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Why do young parents move away? Our cities aren’t designed for kids

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Families need right-sized housing, accessible parks, and affordable childcare

Visitors at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California in 2015.

San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee remembers how different things were when he was growing up. The 68-year-old representative for District 7 remembers a more vibrant city for all ages, with families of four or five kids rambling around neighborhood streets and playing in local parks.

Today, there just aren’t as many kids around, and he doesn’t like it.

“I’ve seen that transition,” Yee told Curbed. “I’m part of the generation who has seen families go from Ozzie and Harriet, and living off one income, to a middle class existence where both members have to work.”

Yee isn’t the only one worried about the way San Francisco, and other U.S. cities, have fewer and fewer young residents. Census data backs up Yee’s observations. The share of children in San Francisco fell to 13 percent last year, the lowest percentage of any U.S. city. As of 2014, roughly a third of U.S. households had children under 18, a figure substantially lower in major metros such as Miami (25 percent), Boston (22.4 percent), and Washington, D.C. (20.4 percent).

“Everybody talks about children being our future,” Yee told the New York Times. “If you have no children around, what’s our future?”

Children playing on merry-go-round at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1955.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In many neighborhoods, children seemed to exist in strollers and parks until they hit school age, only to be moved to the suburbs, set to return as a single twentysomethings decades later. Cities have done everything to attract the creative class, fueling renewed growth in many downtowns; what happens when those new arrivals want to have children? As a Hartford Courant editorial explained, “the successful cities of tomorrow must be homes to children today.”

The assumption that this generation will follow the same life cycle as those that came before it—graduate school, work downtown, have kids, and move to the suburbs—due to choice, as opposed to necessity, may be wrong. Surveys continually find that many young adults want to raise children downtown.

Downtown design, however, doesn’t make it easy.

“If children are not designed into our cities, they are designed out,” wrote urbanist George Monbiot. “This means that they are deprived of contact with the material world, with nature, with civic life and with their own capacities.”

City doesn’t have to feel this overwhelming. A family on a main street in the shopping district in Ginza, Tokyo.
LightRocket via Getty Images

Designing a child-friendly city

The booming economies of San Francisco and other big cities have exacerbated the shrinking of the school-age population, Yee says.

“There’s been an imbalance,” he says. “There’s been a focus on creating new jobs versus creating new housing.”

In increasingly expensive cities, housing costs, educational opportunities, and the amount of money needed to save for a down payment are among the factors that have led parents across income levels to put off having kids, and eventually to choose between staying and leaving. Nationally, the average age of a first-time homebuyer rose from 32.5 to 35.2 years between 2013 and 2017, and the average age of first-time mothers rose from 27.7 to 28.7 between 2010 and 2016.

It’s increasingly clear that cities aren’t doing enough to welcome and accommodate parents. The choice to stay or go could be much harder if cities invested more in family-friendly urbanism, better day care policies, and improved housing options—and these changes could make parenting in an expensive city easier, too.

Parenting was seen as a private issue in the postwar world, according to Curbed’s architecture critic, Alexandra Lange, whose new book, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, explores the intersections of design, childhood, and urbanism. That era’s everyone-for-themselves mindset has persisted, even though our world has changed: more privatized public spaces, less park access and community programming, and more expectation of constant supervision.

“What we’re seeing now is our culture, our government, and the economy, have made it too hard to take care of everything yourself,” says Lange. “That’s why people aren’t having children. There has to be something provided by the community. We need to create places in which families can access a more community-based lifestyle, and not have to pay for every bit of childcare, every bit of exercise, and every bit of schooling their children need.”

Proposed layout for a two-bedroom apartment outlined in “Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities,” a new child-friendly planning initiative in Toronto.
City Planning Toronto

It begins at home: Making space for families in city housing

One of the key ways modern cities make raising children so trying is a lack of space. In addition to skyrocketing rents, cities simply don’t provide enough suitable housing stock for families, especially rentals with multiple bedrooms. Developers in the United States and Canada have shifted their focus toward smaller, luxury units—the average size of units finished in 2016, 934 square feet, is 8 percent smaller than a decade ago. According to the latest Harvard report on the nation’s housing market, multifamily developers, chasing the growing luxury rental market, have increasingly pivoted towards more projects with high-end amenities and smaller units with higher returns.

“While families make due in smaller apartments, if you’re trying to say families are welcome here, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments are pretty necessary,” says Lange. “Having family-sized apartments downtown is pretty basic, even though those aren’t profit centers for developers.”

In Toronto, where a decade-plus condo building boom has expanded the downtown population, a new initiative seeks to make room for family-friendly urban living, and perhaps set a new standard for other cities. “Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities,” a set of guidelines for developing more family- and kid-friendly condos, mirrors similar and successful requirements in Vancouver. (Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) also includes requirements for family-size housing.)

The Toronto plan includes recommendations for larger, more spacious units—developed with real families via “condo hack sessions”—that include flexible storage, better sightlines, and more common space for kids. “Growing Up” also mandates multi-bedroom units, asking developers of new buildings to make sure 5 percent of available units are two-bedroom units and 10 percent are three-bedroom.

While the plan in “Growing Up” isn’t an instant fix for the overall cost of living in a major city, adding family-friendly housing stock does begin to address the lack of affordable family-friendly housing options. But more needs to be done to make room for families.

“A lot of people come into the city, have small kids, and when the time comes for them to afford school, they can’t afford a private education and they leave the city,” Kaid Benfield, a planner and urban designer at PlaceMakers, told Curbed. “That’s obviously not the healthiest population dynamic if you want a diverse, modern city.”

Teacher Latonya Hazard works on puzzles with students (from left) Lilyana Waire, 2, Jordan Conrad, 2, Caiden Groccia, 2, and Joshua Davis, 2, at the Guild of St. Agnes in Worcester, Massachusetts, on Apr. 25, 2017. The Guild of St. Agnes is an early education and care agency that relies on state subsidies for 95% of their students, according to director Gloria Johnson.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

The considerable cost of child care

Rent and education will always be huge budget items for families. But increasingly, child care has become a significant burden, especially for younger families.

“Average childcare costs are astronomical,” says Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “The majority of families with kids have both parents working. In states that lack infant and child care, the cost of childcare has a massive impact.”

According to a recent EPI study, a two-parent, two-child family in many major cities pays more to child and day care centers—who are struggling with rent and staff costs—than to the landlord. In 500 out of 618 communities nationwide, child care costs more than rent for a two-child family, and there isn’t a single community where a full-time, full-year minimum-wage worker with one child can afford a “modest yet adequate standard of living” while also paying for child care.

Take San Francisco. In 2016, it became the first city in the nation to require six weeks of paid maternity leave. But while that’s a useful head start, it doesn’t address the mounting costs of child care between birth and starting school.

According to EPI’s analysis, California is one of 33 states where infant care is more expensive than college. Child care for two children, an infant and a 4-year-old, costs $20,047 annually on average, 25.6 percent more than rent. A typical California family would have to spend 31.5 percent of their income on child care.

That’s one of the reasons Supervisor Yee supported a recent ballot initiative, Proposition C, that will tax commercial and warehouse space in San Francisco to fund early child care initiatives (the measure barely passed during last week’s election).

Young children on bicycles crossing the street
UIG via Getty Images

Helping children navigate their neighborhood

Even if parents of young children manage to pay for housing and child care costs, as their children age, they need to confront the challenge of navigating the city. While traversing narrow sidewalks with strollers or using transit systems can be especially tricky, simply crossing the street presents a challenge, especially for children.

U.S. cities fall behind when it comes to street safety and transit accessibility. As recent high-profile accidents have underscored, parents are right to worry. Despite the persistence of Vision Zero campaigns in many cities, U.S. children are twice as likely to die in traffic fatalities compared to other wealthy nations. This understandably leads to apprehension and a lack of mobility, making it that much harder for kids to navigate to school or playgrounds themselves, placing more demands on parents’ time and attention.

“Street safety is a huge part of the discussion about keeping kids in cities,” says Lange. “Parents are uncomfortable letting kids go around themselves. It makes living in a city seem confining, and kids lack the independence that they developmentally need.”

It also keeps older children from enjoying the activities and cultural amenities many list as a top reason for living downtown. Recent research found that for every 10 minutes spent in a car, a child’s time spent participating in communities activities falls by 10 percent.

This is another example where kid-friendly design helps all city residents. Programs such as Denver’s Safe Routes to School program, which provides funding for restoring bike lanes for student transit, doesn’t just make it easier to get to and from school, but helps everyone by increasing pedestrian safety and building the multimodal transit network.

At the Smith-9th Street subway station in Brooklyn, there are several escalators but no elevators.
Photography by Max Touhey

Research increasingly supports the value of a more child-centric view of city planning. Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods, compiled by international engineering, planning, and consulting firm Arup, argues that designing for children can anchor a larger progressive urban agenda, tackling important issues such as traffic and pollution, high-rise living and sprawl, crime, isolation and intolerance, and unequal, inadequate access to the city’s benefits.

“Perhaps uniquely, a child‐friendly approach has the potential to unite a range of progressive agendas—including health and wellbeing, sustainability, resilience and safety—and to act as a catalyst for urban innovation,” the report notes.

As children continue to grow, park access and playtime also become a big issue. Lange, who has written extensively about the benefits of allowing teens to participate in park design, feels that cities have recently focused more on superstar, signature parks, instead of looking at creating more accessible neighborhood parks.

Local leaders need to work on “play equity,” says Lange, and granting equal access to open space to children in all corners of the city. Not only will that allow more kids from more neighborhoods and economic background to easily access playspaces, but it’ll eliminate what author Tim Gill calls “play ghettoes,” places where kids have to be taken to by adults.

New York City’s Open Schoolyard Initiative, which opened school playgrounds on weekends, was an easy, low-cost way to improve access, and Philadelphia’s Rebuild Program promises to spend $500 million on repairing and restoring the city’s parks, libraries, and recreation centers, with an emphasis on equality, but much more investment is needed.

Lange advocates for more focus on systems over signature projects. Instead of hiring big-name landscape architects to design blockbuster parks, designers should be hired to prototype smaller, neighborhood parks to offer more creative places to play. It’s not an impossible luxury. Around the world, cities are investing in new playground designs. Programs like the United Nations’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative are pushing all-ages urbanism. In Amsterdam, architect Aldo van Eyck famously designed a series of affordable, postwar modernist playgrounds that serve as a model for what a park system could look like.

Hudson River Greenway playground in New York City.

Healthier, happier cities for everyone

The decision to raise kids in cities is often framed as a choice—or a matter of economic destiny. For those without the resources, city living becomes economically unfeasible compared to the suburbs.

But as the urban population rises, both in the U.S. and around the globe, it’s increasingly vital to design with our kids in mind. By 2030, 60 percent of all city dwellers will be under the age of 18. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of overweight children globally will skyrocket to 70 million by 2025, from 41 million in 2016, and rates of childhood mental health problems, triggered by the stress of urban life, is also on the rise.

An increasing number of children will be spending an increasing amount of time in our cities. If we value their development, safety, and education, advocates say, then cities and planners need to place more value on child-friendly urbanism and making sure we make it easier for more of them to feel safe on our city streets.

“For me, it’s part of the fabric of what a city should have,” Yee told the Times. “[More children] makes us all care more.”