[The American Conservative’s New Urbs project asked experts to respond to Benjamin Schwarz’s May/June 2016 cover story critiquing adult urban playgrounds. This is the second of two comments on “Cities Without Children.” You can find the first response, from Bradley Calvert, here.]
Are cities doomed to become temporary playgrounds for the young and unattached?
While many city planners cite Jane Jacobs as a primary influence, the neighborhoods they shape today fail to live up to her ideal. Jacobs espoused principles of diversity for living neighborhoods, including diversity in income, rental rates, and types of households. The neighborhoods that planners laud today look more like Richard Florida’s Vibrant Urban Neighborhoods than Jacobs’ living cities, as Benjamin Schwarz explained. As these neighborhoods tend to be playgrounds for young adults with high incomes and expensive rents, they lack the diversity in income and ages that Jacobs identified as crucial for creating safe neighborhoods and strong civic societies.
But where I depart from Schwarz is that public policy, not economic forces or renter preferences, is largely responsible for the lack of children in American cities. Specifically, education policy.
Jacobs’ diverse neighborhood was an ideal place for children to play and to assert their independence in a safe and lightly supervised environment. Urban neighborhoods functioned like small towns because residents and business owners had close ties and could depend on each other for help with childcare. But children are conspicuously absent from today’s VUNs.
Few craft cocktail bars and expensive shops–the markers of VUNs–operated in Jacobs’ diverse neighborhoods because such businesses didn’t serve the working- and middle-class residents. A casual observation of a neighborhood’s evolution to a VUN creates the impression that placeless millennials with high disposable incomes have crowded out families by driving up prices. However, the data doesn’t match this narrative.
On average, four-person households make nearly three times more income than one-person households. Of course, children come with many costs, especially for families that require childcare, but this statistic indicates that plenty of families with children can afford to spend at least as much on housing as singles who are purchasing housing for one.
Rather than being pushed out of cities by housing costs, families are pulled out by suburban amenities, in particular public schools that tend to be substantially higher in quality. Urban neighborhoods with good schools are actually retaining and attracting families. Data from the Furman Center shows that since 2000, New York City neighborhoods with the best public and private schools have seen 5 percentage-point increases in the share of households that include children.
However, even those urban neighborhoods that house significant numbers of children lack the sense of community that Jacobs describes. Starbucks has replaced the local diner, and designer shoe stores have replaced hardware stores. Fewer retailers provide the setting where neighbors linger over daily errands, developing the types of relationships that allow mothers to let their young children roam city streets under communal supervision.
While the loss to community is real, the changes in American retail have also come with social and economic benefits. Small neighborhood groceries, butchers, and fishmongers have gone out of business in part because as women have entered the workforce, few people have the time to devote to running errands that shopping at these types of retailers requires. Most people no longer have a close relationship with their grocer, but enabling mothers the time to work outside the home has undeniably been a boon to both civic society and economic growth.
A return to midcentury Jacobsian diversity may be unlikely, but education reform could encourage more families to live in center cities. The people who live in Vibrant Urban Neighborhoods are not a separate class of people who are driving wholesome family life out of American cities; rather many of them are future suburban dwellers who haven’t had kids yet.
Jacobs makes a persuasive case for the benefits of growing families staying in diverse, urban neighborhoods, both for providing children with a real-world education and for strengthening social capital for people of all ages. The data shows that parents locate their children near the best schools they can afford, meaning the key to keeping families of all income levels in cities is an education system that doesn’t provide huge incentives for families to move to the suburbs.
Education reform that makes urban living a reasonable choice for more families will not only improve schooling for the children who live in cities. It could also create an urban environment that facilitates stronger social capital for people of all ages.
Emily Washington is a policy research manager at the Mercatus Center and writer for Market Urbanism. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.