In January, a young mother wheeled her stroller into a New York City subway station that—like most New York City subway stations—had no elevator. As many city parents have done out of desperation at one time or another, she picked up the stroller and carried her baby down the dozens of stairs to the platform. The 22-year-old mother, who had a history of heart problems, fell to her death. Her 1-year-old survived.
This tragic event epitomizes how American cities are openly hostile to families, and it was the only thing I could think of when I read a story in The Atlantic this week that opens with a New York City mom trying to get her two kids and a stroller up a staircase.
“The mom would fold the stroller to the size of a boogie board, then drag it behind her with her right hand, while cradling the younger and typically crying child in the crook of her left arm,” writes Derek Thompson in “The Future of the City is Childless.” “It looked like hell—or, as I once suggested to a roommate, a carefully staged public service announcement against family formation.”
Thompson’s essay addresses what’s become an obsession for urbanist writers, including the writers at his own publication: For all the people, attention, and money currently pouring into U.S. cities, it turns out that few of those resources are being devoted to raising the next generation of city-dwellers.
The narrative presented by Thompson is that young adults who move to big cities end up facing unsurmountable debt and housing costs, wait longer to have kids, then voluntarily leave once they decide to procreate.
San Francisco, which is cited in the story, is the most notorious example. In 2017, only 13 percent of the population was under 18, the lowest percentage of any major U.S. city. There are officially more dogs than children in San Francisco.
That statistic seems shocking until you consider a few other city stats, like the fact that one out of every 100 people in San Francisco doesn’t have a home.
Across the country, many Americans might be spending too much on housing to contemplate the added expense of having kids: Over 11 million Americans—the populations of New York City and Chicago combined—spend more than half of their paycheck on housing costs. San Francisco might get all the headlines, but this is not a city-specific problem. There’s not a single county in the U.S., urban or rural, where a person making minimum wage can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment and have enough money left over to purchase basic necessities for living—let alone the necessities for two or three additional people.
In Los Angeles, where I live with my two young kids, rising rents and a shortage of affordable units mean that the number of families who are homeless went up again last year, even as the city’s social services placed a record number of families in supportive housing. According to a Los Angeles County report, families headed by women are more likely to be evicted, forcing them to live in overcrowded apartments, in vehicles, and on the streets.
Those families aren’t leaving cities. They’re getting left behind.
Sure, affluent parents might opt to pack up the SUV and flee to the suburbs, but the truth is that most people in this country who have children do not have that type of economic mobility. In 2016, the percentage of Americans who moved to another home during that year fell to all-time low of 11.2 percent—about half the rate of domestic migration in 1965.
At the same time, America’s suburbs are also failing families. In a recent Los Angeles Times series, columnist Steve Lopez spent weeks at an elementary school located in a corner of the San Fernando Valley lined with ranch-style homes, grassy yards, child-friendly dining options, and box-store parking lots filled with minivans. Yet a quarter of the school’s students are homeless—living in garages and motels.
In his piece, Thompson poses a handful of solutions that might spark an urban baby boom. “Surely, downtown areas can be made more family-friendly,” he writes. “Mayors can be more aggressive about overcoming the forces of NIMBYism by building affordable housing near downtown areas. The federal government can help.”
But it’s not just a laundry list of kid-friendly amenities that families need, it’s giving parents the financial breathing room to enjoy them. Within a short bus ride from our LA home, my family can visit world-class parks, designer playgrounds, awesome splash pads, museums with free memberships for children, and trendy breweries with kid play areas. Those urban perks mean absolutely nothing if parents must each work two jobs just to stay in a two-bedroom apartment, leaving them no free time to take their children there to enjoy them.
The federal government might help—several presidential candidates have child care plans for working families—but making it easy to raise kids in this country must go beyond a few child-friendly policies, argues Alexandra Lange, Curbed’s architecture critic and author of the book The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.
“What we’re seeing now is our culture, our government, and the economy, have made it too hard to take care of everything yourself,” she says. “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 child care, every bit of exercise, and every bit of schooling their children need.”
Welcoming families means giving struggling parents the ability to multitask, from incorporating daycare centers into high-rises, to constructing more housing near jobs, to permitting cohousing communities, to eliminating the large swaths of single-family zoning blocking young parents who want to drive less from their schools and offices. It means designing three-bedroom units, big enough for teens to grow into, and ground-floor storage for bikes and scooters and strollers. And elevators—lots more elevators.
Welcoming families also means rethinking this idea of a family-friendly place—it’s not just a place designed to help parents, but a place that’s truly accessible for all ages and abilities. We will all, at some point, start to see certain aspects of where we live as a particular type of hell due to age, or illness, or injury, or financial hardship. We will all benefit from a more community-based lifestyle. We will all need our neighborhood to become our safety net.
Welcoming families means that when you see a mom struggling on stairs, lugging a stroller, a crying baby in her arms, you don’t ignore her experience as if it’s somehow not intertwined with your own. You reach out your hand, you take the stroller, and you pull her up. We won’t make it without your help.