for better city schools, because there are environmental consequences when perceptions about public schools send conscientious parents out of the city.

  New York City (by: Elton Lin, creative commons)

But perhaps some answers lie in the character of the built environment, too.  Should we diversify our urban housing stock to include larger as well as smaller homes, to include playgrounds as well as trendy espresso bars?  What about more kid-friendly restaurants?

We definitely should include more parks and other green space concurrent with dense development; while highly urban districts are unlikely to include large private yards, we should take advantage of vacant lots and other opportunities to integrate more shared green space into dense residential neighborhoods.  This brings benefits in addition to accommodating families, such as absorption of stormwater and reducing the impact of urban heat islands.  As I implied in my last post, I think smart growth and urbanist advocates sometimes underestimate the power of nature to soothe some of the harder edges of city living. 

These things would be a start.  What ideas do readers have for cultivating more kids in the city?  I know that some parents love cities so much that they and their kids will stay, even if they have options and even if they have to put up with some urban hassles.  But some of these statistics suggest that, at present, there may not be enough of them.  If we’re as committed to diversity as we like to say, shouldn’t that include children?

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. Kaid’s new book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, available from booksellers nationwide.

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Comments

Darin GivensJan 15 2014 09:43 AM

This is an issue that's near and dear to me but I've been at a loss when it comes to how to be ab advocate for improvements.

I live with my wife and our school-aged kid in a historic building in the center of Downtown Atlanta and we are one of only a handful of families that I know of living in the cluster of apartments and condos around us.

Many kids live in a low-rise apartment development on the northern fringe of Downtown near our district elementary school, but it's an odd area. It's disconnected from train stations and stores and it has it's own gated playgrounds -- the kind of insular community that could exist easily in sprawl-burbs. Apart from being in walkable distance to school (which is great), it doesn't interact with the city well.

And in essence, much of the built environment here doesn't interact with families well. We moved Downtown from a neighborhood in Midtown that had more children mainly because we share a single car and end up walking and taking transit for many trips -- that's easier to do Downtown.

Where we lived before there were lots of kids and parks with playgrounds and a library; but there wasn't a train station nearby, everybody drove, the sidewalks were in disrepair and the main road (Ponce de Leon Avenue) was unsafe to cross even with pedestrian right of way. It wasn't a great place to be walking around with a kid.

I'd like to see the Atlanta neighborhoods with families have safer pedestrian infrastructure, but I know those places tend to be more spread out with lower density streets and no new developments to drive improvements, so it's a challenge.

And I'd like to see the areas with new high rises in the city, ones that have train stations and good sidewalks. become more family friendly, with affordable 2 & 3 bedroom units and small public parks with playgrounds.

Laurence AurbachJan 15 2014 05:58 PM

Take a look at Shane Phillips' excellent article in Planetizen that shows the number of families with children increased in DC, by about 2.5% since 2007. Many other cities had similar increases in families with children.

http://www.planetizen.com/node/66566

Why then is the percentage of children shrinking overall? Because parents are having fewer kids and families are smaller than they used to be.

Adam DonatonJan 15 2014 07:09 PM

I live in midtown/downtown Sacramento and plan on having kids in the next year or so. It is a great place to live; very walkable, ample parks, mature trees, etc.

My biggest concern (besides public schools being rated lower than the surrounding suburban schools) for raising children in this fast-moving vehicle traffic through the street grids. There are not enough stop signs, traffic lights, well-marked bike lanes or speed bumps in the purely residential parts of midtown/downtown

I have witnessed the few children that are in midtown standing on a corner waiting for a school bus, and cars just wiz by. There is a park with a playground and the adjacent intersection has only a one-way stop sign. Cars go by, literally feet away from the children, at 35 mph. I could go on.

In summary, fast moving cars and free- roaming children (or any person, for that matter) don't mix. Slow down the cars, drastically, in the cities and make 'complete streets. Children being free from the constant danger of being killed by cars would be a big step in making the cities more welcoming to families with children.

Scott RanvilleJan 16 2014 09:11 AM

Love the topic ... I think that this space is too small to go into details, but our company has a passion and focus for making our cities better designed for people of all ages, with a special emphasis on kids and seniors.

I would be interested in a deeper discussion on this topic.

One of our first steps for promoting family friendly cities was to create a Family Friendly City Scorecard to help quantify a city's state in 12 key areas. (http://www.humanlifeproject.com/ScorecardOverview.htm)

A quick thought on housing. In Denver there is a development real close to downtown. Their 1 and 2 bedroom units rented out quickly. The family sized 3 bedroom units took longer to rent out, but have been their most stable units with the families staying there a long time. For example to promote families in cities, what about every 5 floors, as an example, being a dedicated "family" floor. This floor of the high rise would have some of the space on the floor dedicated to a common play area for the kids that live on that floor. This would allow for much needed play space for the kids that is close to the parents so that the young kids can "get out" (a little) but still be in a private, safe place. Obviously, this would reduce the number of units and the developer's net profits. But, I would think that the developer will still have a profit, just not as large of one.

We have lots of more ideas, but not really the space to go into them here.

JillJan 16 2014 11:46 AM

I am very surprised Portland is scored so low. This is a potential place for me to move with my 3 year old. The short time I visited Portland, it seemed like a great neighborhood level small city, and there were a lot of things to do with children.

Seriously the schools issue is a major concern with getting families to choose the cities over suburbs. No parent wants to mess their kids educational opportunity.

Barbara SamuelsJan 16 2014 11:47 AM

Very happy to see the key issue addressed. We have to be intentional about creating family-friendly cities. Both market driven and affordable rental housing development is heavily imbalanced toward one-bedroom (and some 2-BR) housing units, with little effort to build family sized units. This is not just an issue in hot market cities, but also in cities like Baltimore, where I live/work, and where the focus of both government and sustainability advocates is on attracting young singles and empty nesters. No surprise then that the families with kids who remain are those who are poor and have few options. Unless or until we do a better job at building family-friendly cities, don't we have a moral/ethical obligation to give poor families the option to move to other places in their region that offer a good environment for kids? Just because a child is poor, shouldn't mean s/he should have to suffer the double jeopardy of growing up in a poor and neglected neighborhood.

JillJan 16 2014 01:38 PM

I agree with Barbara on that point as well. The market trends rarely consider creating family sized homes in the downtown, and the idea is poo-poo'ed even in planning offices, like "why would a family want to live "THERE". If a unit is large enough to accomodate a family lifestyle, affordable, and child-geared amenities are available, families from the younger generations WILL COME. Some just needs to build something that would actually work and not be prohibitively expensive.

Payton ChungJan 16 2014 04:00 PM

How about this bargain? More family-sized flats and townhouses in the new residential neighborhoods downtown... but only if there are more apartments and ADUs in the neighborhoods and suburbs.

What I suspect is happening is that the demand for smaller housing units is so large and undersupplied that it's overwhelming downtown housing production. Plus, given the oversupply of larger housing units throughout metro areas, there's no market incentive to add more -- especially not in high-cost downtown locations.

Comments are closed for this post.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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