There’s been renewed discussion lately (see Kaid Benfield here) about the notion of the “childless city” – the idea that, despite the success many cities are having in attracting new residents to dense urban areas, those hip young urbanites can be expected to bolt for the suburbs the minute a pregnancy test comes back positive.
The numbers don’t lie. As Aaron Renn points out, the very cities that are seen as harbingers of the urban renaissance are precisely those with the fewest kids.
To be sure, there are challenges to making cities, especially high-density areas of cities, truly family-friendly – education chief among them. But the hand-wringing I hear about this issue in urbanist circles often strikes me as unnecessarily defensive; a tacit acknowledgment that the dominant societal view that our current cities are no place to raise kids has some validity after all.
As someone who has lived for 14 years in the city of Boston and is in the process of raising two kids here (both of whom have attended the Boston Public Schools since kindergarten), this drives me a little nuts. Often, when my wife and I tell people of our own socioeconomic and political ilk where we live, we are met with looks of confusion or, worse, misplaced admiration, as though we somehow deserve a medal for settling in such a place.
But here’s the thing: I choose to live and raise kids in my part of the city not out of some altruistic motive, not some desire to “walk the talk,” but out of pure, unabashed self-interest.
What’s so awesome about raising a family in the city? Let’s tally up what our family has gotten from the experience:
There have, of course, been what Benfield calls “urban hassles” and worse. We have had shots fired on our block (once, as a result of a road rage incident that spilled over onto our street). The T doesn’t always run well or on time. There are frequent scrambles for scarce resources: who gets to send their kids to the best school, tutoring program, or summer camp. You need to have sharp elbows, sometimes, to get by.
In addition, our middle class neighborhood, filled with cops, firefighters, teachers and union workers, living in a mix of single-family and multi-family homes, is increasingly rare in a society that is increasingly stratified into separate realities for rich and poor.
So it’s not all fun and games, but our family has gotten far more out of living in an urban neighborhood than we’ve put in. We are also far from alone – we know of many families with choices that have settled here and stayed here and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Clearly, those of us who see cities as part of the solution to the challenges of economic and environmental sustainability have a responsibility to make room in them for families. And there is plenty of work to be done to make that possible. But if advocates of walkable and urban neighborhoods don’t articulate the very real benefits of raising kids in an urban environment, who will?
Raising our kids in the city is one of the best choices my wife and I ever made. Perhaps, if those of us who care about and have built our families in cities were to tell our stories, we’d have a little more company.