My latest piece is now online at the Institute for Family Studies. It’s a look at what it would take to make more family friendly cities. Here is an excerpt:
In January, Malaysia Goodson was killed when she fell down the stairs at New York’s 7th Avenue subway station while carrying a stroller with her one-year-old daughter in it. The baby girl survived but now faces life without her mother.
The 7th Avenue station is one of many in the city without elevators. Only about a quarter of New York City subway stations have elevators. This not only renders them inaccessible to many who are disabled, but it also makes them impossible or dangerous to traverse for families with strollers. The sight of someone carrying a child in a stroller up or down subway stairs is a regular occurrence.
Goodson’s death hit home for my wife and me because just two days earlier, we had gone through that very station with our own one-year-old son in a stroller. Having two of us to carry the stroller down the stairs made it a safer but hardly pleasant experience. When she is out with our son by herself, my wife tries to limit herself to only accessible stations, having to consult not just the map but the transit agency’s elevator status page before each trip, because, on average, every elevator breaks down once a week. For those who have to ride with young children daily, such as parents dropping their kids off at day care, it’s inevitable they will be confronted by non-functioning elevators at times.
Navigating city transit systems with a stroller is one of the many challenges that face families, especially those with young children, in the cities. While cities in many ways are great places for families, overall they present many obstacles to raising children, such that empirically, the number of children, particularly school-age children, has fallen significantly in major cities. The future of the city, as Atlantic writer Derek Thompson recently put it, is childless.
But is it fated to be that way?
Click through to read the whole thing.
I feel compelled to comment because we are raising four kids in the city. I grew up in an urban setting until I was 10 and then was exiled to the suburbs. I always intended to raise my family in the city if possible. Fortunately my wife is down with it. We bought in the city before we had kids. Two years ago we bought a bigger home, again in the city. We’re in the Midwest, so most of the central city is low income and low cost.
Pros: My commute is minimal, giving me more time with the kids. Our kids have always been in activities and classrooms with diverse populations – including socio-economic diversity which is becoming rare. Beautiful architecture and public spaces give us a connection with the past and future.
Museums, performance venues, parks, libraries are all close at hand. Extreme convenience matters most for things that are optional. People will commute long distances for school, work, even shopping *because you have to*. But no one *has to* go to museums. If you’re 40 minutes away, you’ll go a few times a year. We have 10 museums and over a dozen performance venues within 10 minutes, so our kids often get multiple cultural exposures per week.
Recommendation for cities: Raise awareness of this reality that people just don’t think about. People always consider their work commutes when buying a house. They should consider travel times to amenities. A little too far and you’ll never get around to it.
There are now good school options available here via charters, vouchers, and the “innovative” public schools. However, once you’ve found the right fit for each kid, and gotten through the lotteries, wait lists, etc. transportation becomes a nightmare. Most private and charter schools offer no transportation at all. Public schools will transport to a neighborhood school but not a distant open enrollment selection. If one school offers busing, you might not be able to use it if the child arrives home when you’re picking up her sibling.
Recommendation for cities: Work with ride share companies to lower the cost of these dispersed rides home from school. An adult can get an Uber from our daughter’s school to our house for $14. Private school transportation companies quote us $60 for the same ride. There’s got to be a way to shrink that gap.
Raising kids in the city by choice is still very unusual, so there is social pressure not to do it. If we share any difficulty we are having with the school district or finding baby sitters, etc., the facebook mob tells us we need to stop being selfish and move to the suburbs where we wouldn’t have that problem. If our family is ever the victim of a crime, it will be “my fault” for “not getting them out of there.” If we went to exurbia and were in a car accident, that would be “bad luck.” “Could happen to anyone.”
Recommendation for cities: quantify the risk to children from an auto-centric lifestyle vs. an urban setting where the greatest danger may be crime. If the risks are comparable, work on changing the narrative. More importantly, keep supporting employers who create jobs for disadvantaged youth. If crime keeps dropping, eventually perception will catch up with reality.
Aaron M. Renn says
Dave, thanks for sharing.
Carl Wohlt says
The ultimate standard for any “place” – downtown, neighborhood, sub-district, town, city, community – is the degree to which it’s “child friendly.”
That’s not an original thought on my part but it’s worth repeating as often as possible.
The urban politician says
This post cracks me up
So when the elitist urbanites decide that it’s finally hip to make our cities family friendly, a blog post appears. Prior to then, everybody who raised these issues was a crude, out of touch “suburbanite” who just “didn’t understand”. But now, finally, a few members of the newly engineered New Yorker crowd are sharing their ooey gooey little cute stories about caring toddlers up a subway staircase, and of course, alas the time has finally come to acknowledge their little inconveniences.
Jacob Mecklenborg says
Full ADA compliance in the existing system should be a priority ahead of system expansion (even though all expansion, by law, must be ADA compliant). Many, many people take cabs instead of public transportation because of accessibility issues. I discovered this the hard way when a bout of vertigo forced me off the bicycle and off city buses in favor of driving myself or taking cabs.
That sounds terrifying. Your vertigo was too bad to ride a bus yet you were DRIVING?
Jacob Mecklenborg says
All sorts of people drive while ill or injured. When you’re in severe discomfort you aren’t being “lazy” by driving somewhere.
People have been raising kids in urban environments for centuries, and if you go back 50 or 100 years, life was far more inconvenient and dangerous by many measures. If I’m not mistaken, I think most baby boomers grew up in cities. The US was mostly urbanized, but not yet suburbanize when they were young. They were packed into modest sized houses or apartments with their 3 or 6 siblings. With suburbanization, those who could afford to switched to an auto-centered lifestyle, and those who couldn’t afford to put up with the less-convenient urban child rearing. Most challenges of urban life have remained or gotten worse, while the “containerized” childhood in the suburbs has become the norm for mid and upper-income families.
Mom used to walk home carrying the baby and bags from the butcher, grocer, and baker. Now the car seat and groceries go straight from the Trader Joe’s parking garage to our garage-forward house. The suburban option is soooo convenient and comfortable, the urban option looks like torture.
We have a situation where dense cities have households with higher incomes who might like to stay into their child raising years, and those households might start requesting/demanding/*paying for* things that would make child rearing more convenient in urban neighborhoods. Its not that these issues didn’t exist in the 1990s, its just that now urban areas have more middle and high income households everywhere and a lot of high income households in a few places.
The experience in Europe and Asia is not encouraging. Advanced economies in both areas have seen high income people living in dense urban areas, substantial public expenditures on making all places family-friendly, and below-replacement level fertility. Their populations are slowly phasing out their own existence despite generous subsidies of child care, education, recreation, public transit, health care, etc., etc..
So we should be looking for some American exceptionalism here. If some share of mid and upper socio-economic status Americans choose an urban lifestyle, can the urban setting be made family-friendly enough that this population at least replaces itself if not grows? If we are talking about improvements in public goods, low income households that are still in urban neighborhoods should benefit as well.
Chris Barnett says
My sense, from the later boomers I know (including me) born about 1955-64: we definitely were more suburban, even if just “first ring” 50s suburban tracts. This coincides with central cities peaking in about 1950.
Born in 1963. 100% suburban raised. Heck, my parent’s early subdivision did not even have sidewalks or streetlights. Let alone walkable stores or services nearby.
P Burgos says
Dave, I think the policy you may be looking for to increase birth rates is mass conversion to Mormonism.
More seriously, careers and kids aren’t really all that compatible (it is the main reason moms earn less money than men). The culture of a work hard / play hard central urban area also nudges people away from living in the center of cities when people have kids.
Given that there are SEVEN BILLION consuming, polluting, human beings, why is increasing birth rates among the most avid consumers a policy goal? Even if a declining or stable population creates issues for an economic system based on the model of eternal growth.
A lot of these suggestions will literally have to be passed in congress. There are judges in LA that have virtually legalized the homeless/ urination problem. If you live in Texas and need a smaller town, look at Temple. Housing isn’t too expensive and it was just rated cheapest place to buy groceries.
I’m making my first visit to Zurich, and if you want a model of a family-friendly city… here it is. I know it has its issues (being really expensive is one of them), but it has in spades the sort of things we talk about for a family-friendly city:
1. A public transportation system that can get you anywhere at any time.
2. Ample sidewalks, trails and crosswalks that make it easy to walk or bike anywhere. Putting 1 and 2 together, cars and their ability to move at the highest speeds possible are not the first priority — they’re just part of a transportation network.
3. Schools that are at the physical center of communities, so no child has to walk more than 10-15 minutes to get to one. And when I say walk — I’ve had parents from elsewhere tell me how initially shocked they were that schools encourage you NOT to walk with your kindergartner to school, that they should go on their own.
4. Well-funded schools that are of high quality across the board.
5. The lack of a zoning system that inevitably forces houses in one area, retail in another, etc. The emphasis is on mixed-use, which again makes everything much more accessible.
6. A high level of safety.
I don’t want to make the city sound like paradise — I’ve only visited a week, so I’m no expert. But it’s certainly enough to think, you know, things can be done differently.
P Burgos says
Why would things be done any differently in the US? I don’t see any political coalition that has both the power and the desire to change much about urban development in the US. The upper middle class and wealthy are well served enough by the current system, so I don’t think it likely to see much changing.