The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The "What Is A City For?" Discussion


Urbanophile Aaron Renn posted today on a piece Joel Kotkin produced for a Singapore angency called “What Is A City For?”  Kotkin’s intro shows where he’s headed:

What is a city for? In this urban age, it’s a question of crucial importance but one not often asked. Long ago, Aristotle reminded us that the city was a place where people came to live, and they remained there in order to live better, “a city comes into being for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of living well”

However, what does “living well” mean? Is it about working 24/7? Is it about consuming amenities and collecting the most unique experiences? Is the city a way to reduce the impact of human beings on the environment? Is it to position the polis — the city — as an engine in the world economy, even if at the expense of the quality of life, most particularly for families?

Aaron then cuts to Kotkin’s conclusion:

My answer is a city exists for its people, and to nurture families that grow, identify and share a common space. The issue, then, is how to do this while staying competitive in the global economy.”

Aaron comments by saying that ceded (or just plain lost) ground on being family-friendly to the suburbs, and that singles and other non-traditional households made up a bigger part of the new city.  He also did a quick analysis that shows the impact of that shift on cities:

In part this is because in the wave of suburbanization the swept the post-war world, urban cores lost out in the battle for families to the suburbs. Especially as urban school districts declined, these areas were no longer very attractive to those with school-aged children who have the means to leave. Hence the focus on a differentiated demographic: singles, gays (particularly in the era prior to gay marriage, adoption, and child-rearing), and empty-nesters.

The cities that were most successful at this are those which are held up today as urban exemplars. And they have the smallest percentage of their population under the age of 18 in the country. Of the 61 municipalities in 2010 that had 300,000 or more people, it should come as no surprise that San Francisco ranked dead last in percentage of children at 13.4%. The bottom ten is heavily populated by an urbanist who’s who, including Seattle, Washington, Boston, Portland, and Minneapolis.

Rank Municipality 2010
1 San Francisco city, CA 107,524 (13.4%)
2 Seattle city, WA 93,513 (15.4%)
3 Pittsburgh city, PA 49,799 (16.3%)
4 Washington city, DC 100,815 (16.8%)
5 Boston city, MA 103,710 (16.8%)
6 Urban Honolulu CDP, HI 58,727 (17.4%)
7 Miami city, FL 73,446 (18.4%)
8 Portland city, OR 111,523 (19.1%)
9 Atlanta city, GA 81,410 (19.4%)
10 Minneapolis city, MN 77,204 (20.2%)

I don’t know, color me not especially concerned.  I know Kotkin’s been building a case that family production in cities is as important as economic production, and I think he’s trying to tout this approach as a flaw of cities and a rationale for suburban support over cities.  But I don’t necessarily buy it.  Yes, the bottom 10 cities in percentages under 18 reads like a who’s who of urbanist’s wet dream cities, but one can also read that the numbers are skewed by cities with large numbers of post-college young adults due to top schools (Boston, Pittsburgh, maybe Minny due to the huge University of Minnesota), post-college destination cities (Portland, SF, Atlanta, Seattle, DC) and cities with higher senior populations (Miami, Honolulu).

Generally I think this is a problem that will solve itself and I think Chicago is providing an early example of how.  In the ’80s and ’90s Chicago’s “yuppie” population boomed, and to a lesser extent its empty-nester population.  Of course, the normal pattern was that once the yuppies had kids they moved to the burbs, but the bigger point is that a migration pattern had been reestablished, with affluent young adults demonstrating a renewed interest in the big city.  That first stage was a success for Chicago and the pattern continues today.

What’s now happening is that not all young adults are moving once their kids reach preschool age.  A growing number (still not the majority, and that may never be) like the city and are willing to stay here.  They’re approaching critical mass — and improving school quality and performance.  Local public radio station WBEZ ran a story a couple months ago saying that affluent young families are putting their kids into public schools (magnet, charter and neighborhood) and demanding improvements that the local schools are beginning to deliver on.  The children of the young affluent new residents are having an impact on the schools.  Personally, I can remember passing by public schools in the gentrified North, Near West and Near South sides, and noting that the demographics of the kids on the school playground hardly matched that of those in the homes.  That’s slowly changing.

Sure, most young families are still moving to the burbs, but I see this new phenomenon as the next phase of the revitalization life cycle for cities.

In the short term we may find that overall school quality in Chicago may become as unequal as crime is now (see the Daniel Hertz piece), with strong schools in gentrified and border areas and poor schools in struggling areas.  That would be bad, if it remains the end state, but that could change over time.

Lastly, don’t be so sure that the suburbs will maintain their hegemony on being family-friendly.  I think we’re beginning to witness a balancing between city and suburb, with the two becoming more alike than dissimilar.  Some of that will be good for the burbs.  They will begin to develop as more walkable places with a mix of uses.  But with that may come stagnant home values, increases in crime, and decreases in school quality that means far less will distinguish them from cities.

At least that’s my guess.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: