The great rebirth of the American city helped usher a flood of young people into our nation’s urban neighborhoods. Street crime, graffiti, and empty storefronts have, in many cities, increasingly given way to bike sharing, espresso bars, and farmer’s markets. And some of the trendiest destinations have started to buckle under the weight of having too many people want to live downtown.
Yet the demographic movement that benefitted from this renaissance may have hit its high water mark. The peak of the millennial mini-boom passed age 25 in 2015, and even taking into account delayed childbearing and later marriages, shared studio apartments only appeal for so long.
Many of those parents or parents-to-be will doubtless leave the center city for suburban environs, drawn by better school districts, lower tax rates, and more housing for your money. Joel Kotkin, one of suburbia’s leading defenders, argues in a new book that the suburban periphery remains the “dominant, and fastest growing, part of the American landscape.”
But the idea that the nuclear family’s natural habitat is a single-family home in the suburbs is, of course, a relatively new one in historical terms. A generation of Millennials who grew up “rocking the suburbs” have expressed a stronger affinity for urban life in some surveys, and anecdotes abound of young urban families trying to make it work amid the cacophony of city life. The question is—do cities even want them to try?
In 2014, the Washington Post pointed out that millennial-heavy cities like D.C. stand to gain economically from focusing on childless professionals, who heavily contribute tax revenue without vocally demanding for more child care or better schools. The once-trendy “Creative Class” doctrine advanced by Richard Florida and other leading urbanists led cities to chase the “creatives” with a slew of coffee shops and pop-up art galleries. As long as more young professionals are coming to replace the ones leaving town, why invest the money in relatively-more expensive resources for children and families?
Some of our country’s more prosperous cities seem to have taken that lesson to heart. In Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Pittsburgh, no more than 18% of all households have kids, while in the city of San Francisco (where 16% of households have kids), there are just about as many dogs as there are children.
According to the Census Bureau, 32% of all households nationwide contain at least one member under the age of 18. Married-couple families with kids make up 60 percent of that number or 19.2% of all households. As we would expect, these percentages differ along city-suburb grounds.
If we look at just the principal cities of metropolitan areas, married-couple families with children make up 16.3% of all households, or just over half of the 30.4% of all households with minors. In the non-principal city portions of metropolitan areas, i.e., suburbs and exurbs, married-couple families, at 21.8% of households, make up just about two-thirds of the households with children in those parts, down a few percentage points since 2009.
As Benjamin Schwartz pointed out in The American Conservative, accepting cities without children cuts against the vision of the godfather of modern urbanism, Jane Jacobs. Neighborhood life in all its richness wasn’t intended to provide a “vibrant” backdrop for latte-sipping urbanites, he writes, but “rather, as Jacobs put it, to provide the means for ‘assimilating children’: to guarantee a place for children to play and to develop.” Put another way, the spatial polarization among Americans is no longer just about race, politics, or class – it’s now about one’s stage in life as well.
Yet while the percentage of both married-couple families with children, as well as the percentage of all households with children, has declined since 2009 in every type of geographic area, the decline has been most gradual in the principal cities of metropolitan areas. This partially reflects a lower starting point from which to fall but also illustrates how the composition of families in cities differ from the suburbs and exurbs.
Families living in center cities are either poor enough to need the density and mass transit for better employment prospects or rich enough to be able to afford the sky-high rents and the many amenities of urban life. Those who find themselves in between may well prefer city life, but many young (and not-so-young!) families who, all else equal, would have preferred to live stay in or near urban centers simply can’t afford to do so.
Some cities have realized the potential unsustainability in relying on the single and childless, and have taken steps to make their downtowns more child-friendly. That means not just Amsterdam-style playgrounds but also infrastructure like open spaces, sidewalks, and corner stores. Even so, no amount of downtown jungle gyms will make living there more accessible and given the tremendous opposition to new housing in many urban areas, there’s no quick fix to allow more families access to in-demand urban centers.
As Bradley Calvert, among others, has written, so-called “hysterectomy zoning” that clusters together dense, single-occupant apartments in lieu of a mixture of housing styles relies on the far-from-certain assumption of a steady stream of single young professionals. Policy efforts have focused on stabilizing communities around the elderly thorough “age in place” programs, but nothing similar has developed for communities that feature a variety of ages and family styles. Vancouver, Canada, has taken a much more activist approach to ensuring family-friendly housing stock by requiring all major housing projects to dedicate 25% of units to two bedrooms apartments and 10% to three bedrooms.
In the short-run, families will continue to have a hard time accessing city life. But what if some of the benefits of urban living could be brought to the suburbs?
The market is starting to respond to this apparent demand, with companies emphasizing that “the suburbs have soul,” and talking about a “new suburbanism” that fosters a sense of community. Mashpee Commons, a retrofitted shopping mall that incorporates mixed-use development and traditional architectural styles, is one of the better-known examples of how suburban areas are adopting some of the social and aesthetic benefits of urban life to offer a sense of place, community, and permanence to suburban dwellers. And according to Zillow, more than half of all Millennial buyers purchase a home within a community that has shared amenities, signaling a desire to be part of a neighborhood, not just a subdivision. As suburbs densify and mature, some of them are picking up character and community. Anne Snyder and Alicia Kurimska put it this way in a very readable report from the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, “you no longer have to move to Berkeley to get Berkeley-vibe coffee shops.”
Not all families want a yard and picket fence. Kenneth Jackson, the author of Crabgrass Frontier, the magisterial history of American suburbanization, once said the “biggest fake ever perpetrated is that children like, and need, big yards. What children like are other children. If they can have space, well, that’s fine. But most of all, they want to be around other kids.”
In the vast expanses of suburbia, that means scheduled play dates and the sequestration of homogenous communities. But the New Urbanist (or New Suburbanist) emphasis on shared civic space and more walkable destinations offers more chances for spontaneous splashing in water fountains, ice cream truck chases, or excursions through neighborhood parks. The spillover benefits alone are a whole lot better for the community—and the soul—than another row of nightclubs and yoga studios.
Patrick T. Brown is a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.