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The City: A Great Place to Raise Kids

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:

  • Social support – A couple of years ago, the Boston Globe Magazine named our working/middle class neighborhood the best in the metro area for kids. The main thing that sets it apart is social capital – it’s a place where news travels fast and the community really acts like a community. The kind of place people call “tight-knit.” Read this Dennis Lehane piece written in the immediate wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. That’s my neighborhood, my city he’s talking about.
  • Independence – My kids do not need to wait until they get a driver’s license at 16 to explore the world. They have the T, which they take to school in the morning and back home in the afternoon. They have good parks within walking distance in which to exercise and good corner stores stocked with candy to rot their teeth. They have friends on the block with whom they can play whenever they want – no appointment necessary – and plenty of structured activities, too.
  • Education – We’re lucky. We live within the walk zone of one of the best elementary/middle schools in the city and both of our kids now attend one of the city’s exam schools. Our educational experience in the Boston Public Schools has been almost uniformly positive. Not everyone in the city has the same experience and there are plenty of troubled schools in Boston. But if we’re going to (deservedly) give ink to the bad experiences, why not hold up the good ones as well?
  • Value – Affordable housing prices (relative to the Boston suburbs)? Check. Reasonable property taxes? Check. Access to the MBTA? High-quality city services? Check and check. What’s not to love?
  • Richness of experience – My kids have grown up a T ride or a short car trip away from some of the world’s greatest works of art. They’ve taken field trips across town to the places where the American revolution happened. They’ve seen ball games at Fenway Park. One of my sons took a semester of dance lessons (for free!) at the Boston Ballet. Their basketball and soccer teams have included kids with roots in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe, and they have met or know people of every class and station in life. They have grown up with a richness of daily experience that, to be perfectly honest, makes me jealous of them sometimes.

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.