Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Children in cities

I've observed before that cities aren't designed for children. And that this is something of a problem if we are to become a more urban society. Indeed there are some people out there trying really hard to rediscover play in our hard-edged and adult city spaces like Emma Bearman's Playbox in Leeds. There's still a problem, especially in the biggest and grandest cities, and this from Aaron Renn sets it out:
These global cities are where the culture is made, where the media are, etc. To the extent that they represent a very atypical demographic profile that largely excludes families with school-aged children, this only perpetuates the “bubble” in which America’s leadership class often lives. The values and priorities of people without children are different from those with children. One example is the value people put on space. In our central cities populated with largely people who have no children, a big obsession is changing zoning regulations to allow smaller units, including so-called “micro-apartments.” These kinds of developments would enable more upscale young adult singles to live in cities. That’s good in itself. Yet it is not paired with equal concern about creating more housing for families.
I've a feeling - it's just that as I've not dug around for evidence - that densification, the process Renn describes above, makes having a family less likely and more difficult. The successful, well-educated London couple living in a great little rented apartment in Shoreditch or Stockwell will have a pretty decent life - good money, plenty of social life and a plethora of little consumer pleasures. They know, however, that having a family means leaving the heart of the city. Here's Renn again - speaking as a new father in New York's Upper West Side:’s hard not to notice that while there are lots of very young children here, there are far fewer school aged ones. I don’t have any desire or plans to leave, but I have to recognize that children have a way of changing your priorities. Realistically, most people with school-aged children still seem to move to the suburbs. Those I see raising older kids in the city are generally well-off enough to afford large apartments or even single family homes (in cities like Chicago). They can also either pay the premium to live in a high quality neighborhood school zone or pay the freight for private schooling.
In some of these great cities we make matters even worse because of the deliberate limitation of housing development through such things as zoning and green belt. Not only is raising a family in the city open only to the very rich (who have the cash) and the poor (who often have no choice) but increasingly the same goes for suburbia. This semi-detatched round the corner from where I was brought up now sells at about £450,000:

Maybe that's affordable to our hypothetical successful and well-educated London couple but I suspect the truth is that most of such people see this perfectly ordinary semi in an average South London suburb as beyond their means (not least because they'll probably need £45,000 cash deposit). So they stay right where they are putting off have children for another year, hoping for another promotion or a great new job that will make the family possible. And because there are fewer and fewer children, there are fewer and fewer facilities for those children. Why set up a ball park or soft play zone when there are no children to use it. Worse still those adults in the city without children resent the noisy intrusion and attention grabbing of children - even to calling for them to be banned from pubs and restaurants.

I don't want to change cities particularly. Central London was never all that child-friendly and I guess the same goes for Manhattan and San Francisco. But we create a problem if we see the great city as the model for everywhere - dense, crowded living, unsafe public spaces, congestion all leavened with 'culture'. Near every local planning document will talk about increasing housing density which means smaller gardens, more flats, less open space, narrower pavements and smaller rooms. All things that make bringing up children more difficult. The cities don't care - they're just importing the next generation of workers from other places and other countries - but, for all their finery and beauty cities like this are mistletoe, parasites on the productive, healthy apple tree of society. Good to kiss under but not not much else.


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