8:44:17 AM

Are cities becoming family-free?

The City Journal (“a quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute”) has a fascinating article about the decline of families and family life in American cities (as opposed to the suburbs).  I’m sure that its observations can, mutatis mutandis, can be applied to many cities around the world, particularly in the child-light West. According to the authors, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres, American cities have developed in the last half century from places which traditionally supported and nurtured the family to places where only the childless and the hopeless dwell and families flee from.

“Ever since cities first emerged thousands of years ago, they have been places where families could congregate and flourish. The family hearth formed the core of the ancient Greek and Roman city… In the American city until the 1950s, urbanist Sam Bass Warner observed, the ‘basic custom’ was ‘commitment to familialism.’”

This long history of families living in cities has, in the last few decades, changed in the US:

“But more recently, we have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children. In the 1960s, sociologist Herbert Gans identified a growing chasm between family-oriented suburbanites and people who favored city life—‘the rich, the poor, the non-white as well as the unmarried and childless middle class.’ Families abandoned cities for the suburbs, driven away by policies that failed to keep streets safe, allowed decent schools to decline, and made living spaces unaffordable… Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.”

If families have retreated from cities to the suburbs, then what (and who) is left in city centres? It is in many respects the young and childless who are seeking recreation and fun from their city environment.  Thus:

“…the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark, who see the city, and particularly the urban core, as an “entertainment machine.’ In their view, city residents ‘can experience their own urban location as if tourists, emphasizing aesthetic concerns.’ Schools, churches, and neighborhood associations no longer form the city’s foundation. Instead, the city revolves around recreation, arts, culture, and restaurants—a system built for the newly liberated individual.”

Looking at the demographic numbers, the flight to the suburbs is clear in the US:

“Over the past two decades, the percentage of families that have children has fallen in most of the country, but nowhere more dramatically than in our largest, densest urban areas. In cities with populations greater than 500,000, the population of children aged 14 and younger actually declined between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census data, with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit experiencing the largest numerical drop. Many urban school districts—such as Chicago, which has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it had a decade ago—have seen enrollments plummet and are busily closing schools. The 14-and-younger population increased in only about one-third of all census-designated places, with the greatest rate of growth occurring in smaller urban areas with fewer than 250,000 residents.”

So what is it that families want that the cities aren’t providing? More affordable housing, decent schools, safe streets and adequate parks.  As families seek these out, they spread to the cities peripheries and cities become less dense as a result. What is interesting is that in many places (including our dear old Auckland where I live) those in power are seeking to push people together towards more density (trying to provide cheaper housing and services):

“The solution is not to wage war on suburbia, as urbanists have been doing for years. Following the notions that Jane Jacobs advanced a half-century ago, contemporary urbanists argue that high density creates a stronger sense of community. (Jacobs once opined that raising children in the suburbs had to be difficult, somehow overlooking how families were flocking to those suburbs.) But that contention isn’t self-evident. The University of California’s Jan Brueckner and Ann Largey conducted 15,000 interviews across the country and found that for every 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of someone’s talking to his neighbor once a week went up 10 percent, regardless of race, income, education, marital status, or age… But by trying to cram people into higher-density space, planners inadvertently help push up prices for the existing stock of family-friendly homes. Such policies have already been practiced for decades in the United Kingdom, making even provincial cities increasingly unaffordable, as British social commentator James Heartfield notes. London itself is among the least affordable cities in the world.”

That is the trouble that the current mayor of Auckland is finding: you might plan to build a denser city and start to do away with the traditional New Zealand house and section, but people (and particularly families) do not want to live in apartments. They like leafy neighbourhoods and backyards!

The decline of families in cities in the USA should be a worry for city planners argue Kotkin and Mondarres. As they conclude:

“Ultimately, everything boils down to what purpose a city should serve. History has shown that rapid declines in childbearing—whether in ancient Rome, seventeenth-century Venice, or modern-day Tokyo—correlate with an erosion of cultural and economic vitality. The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own. If cities want to nurture the next generation of urbanites and keep more of their younger adults, they will have to find a way to welcome back families, which have sustained cities for millennia and given the urban experience much of its humanity.”

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