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We Need More Family-Friendly Cities

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We Need More Family-Friendly Cities

Institute for Family Studies July 25, 2019
Urban PolicyInfrastructure & Transportation
OtherChildren & Family

In January, Malaysia Goodson was killed when she fell down the stairs at New York’s 7th Avenue subway station while carrying a stroller with her one-year-old daughter in it.  The baby girl survived but now faces life without her mother. 

The 7th Avenue station is one of many in the city without elevators. Only about a quarter of New York City subway stations have elevators. This not only renders them inaccessible to many who are disabled, but it also makes them impossible or dangerous to traverse for families with strollers.  The sight of someone carrying a child in a stroller up or down subway stairs is a regular occurrence.

Goodson’s death hit home for my wife and me because just two days earlier, we had gone through that very station with our own one-year-old son in a stroller. Having two of us to carry the stroller down the stairs made it a safer but hardly pleasant experience. When she is out with our son by herself, my wife tries to limit herself to only accessible stations, having to consult not just the map but the transit agency’s elevator status page before each trip, because, on average, every elevator breaks down once a week. For those who have to ride with young children daily, such as parents dropping their kids off at day care, it’s inevitable they will be confronted by non-functioning elevators at times.

Navigating city transit systems with a stroller is one of the many challenges that face families, especially those with young children, in the cities.  While cities in many ways are great places for families, overall they present many obstacles to raising children, such that empirically, the number of children, particularly school-age children, has fallen significantly in major cities.  The future of the city, as Atlantic writer Derek Thompson recently put it, is childless.

But is it fated to be that way?

Older, denser cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago face some structural challenges to attracting and keeping families. Their building stock is older, often featuring upper-floor walkup units, smaller apartments, and limited closet space. Navigating the city via transit can be difficult, even in cities where the subway is accessible. Today’s popular battleship-sized strollers may be banned from buses, for example. 

And beyond these physical constraints, there is the education dilemma. Public schools are often poor, and private ones very expensive and/or difficult to get in. This is a particular challenge because of the price tag of living in the city; extremely high rents mean less money left over to spend on schools. So you often see city neighborhoods with lots of preschool-aged children, but far fewer older ones.

Cities historically had numerous families, in part, because they were the natural port of entry for immigrants, who stayed in neighborhoods with their old country compatriots until getting established and moving elsewhere. This still happens today, with immigrant neighborhoods providing social capital and resources that facilitate both childrearing and acclimation to the US. And certain groups like the Hasidic Jews have preserved a unique family-friendly culture in the city neighborhoods where they cluster.  But these are less dominant today as immigrant communities suburbanize. Today’s new immigrants no longer always have to move to a traditional city ethnic neighborhood.

The new educated, affluent, and domestically-born migrants to the city, many of whom are young and thus in the prime age for family formation, have generally relocated to the big city from elsewhere. That means they can lack local family support networks. My wife and I fall into this category. With declines in religious participation, new residents may also lack support networks that would come through a religious institution.  Again, this raises the cost and complexity of urban childrearing because things like babysitting, which might otherwise be done for free by grandparents or other relatives, now must be purchased on the open market.

For these reasons, the city is never likely to be competitive on an equal basis with new suburbs that are specifically designed to serve the contemporary family market. However, there are things that can be done to make cities more family friendly.

The first is to play up and market the things the city already does well. Cities often have amazing family-friendly parks. There are 21 playgrounds in Central Park alone. Families in cities get access to far more variety in parks than their suburban counterparts. Plus, urban families have easier access to the world-class cultural institutions that are found there, and library branches abound. New York libraries even loan out museum passes under the Culture Pass program. For those who can qualify for magnet schools, some of the best public schools in the country are urban schools. And, of course, cities are where children can grow up immersed in the realities of a globalized world. New York City, for example, is a place where tremendous diversity works. 

There are also things cities can do to make themselves more friendly to family life, such as making subways, buses, and other infrastructure, and buildings more accessible to strollers. That’s something needed to improve access for the disabled in any case. 

The increasing official toleration of social disorder—decriminalization of things like transit fare evasion, pot smoking, and public urination—by cities, as well as their ineffectual response to growing homelessness, repel families. In New York, for example, would-be fare evaders stand by the emergency exit door waiting for someone, such as a woman pushing a stroller, to use it legitimately, then push their way in. These people have verbally berated my wife for refusing to keep the door open for them, or worse, physically pushed their way through, which hardly inspires feelings of safety when you have a small child in tow.  Cities need to ensure public order in public spaces so that they are welcoming to all, especially families.

Furthermore, cities need to make sure their streets are safe places for pedestrians and people on bicycles. One positive example here is the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, explicitly designed to be safe for even children to cycle around downtown streets. But cities also need to ensure that their growing numbers of bicyclists ride in a courteous manner. Angry, militant bicycle activist groups rail against enforcement of even basic standards of conduct by cyclists. While cyclists need more and better facilities, cities do need to make sure they respect and ride safely among pedestrians, especially young children.

Then, of course, there are the harder challenges to start making progress on if not totally solve: improving schools and bringing down housing costs. The push to implement universal Pre-K in cities, whatever impact it may have on actual educational outcomes, does provide a de facto form of free day care—a benefit to working parents. Reducing housing costs may be a particular challenge because two goals are in conflict: lowering housing prices means more construction, but that construction may displace the family-friendly, single-family home urban neighborhoods that remain. Families are not likely to want to “co-live” in a “microapartment.”

Even if the city will never be perfectly family friendly, it can be made a more viable place for parents who prefer an urban home to raise their children. I know at least some people staying in the city with kids who a generation ago would surely have decamped for the suburbs. Building on the city’s existing family-friendly strengths like parks and libraries, improving accessibility and mobility, enhancing public order, and the like can help make it clear to families that they, not just single hipsters, are a welcome and valued part of the urban mosaic. 

This piece originally appeared at the Institute for Family Studies


Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by struvictory/iStock