Since When Does Anti-Suburb = Anti-Family?

A couple of recent articles at New Geography have my head spinning.  Two separate pieces are arguing that urbanists promoting retrofits to suburbs to accommodate shifts in our nation’s demographics are anti-family.  Huh?
An article by Mike Lanza posted Friday suggests that there is a national agenda to eliminate suburbs:

A large proportion of intellectuals and politicians, including President Obama, decry these problems with suburbs as reason to hate them and advocate for their elimination, in favor of dense, big cities.Yeah, I get it. I agree that all these problems exist, and they bother me a lot.
There’s just one big problem with suburb hating. The alternative to suburbs in metropolitan areas, cities, are much worse for children. Sure, adults can have a great time in hip, dense city centers like Manhattan or San Francisco. In fact, if my wife and I never had kids, we’d still be living in San Francisco, going out practically every night.
However, it’s clear that cities are worse for kids than suburbs.

Furthermore, he entirely misreads the new book The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher by stating that Americans are increasingly showing a preference for the kind of dense high-rise living associated with Manhattan:

In her suburb-hating book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher gushes that Manhattan “has become overloaded with families.” To back up this assertion, she points to US Census data that there were 2,600 more married families with children 0-18 in 2010 than in 2000. Actually, that’s unimpressive for two reasons. First, the census data show that Manhattan’s total population actually increased by more than the population of children, so children as a percentage of the total population actually dropped. Second, even if the percentage of children had increased, the 11.8% figure for school-aged children is horrifically low.

But the question marks don’t stop there.  New Geography editor Joel Kotkin weighed in on the subject today by putting a political bent to the issue.  He suggests that planners believe that families are not worth the services required to support them, and that progressive activists seek to suppress family formation to advance their own political agenda:

Familialism is deeply unpopular with many in two key Democratic constituencies – greens and feminists. Many feminists have long derided the traditional family and see child-raising as something that tends to reinforce sexual stereotypes by reducing the career prospects of women.For their part, greens often disdain familialism since they see extra humans as a threat to the environment. The notion that depopulation, and too-rapid aging, at least in higher-income countries, could well become a greater issue than growth seems not to have sunk in, yet. Instead, people like Lisa Hymas, with the environmentalist website Grist, suggest that the “childfree” are something of a persecuted group that are in need of more societal understanding. Environmentalists also tend to be in favor of slow economic growth, which, in turn, tends to further depress birth rates.

I’ll ignore the political aspect of this argument.  But speaking as a planner, I believe we are finally shifting to building communities based on the future trends we see, instead of the ones we want.  In other words, planners are being guided by shifts in the market.
Many people have observed the demographic changes of our nation over the last generation or so – the growing levels of childlessness, the increasing numbers of single households, with both usually associated with higher household incomes and higher educational attainment.  This has created shifts in the housing demand that, while not happening across the nation equally, has definitely had an impact. 
I think too many people underestimate the impact of demography within our society.  As it turns out, demographers have a term for what’s happening in our society today – a Second Demographic Transition.   I won’t bore you with details about SDT, but an overview suggests that as nations or cultures develop and mature, several changes occur:
·         Falling birth rates due to availability of contraception;
·         Increase in wages;
·         Urbanization;
·         A decrease in subsistence agriculture;
·         An increase in the education and status of women;
·         A reduction in the value of children’s work; and
·         An increase in parental investment in the education of children.
Those are things that are happening to varying degrees all across the nation, and in most places we don’t have a housing stock ready to accommodate this shift.  Why?  Because so much of our nation’s housing, particularly in the suburbs, exists to accommodate the world we used to live in – dominated by two-parent families with several children, and a child-centered culture.
Look – families are not going away.  Suburbs are not going away.  What has disappeared, however, is the amount of choice that individuals have for selecting the type of living environment they desire.  We are a nation with far more single-family homes than we are able to fill now, because of the shifts mentioned above.  If our suburbs are going to succeed into the future, they will need to become amenable to housing choice, flexibility and diversity to withstand demographic changes, and let go of the hyperfocus our nation has long had on single-family construction.

I find it ironic that planners, by and large a left-of-center lot, are now pushing for changes that reflect market shifts, while right-of-center suburbanists are advocating for an intervention into the market to support their idealized version of American society.

5 thoughts on “Since When Does Anti-Suburb = Anti-Family?

  1. Pete, something like half of all people in DC live alone. NYC has some of the highest percentage of people living alone as well. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorists to look at the data on places like San Francisco, and urban cores generally around the nation, and see fair higher percentages than average of people living alone and fewer children than average. This clearly skews the worldview of people who are advocating policy preferences without references to children, except in the abstract. Almost all of the urban advocacy in America comes out of places like this.


  2. I'd agree that the high numbers of single households in DC, NYC, San Francisco and even Boston or Chicago skew opinions of the urban advocates who live there. I, for one, don't see that as the goal for all cities to aspire to, and it's often the fault of urbanists that they present such density as the ideal. What I'd like to see is suburban communities push toward something that is more adaptable, flexible and housing-diverse than the conventional suburban model. There are planning practicioners who want to move in this direction — to accommodate shifting demographics — but encounter resistance from local elected officials and the real estate community, among others.

    I admit there is a contingent of urbanists who want to dismantle the suburbs. I simply want to make them better versions of themselves, and able to meet the challenges that the future presents instead of holding on to the past.


  3. Pete – The numbers don't lie. Most urban hipsters flee large, hip cities when their kids hit school age. They don't want the urbanism that urbanists are trying to force on suburbs. If they wanted it, they never would have moved to the 'burbs. I wrote that article because I'm amazed at how ignorant urban advocates are to the reasons for this constant flow out of cities by families.

    And, by the way, many, many suburbs are not failing. Yes, exurbs are failing, but so is Detroit.


  4. The numbers you see are the same ones I see. I don't dispute the fact that young families depart for the suburbs when their kids are school age. But it's not always a rejection of “urbanism” as much as it it the quality of schools. Cities have to fix that if they're going to be competitive. And that is a tough task.

    But my argument is more about a growing housing stock/ lifestyle preference disconnect. Many suburbs have a housing stock that is 70% or even 80% SF homes. How will those suburbs react to a growing demand for the townhouses, 2-flats and 3-flats that singles and childless couples increasingly will demand?

    And that is the type of change I would promote for suburbs, not supersize density on the scale of our largest cities. Not at all. Suburbs weren't meant for that and never should be made into that. But if they don't add more flexibility to their housing they may cede ground to cities that are able to provide greater choice in the face of demographic transition.


  5. Mike, in Chicago schools are indeed a huge problem forcing an exodus. But more and more people are staying in the city with kids, and a number of neighborhood CPS schools on the north side have really improved as a result. Having said that, I think the lifestyle itself only appeals to a minority. Some of those who are staying with kids that I know are explicitly doing it because of the parents' desires for personal lifestyle – they are unwilling to sacrifice for their children they way previous generations did.

    I think Chicago is more of an exception though because the city is relatively affordable and of lesser density except for the lakefront, and the suburbs are particularly weak.


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