Do Families Matter?

Seattle’s average household size is 2.08, the smallest of any major U.S. city. Richard Morrill has an informative piece up over at Crosscut discussing this and other demographic trends based on the latest American Community Survey. In short, Seattle is apparrently overflowing with the young, single, wealthy, and overeducated (one downside of which, according to the author, is the rise of the nanny state).

Meanwhile noted sprawl apologist Joel Kotkin makes the case that families with children are the critical ingredient of prosperous cities, and that strategies to revitalize cities by attracting the “creative class” are destined to be a bust. Kotkin cites data showing that since 2000 job and population growth has been below average in the cities like Boston and San Francisco, while cities such as Houston and Raleigh Durham have become the growth leaders by attracting families in their mid-20s to mid-40s.

A lack of families with children will weaken a city’s economic prospects, according to Kotkin, and weaken a city’s community bonds, according to Morrill (and both seem particularly wary of the presence of sidewalk cafes.) But I’m not convinced it’s that simple. While job growth has been robust in the Seattle-area suburbs, downtown Seattle continues to be the region’s largest employment center. And to claim that sense of community relies on children-focussed activities like the PTA and soccer leagues belies a very limited (and nostalgic?) assessment of the possibilities for community involvement.

This is messy stuff, the stuff that punishes the smug, the stuff that makes cities so fascinating and unpredictable. But it also has everything to do with how we forge policy to manage growth in dynamic areas such as the South Lake Union neighborhood. Everyone seems to want a family-friendly South Lake Union, but perhaps that is idealistic. Who knows, maybe we should just give it to the “yupsies” and let the families have the single family neighborhoods. And perhaps that would create a young and transient labor force attractive to certain business sectors, such as software. And perhaps it’s just fine for Bellevue to be its own job center drawing its workforce from the family-friendly burbs.

All I know is that my single-family neighborhood in the Central District is downright infested with Very Small Humans.

6 Responses to “Do Families Matter?”

  1. Tony

    While I suspect there is some Norman-Rockwell nostalgia that feeds into it, there is a rational case for having families in the city, which has to do with human life cycle.

    Most people follow at pattern where they begin adulthood being young and single, often going to college, then working entry level jobs and living in apartments. Perhaps they purchase a condo. Then they meet a life partner. Once they have two combined incomes, the new household’s buying power increases.

    Following that, people have kids, then their kids go off to college and they live as empty nesters, then they retire, then they die.

    Certainly not everyone does this, but it is a fairly common life path.

    A yuppie city is wonderful for every single life stage except raising children. It’s great for young singles and newlyweds. It’s great for empty-nesters and retirees.

    It’s that middle stage, of having kids, in which people have additional needs. For any of the other life stages, you don’t really care so much about how good the schools are. You also have one to two people in the household rather than 4 or 5, so you need a lot less square footage to feel comfortable. You probably don’t care as much about safety. Sure, you don’t want to get shot, but that motivation is nothing compared to the absolute paranoia most parents feel about the safety of their children.

    So families have these special needs. That’s why there’s so much focus on them, because people in the other life stages don’t need as much help, by the very nature of the life stage. Families are the weakest link essentially. Make a city a great place for families, and it is also great for everyone else.

    Your suggestion seems to be that we should just let the families move to the burbs, that way we don’t have to spend all that money on their expensive special needs (like schools etc.)

    The problem is that although only a minority of all households have children at a particular point in time, the vast majority of households will have children at some point.

    Your plan would thus welcome people into the city during their twenties, push them out in their thirties and forties, then welcome them back again in their fifties.

    This sounds workable, but it presents a number of legitimate concerns:

    First, perhaps many young people don’t want to leave the city when they have kids. Perhaps they would like to stay, having formed community bonds, friendships, become members of civic organizations, etc. They also may love the fact that they don’t have to commute. Here we have a young couple that walks to work and doesn’t own a car. Isn’t that what we want to encourage?

    But the rub comes in when the biological clock starts to take over. If the city has failed to provide for the special needs of the family life stage, this young couple is forced to choose between the city they love and the children they want to have.

    Because you then force virtually everyone out of the city when they hit their 30’s, basically to make room for the next round of transient 20 somethings who will be forced out in 10 years and so on, this breaks down community. Community comes when people live in the same place for a while and develop those community bonds.

    Another issue is that there’s no guarantee that they are going to come back once their kids leave home. By then, they will have lived in the burbs for 20 years and will have formed community bonds there. Why would they return to the city? Of course some do, but many don’t, thus they continue to over-consume land and housing long after the thing that caused them to need that extra land and housing has gone off to college. That’s bad for the environment, for affordability, etc.

    At this point they are also still working and likely commuting, by car to the center city.

    Perhaps they will return to city in retirement, as that generally represents a significant life change anyway.

    Then there’s the money issue. Peak earning years are at the family and empty-nester stages. People have a lot less money both in retirement and in their youth. Of course there are a lot of childless couples and as you point out many young people do have money, but statistically speaking, people make the most in their 50’s. This is one of the reasons that most suburbs have more money for great social services (and schools) than cities do, so while it may be expensive to provide for families, if you make the provisions, you may end up bringing in more money to the city coffers than you spend.

    From a sustainability standpoint, you don’t want anyone living in the suburbs, but you’re never going to achieve the kind of massive influx into the city that we really need unless you address the weakest link, which is the family life stage.

    One last reason we may want families in the city: for the children. Can you imagine anything more stunting to one’s growth and development than growing up in a soulless suburb? Growing up in the city gives kids access to all kinds of cultural opportunities. It gives them the power to venture out on their own because they are not trapped in a cul-de-sac because they don’t have a car yet. A lot of people form lifelong habits as children. From a sustainability perspective, from the perspective of getting more people to WANT to be urban, isn’t it best to get people accustomed to it when they are growing up? That’s the best way to change the culture of the next generation.

    So the long winded answer is that yes, families do matter. We want people to live their whole lives in the city, from childhood to retirement. The city should be a place people can stay, not a place that they visit for a few years after college before they start really living life in the suburbs.

  2. joshuadf

    Wow, nice comment. Spot-on about the kids. One of the tenants of New Urbanism is that it works for all ages, including teenagers who can’t drive.

    I’ve got a young family in Seattle, so a couple points. First, most families don’t *want* to move to the suburbs, they do it because they can’t afford to buy an in-city home. We jumped off that rat wheel by getting an apartment. In that sense pretty much any Seattle neighborhood is already “family friendly.” The school issue is separate. There are good private schools if you can afford it, and Seattle Public Schools actually has a very strong gifted program (Lowell-Washington-Garfield). Sure the district is has extremely messy zoning but they are working on it. (And, I have to say Seattle has a huge inventory of amazing early 20th Century school buildings that are outlasting suburban schools built in the late 20th Century. This was a purposeful investment made by Seattle, one of the high points of the progressive era.)

    Second, I hear people bring up this straw man argument: “Where are the affordable 5 bedroom apartments? Where’s the lawn?” Urban families living in small apartments (in Seattle and all over the world) show that a family does not “need” a 5 bedroom 3500 sq ft McMansion with a big yard! Living in the city is a different lifestyle than living in the suburbs.

  3. Renee

    North Seattle in total is experiencing a baby boom. In fact there are discussions in most neighborhoods on how to address the shortage of space in the public schools. And, private schools are also reaching capacity. This is a great problem to be facing.

    My husband and I have two children (7 and 10) and all four of us live in a 960 square foot house with two bedrooms and one bathroom. We also have one car.

    I don’t understand why anyone thinks they need more, but that is just my perspective. My kids know that they will get a bus pass to get around as teenagers and that there is not a high probability that they will get their own rooms. They understand that we live this way for sustainability reasons as well and for being financially responsible. The kids know not to criticize others for their choices, but they are often mystified at why their friends have 4 televisions and 3,000 sq ft houses.

  4. wes

    Joshua and Renee, thanks for introducing this part of the discussion. I was going to write more, but you already covered it. I appreciate it.

    And I am glad to hear of families doing exactly what I plan on whenever my wife gets me to ok having kids.

  5. AngryCyclist

    As a 30 something ‘burbinite with young kids, I’m intrigued with moving to the city; but the consensus among people here is that:
    1) suburban (public) schools are way better
    2) kids belong in the ‘burbs (saftey,activities,etc)
    3) it’s too expensive

    While I don’t agree with #2, the others are a nagging concern.

    If anyone can point out blogs or other resources for people who have made this transition, I’m curious to have someone else help me rationalize an urban move.

  6. Matt the Engineer

    [Angry], I’ve had nieces live with me in the city for about a year and they now live in the ‘burbs, so I know a bit about the schools. There are wonderful schools and terrible schools in the city, and the same goes for the ‘burbs.

    I mostly disagree with #3. I think if you take a commute into account, living in the city is competitive or even cheaper. Kids do change this equation a bit, but not dramatically (example: $1,400/mo for top-end daycare here, $1,200/mo there). I’ve previously calculated that a commute from the exurbs will cost half a million dollars over the life of a mortgage (not to mention stealing 24% of the time you could be spending with your children).

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