America’s major cities are turning into playgrounds for childless professionals. It shouldn’t have to be this way.
I didn’t lead a life of any particular hardship growing up, but as a kid in New York in the 1980s, I did have to do without certain things that many of today’s middle-class parents deem essential — a yard, for example — and my dad tells me he and other neighborhood parents had to hover around the sandbox to swiftly scoop up any crack pipes or other drug paraphernalia we might accidentally unearth.
I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world. Most people I know grew up in one suburb or another, and their childhoods always sound awfully boring to me. It’s of course a ridiculous cliché to note that there are a lot of interesting things to do in New York City, but it’s as true for children as it is for adults.
As a little kid, my favorite place was a small museum maintained by the Forbes family that featured, among other things, Malcolm Forbes’ extensive collection of antique children’s toys. My grandma liked to take me uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the suits of armor, and my grandpa took me to the USS Intrepid and told me war stories. As an older kid, I could walk — by myself — to grab a slice or see a movie or visit a friend. I got scammed by chess hustlers in Washington Square and later learned to have fun watching tourists get scammed by chess hustlers. I even learned some chess!
Now the father of a 4-year-old son, I live in Washington, DC, a city that is, mercifully, marginally more affordable than New York, and I wouldn’t want to raise a family any place other than the city.
But unfortunately, families are disappearing from American cities even as city living in general has become fashionable again for those who can afford it.
Jed Kolko, a housing and labor market economist with Indeed.com, calculates that in the 21st century the number of childless college graduates (predominantly white) living in high-density urban areas has soared by over 20 percent while the number of families with children has shrunk. That’s in part a reflection of an overall fall in the number of people being born — all types of communities have fewer kids today than they did a decade or two ago.
But it’s also a fundamental economic conundrum. Children cost money. And they take up space. And urban space has become much more expensive — repelling growing families. This suits the proclivities of smug suburbanites just fine, but as someone who grew up in a big city in the 1980s and 1990s when city living was both less fashionable and more affordable, it seems like a tragedy to me.
Cities, at the end of the day, are terrific places to raise kids — as the working class families of color now often being forced out of newly hot urban areas have known for generations. But too many Americans instinctively reject the idea, too many others can’t afford it, and the former all too often prevent us from taking the latter’s problems seriously.
City life obviously isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. But lots of people like it, and nothing about parenthood fundamentally changes that calculation — except that in much of the country it’s become financially out of reach. Here’s why I do it.
Driving is dangerous. In the city, we do it less.
Apologies for starting on a morbid note, but in a practical sense, by far the leading cause of the death for young people in America is car wrecks. That’s true even though today’s cars are safer than ever, today’s child safety seats are better than ever, and awareness of proper automobile safety is higher than ever. On a per-mile basis, there’s nothing particularly unsafe about American roads. But according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control data, among children younger than 15, traffic-related fatalities were among the top causes of death.
Driving is just inherently dangerous. Cars are really heavy, they move very fast, there are tons of people on the road who may or may not be impaired in various ways, and Americans on average tend to drive a lot.
Every parent I know pays a lot of attention to their children’s safety on a micro level.
But relatively few think about the macro context for their choices or the fact that every additional mile of car travel built into a daily or weekly routine involves meaningful risks to your family’s safety. Of course, cars are also very useful tools — I own one and even drive it some — but building a life where car trips are generally brief and relatively rare compared to walking and using public transit has some major benefits. And that’s especially true with children.
Taking kids out without driving is fun
Children’s curiosity is both insatiable and delightful. My son likes to stop and gawk at different buildings, pets, stores, and pieces of construction equipment. He asks me about the electric scooters grownups use, points out unusual vehicles that he’s spotted and generally engages with the world around him. Sometimes we race for a block.
In a car, that’s really hard. The landscape whizzes by, and for safety reasons, he needs to be in the back seat, and, at the urging of our pediatrician and the US Department of Transportation, even kept facing backward for as long as possible. Modern child automobile safety technology has been an enormous public health triumph, but it comes at the cost of significant physical separation that makes it much more difficult to actually interact with your children. Driving the car, I need to keep my eyes on the road and distraction to a minimum so we don’t all crash and die.
But on foot, on the bus, or on the Metro, we can connect. Strolling around the neighborhood, we can stop and watch a construction crew at work, speculate about where a fire engine is heading, say hi to various dogs, peer into shop windows or do whatever else we want. Freedom is a bit more restricted on transit, but I’m still able to fully engage with him — sitting adjacent to him, talking face-to-face, with no distracting need to pilot the vehicle.
Then there’s the question of the commute time itself. In the city, you generally get less space, but you get back to your home faster — alleviating some of the enormous financial and psychological stress that long commutes impose on young families.
The shorter commute is especially nice because when you’ve got long, weekend afternoons to kill or just want to head out of a clean house in the morning before the kid makes a whole new mess, the journey can be just as much a part of the activity as the destination. A walk up to Target to buy groceries and a new coloring book isn’t just an errand, it’s an adventure where you can easily stop along the way to pet a dog, check out a street musician, and practice matching car brand names to logos. And there are lots of adventures to be had in the city.
Cities are full of stuff to do
As a callow youth, I spent a frightening amount of my daytime hours during the weekends sleeping off hangovers and vaguely trying to muster the willpower to do laundry. This kind of thing you can do just as well in the suburbs, though the city is of course better for getting drunk.
But with a kid, you sort of have to get up and entertain your spawn before they get bored and inflict Octonauts or PJ Masks on the adults. The cool thing about cities is they are full of things to do. One recent weekend when my wife was out of town, my son and I went with various groups of friends to the National Building Museum, a WNBA game, and a brunch-hour children’s musical performance at a hipster cider distillery (don’t ask).
If the weather had been better, we’d have hit up the National Zoo as well. Kids love the Museum of Natural History and the Air & Space Museum, but even the Museum of American History has really cool programming for children. The Hirshhorn Museum, focused on modern art, has a storytime for children as well as an outdoor sculpture garden.
DC parents are particularly blessed to enjoy so many free museums, but the general principle that urban cores excel in cultural amenities holds true all around the country.
This is obvious to anyone who has ever planned a visit anywhere — you generally want to stay downtown because that’s where the stuff is. People tune that out in their ordinary lives because as adults we generally settle into a rhythm of ignoring cultural amenities until we become tourists.
But kids are less jaded than adults and, like permanent tourists, are both easily bored and very accepting of repetition so having a rich range of things to do easily at hand is miraculous. Now, you may ask yourself, given the typical little kid’s pedantic level of knowledge of dinosaurs, is it really necessary to expose your kid to an above-average quantity of information on this subject? And the answer is, well, no. But it is good for kids to learn things. And failing that, you can always head over to the jungle gym.
Parks are better than lawns
Growing up in Manhattan, we did not have a backyard, though here in DC and most other cities, it’s not impossible to get yourself a little rinky-dink one.
What you’ll find in the city, however, obviously pales in comparison to the grassy vistas of suburbia. To take your kid to play outside in the city, you generally need to go to the park.
But there are some real upsides to this. For starters, a city’s parks department does the upkeep, rather than busy parents needing to carve out lawn care time on top of everything else. Most crucially, not only do you need to take your kid to the park, so does everyone else. Which means that any time the weather is remotely amenable, the park is reliably full of children and parents. That’s a great way for kids to get to know other kids, and also for parents to build relationships and community. That dad you saw at school drop-off or the friend-of-a-friend you met at a birthday party turns out to be at the park, too, so you get to talking.
Parenting can be isolating. But the mix of smaller private spaces and more reliance on public ones can counteract that and build community. And having places for children to go is an asset throughout their lives, especially as they become more independent.
Another cool thing about parks is that you can switch it up. I’ve got about four playgrounds within walking distance that we tend to visit frequently. But sometimes a particular park will go into heavy rotation, or another one will drop out only to be revisited later. But it’s also not unheard-of to make a special trip out of the neighborhood to check out a different playground. Variety is the fundamental upside to dense urban living in a way that’s true at all ages.
The older your kids get, the more autonomy they’ll claim
When I was a preteen, I could walk my little brother to the school we both attended in the morning with no problem. There was no need for a parental chauffeur or to deal with a rigid bus schedule. When I was 15, I started going to high school outside the neighborhood and commuted on the subway like anyone else in Manhattan would.
If I wanted to go to a friend’s house after high school we’d walk or take the M86 across town (the school was on the Upper East Side but most of my friends lived on the Upper West Side) or take the subway downtown. At an age much too young to drive, I could walk to a friend’s house on the weekend, and we could walk together to a movie theater or to get a slice of pizza. Older teens are generally allowed to drive in the United States because life without a car is so impractical, and driving them around everywhere is so annoying. But cars are dangerous (see above), and teenagers are not known for their safe behavior.
Public health experts even want to shift to a system of more gradual licensing, which would save lives at the cost of convenience. Avoiding this tradeoff and letting children of double-digit ages gain graduated access to walking, biking, transit, and taxis in a place where those are the normal modes of getting around is a huge advantage. In DC, little kids and students can even ride free.
Not only can older kids and teens get around safely, there are things for them to do. Young people have no money, which makes them ideal candidates for pretentious art film screenings at museums and other urban cultural programming. The ability to get out of the house and go places and do stuff is an education all to itself — there’s even a growing body of research about the beneficial neurological effects of childhood exposure to diversity — over and beyond the school quality stuff that parents obsess over.
The schools are fine
For many families, of course, the holy grail of “good schools” is the ultimate driver of flight to the suburbs.
It is, however, worth interrogating why this is. Access to a great educational experience can be a game-changer for a child whose parents have limited economic and educational resources. Parents often seem inclined to take this accurate observation and interpret it backwards: They can develop a kind of paranoia that the children of middle class professionals could have their life prospects crippled by attending a sub-par school.
But how, exactly, would that work? Is being in the top of the class at a blah urban public school really going to be worse for Junior’s Cornell application than being in the middle of the pack at the best school in the best suburb? And if Junior doesn’t get into Cornell, is he going to end up homeless?
I don’t mean to be entirely flip about this. You obviously don’t want to send your kid to a school that’s unsafe or makes her miserable.
Urban schools’ performance has improved dramatically over the past generation, while studies suggest that white parents tend, in practice, to just try to send their kids to schools with fewer black students than actually assess school quality. Or, looking at it from the other direction, economists Diether Beuermann and Kirabo Jackson have found that the schools parents prefer to send their kids to don’t generate better test scores for students.
Study after study finds that differences in outcomes between schools are dominated by selection effects — schools that enroll kids with high test scores or highly educated parents end up with graduates who do better, but that doesn’t mean the schools themselves are generating better outcomes.
Meanwhile, one thing you do get from schools in a big city is the exact same thing you get with other services — a broader range of choices in terms of exactly which school you want to select.
If you like cities, you’ll still like them with kids
Which is just to say that while raising children changes so much about life, it doesn’t fundamentally change either what you like or the nature of the built environment.
Virtually anything you could say on behalf of city-living as a strategy for a fun-loving single 20-something also applies to life as a boring dad in his late thirties, as an excitable 4-year-old, or as a teenager. If you like walkable neighborhoods; “third spaces” that aren’t shopping malls; cultural amenities; short commutes; and non-chain restaurants, then America’s cities are where those things are found.
Having children may mean less time to enjoy some of those things than you used to have, but that only makes it more valuable to have access to them when you do have the time. And your kids — especially when they’re older and more independent — will likely enjoy them too.
This makes the growing transformation of America’s major cities into mere playgrounds for childless professionals a deeply unfortunate turn of events. But it’s one that’s been made largely inevitable by the growing crisis of housing supply in these cities.
Overall demand for city living has risen, as a joint result of both population growth, the post-1990 fall in crime, and other broad economic trends. But when cities don’t allow that increased demand to generate big increases in the square feet of dwelling space, occupancy naturally shifts to family types that can maximize the number of earners per square foot. That means groups of young roommates, childless couples, and relatively high-earning singles living in one-bedroom condos rather than homes filled with kids who don’t have jobs and can’t pay rent.
The solution — build more houses in the places where the price is high — is in its way fairly simple, but its virtues won’t be recognized as long as we treat urban child-rearing as inherently unnatural and undesirable.
Matthew Yglesias, a co-founder of Vox.com, is a senior correspondent focused on politics and economic policy. He is the author of two books, including The Rent Is Too Damn High.
Author: Matthew Yglesias