Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Kids in Cities – Part Two

Dateline: 2:42 pm March 17, 2008 Filed under:

Kids in Cities has become a pet topic for me, as I introduce Ellis to places like Chicago, Boston and San Francisco while considering future school choices here in Minneapolis. Everywhere I go now, I hear about choices facing young parents in cities. Should I stay or should I go?

On a visit to St. Louis last fall, I sat at Crepes in the City one Sunday morning, and overheard a young couple adamantly telling their friends that they were going to stay put after the kids were born. We were on Washington Avenue in the middle of yuppie-ville, or DINK-ville – not many kids around. I put down my latte and New York Times and asked them more. They loved the neighborhood. There is a local daycare and nearby playground. They planned to buy a larger loft when the time came and certainly were sending the kids to private schools, but they were staying in the area.

Everywhere you go, cities are having their downtown renaissance, with empty-nesters making up around two-thirds of condo buyers and young professionals the rest (it is more complex – “never-nesters” are a big part of it and tough to nail down). Eventually many young professionals get married and have kids. They are then faced with decisions involving, as CEOs for Cities puts it, “the three S’s” – Schools, Space and Safety.

Safety is tough. Often, though it is the perception of safety and not the reality. Some in-town neighborhoods are gentrifying and still have shady characters. Others are starting from scratch and there are no real safety issues to speak of. Still, parents traditionally think that suburbs are safer, despite all the time spent schlepping kids around in the car, which can statistically offset some inner city safety issues.

Space is a challenge. The big house with the yard is the default, but kids also need parks and a variety of other spaces in which to play, and the yard is a bit overrated. The playground, of course is not, and you see a lot of them popping up in our gentrifying downtowns. Several new condos marketing in New York City feature indoor play areas for kids, a trend that may spread some day. Portland, Oregon is exploring public/private partnerships in their Pearl District to create more kid friendly places as part of ongoing development, including lirbaries, schools, parks, community centers, etc.

The bigger issue with lofts is the unit space itself. With condos today built as one big room, often with no wall separating living and bedroom, it becomes quite a challenge to raise kids, much less have the privacy to make more once the first have already arrived. Condos can work for kids, but it will take a change of mindset, and a few more dividing walls, for parents to stay put in downtown. In many ways, that will simply have to be market driven.

Schools are the real challenge. Too many cities have decayed schools that wrestle with an overabundance of challenged kids and low test scores. Frankly, they scare off middle- and upper/middle-class parents. There is hope. Milwaukee has been aggressive in offering school vouchers and creating charter schools as an option for parents. By and large, there are great teachers in all school systems and there should be more partnerships between school boards and city hall, neighborhood groups, social services, daycare providers, even developers, to attract and keep families in the city.

There is no silver bullet solution. In many ways, choosing to raise kids in the city is a value judgement. There are certainly countless benefits, and there are a number of ways to make cities more attractive for children and parents alike.

Stay tuned for more on this.

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