Thursday, January 9th, 2014

What Is a City For?

Joel Kotkin recently produced a brief report for a Singapore agency called “What Is a City For?” that asks some important questions that are too often not considered when thinking about our cities. Whether or not you agree with Kotkin’s answer, the questions are worth pondering and being able to answer. The lead paragraphs set the stage:

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?

The last question gets to Kotkin’s answer. He clearly sees the city as a locale that should be, above all, a place to produce and nurture future generations. As he puts it later in the report, “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.”

One does not have to be pining away for the 1950s to recognize that, despite the decline in traditional nuclear and extended family household structures generally, urban cores – and the urbanism agenda – have become unbalanced in favor of singles. There has probably been more urbanist ink spilled over so-called “micro-apartments” than about playgrounds for children, for example.

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%)

With places like Manhattan and Washington dominated by singles and people living alone, it should come as no surprise that their lifestyle needs take center stage in defining what it is cities should be about.

So far, so good. I’ve often argued myself that cities should strengthen their strategic differentiation versus the suburbs. There’s no necessary reason why cities have to be aimed at children. However, to de facto write off families with kids is to acknowledge that the city exists as a niche. And make no mistake, that’s what’s happening. I just looked through the first five pages of articles on Atlantic Cities, for example, and found only a passing reference to births in a post about the US population estimate and a paragraph on the Dasani article as relating to children. And the Dasani piece, a story on a homeless child in New York, is revealing. My impression is that a large percentage of the urban stories that are about children involve hand-wringing over the need for social service spending. Notwithstanding the real need for social services, a life of public housing, food stamps, and Medicaid is not aspirational. The fact that so many children in the city are in fact those whose parents are too poor to get out and who need extensive public support just to survive is not something to be celebrated.

If we expect cities to be part of the answer to the problem of climate change, the financial unsustainability of sprawl, or anything else, then it has to be a place where children can be raised to thrive in the world. One doesn’t need to share Kotkin’s vision to see that. This doesn’t mean necessarily junking the urbanist agenda, but it does mean building a bigger tent and not overly obsessing the needs of niche market segments.

Families are but one dimension of the city however. I think too often we, meaning me included, jump straight into things like how to create a global city economy without taking a step back first to ask exactly what it is the city is for. Kotkin has given his answer. It would be interesting to hear yours in the comments. I must confess that I don’t have an easy elevator pitch style answer myself, so this is something for me to ponder too.

Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture

23 Responses to “What Is a City For?”

  1. Jonathan says:

    I’m an urban parent and I assert that the condition of the urban family is hardly ignored by city fathers. Who else do you suggest is the audience for universal Pre-K, the signature plank of Mayor De Blasio’s platform?

  2. Sean S. says:

    There’s no necessary reason why cities have to be aimed at children.

    Except you know, for the fact that cities can’t exist without them, unless you’ve figured out some other miraculous way to spring young 20-something fully formed out in to the world. Snark aside, this is a substantial problem for why cities cannot maintain continuity. If individuals leave an urban area to a suburban area, even if they continue to work in said urban area, their involvement in their PTA board, their city council, their church, whatever is distinctly aligned to their new suburban reality. That leads to a vacuum of experienced, on the ground people who would care about the circumstances in the city. That’s a serious problem.

  3. Curt says:

    As a family living in Indy, we are about 6 miles north of downtown. Self admitted city folk, we have looked at living downtown. However, having a 3 year old son has made that a difficult sell due to lack of playgrounds, basketball courts and nice parks to use. Even a safe place to bicycle.

    Indy is hardly held up as an urban model with some of the others you listed Aaron. Some might say Indy is more family friendly than those places. But deep in the heart of the city, it still doesn’t offer a welcoming area to raise a child where you can go play basketball, or go down a slide, or ride your bike safely.

    Long way to go.

  4. pete-rock says:

    @Aaron, forgive me for using your post as the jumping point for a blog post of my own, but my comment was too long.

    Basically, I’m not too concerned with this, as I think cities will become more family-friendly and the suburbs less so, in the coming years.

    Remember when crime was an intractable problem for cities until the ’90s, and then crime inexplicably dropped like a two-ton rock in the ocean? I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happens with urban schools improving sharply, for the reasons given in the post.

  5. Amy says:

    Aaron, good topic and good question.

    If we focus too much on the “child” issue (though have a perspective having raised children in Indy in downtown and near-downtown) I think we might get too caught up in that whole “niche” problem you pointed out–and that might be the problem: that the city has become a marketing center/problem …

    The city, as a concentration of people, should probably be more citizen-driven than it is, a cultural center and a laboratory for people, ideas and cultures … But, instead, to analyze this question, we put our business hats on and cities are commodities, a thinking which seems to trivialize and stunt our intellectual ability to think about it, since it is defined defacto as a non-intellectual problem … Anyone else frustrated with this?

  6. Chris Barnett says:

    Let’s just say that there’s no reason that the core of a city has to be built for daily life by families with young children

    The answer, as applied to Indy, is that there are many near-downtown (i.e. 2-6 miles out) “old city” neighborhoods that do offer the amenities lacking downtown…even though they are still in the urban Indianapolis Public Schools district. Irvington, Meridian Kessler, Butler Tarkington, Broad Ripple, Warfleigh, Arden, Glendale, Canterbury, Forest Hills, Little Flower, Christian Park, Garfield Park, University Heights, plus Beech Grove and Speedway (which have their own separate and better schools).

    All these neighborhoods are no more than 10-15 minutes from downtown’s attractions by car, a little more by bike or bus.

  7. Jeff La Noue says:

    It should be noted that most cities have declining densities from their downtowns. As follows, aside from maybe Manhattan, most US cities offer a number of hybrid neighborhoods with both suburban and urban characteristics. Many families can be happy in these types of neighborhoods if they are safe and have acceptable schools.

    I have a family and live four miles from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in a neighborhood with a decent walkscore, near the zoo and a large park. It is well within the city limits, affordable, and certainly not thought of as a “family” oriented neighborhood. The big advantage is….. My son takes the light rail to school two miles away, to swim practice, and to hang out with friends. Our carpooling is pretty minimal. This is a huge family friendly advantage of our semi-urban living arrangement.

  8. h st ll says:

    Echoing the first comment, we have free prek3 and 4 in DC, a huge savings vs. the burbs.

    Not too mention parks everywhere and huge spending on our schools. Sure they aren’t perfect, but is this really even an issue?

  9. John S. says:

    @pete-rock, I totally agree with your outlook. There’s already a growing trend of young 20-something and 30-something city dwellers that have decided not to flee for the burbs once they have kids in tow because they are thoroughly vested in city life and living. Those that do have school age kids are becoming actively involved in central urban schools as parents and volunteers, providing support and even resources for these neighborhood institutions that have gone lacking for years.

    I would closely monitor the performance of schools that serve central city downtowns and surrounding inner-ring neighborhoods over the next 10 years, as I am quite certain we will see a narrowing of the gap in performance between the schools serving the urban core and some of the top performing outer ring suburban districts. I also believe we will see top performing suburban districts decline on their own as the cohort of adults that sought out this particular suburban arrangement to begin with ages into seniorhood in place and is not replaced. Fixed income seniors are notorious for voting down school levies, and there will be much more of them and fewer younger families living in these areas in the coming years. Cities and suburbs will look very different than they do now in 10 years, and the shift to what they will look like is already underway.

  10. Matthew says:

    The reason why families fled cities in the 70s is because they were violent and dangerous for two major reasons: crime and automobile traffic.

    The crime problem, while it will never go away completely, has been largely ameliorated compared to the horrible levels of the 70s, 80s and early 90s. People who lived back then expected it to get worse and worse and worse, but instead it got better. There is still a lot of shell-shock among the older generation, regarding crime in cities, but the data show that it’s a much different story nowadays.

    So the other problem that remains is traffic violence. Our cities were criss-crossed with streets turned into killing zones, with speeding cars, and casual death that was written off by police and elected officials as “the cost of doing business.” Is it any wonder that families fled away from that to try and protect themselves? Not to mention the pollution spread by the exhaust from all those cars.

    Today, we’ve greatly improved the emissions standards of vehicles, and we are making strides on the safety problem. There’s still a long ways to go, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress by getting local DOTs to acknowledge that they must design streets for all users, not just cars. They must protect the most vulnerable users of the streets, and understand that the streets are the connective tissue of a local neighborhood, not just a sewer for moving vehicles around quickly.

    Whether it be crime or threat from motor vehicles, when parents feel safe letting their children walk alone on our city streets, then I think you will see families starting or returning in large numbers.

  11. Gerhard E. says:

    There’s a basic schitzophrenia experienced by those who love the city, but that also accept neoliberal capitalism. Whatever new urban cultural values they are able to effect, if they aren’t immediately commodifiable, are overruled by economic values–ALWAYS.

    You can read the resignation in various obligatory last-line caveats: “…how to do this while staying competitive in the global economy”. We know ‘free-market’ (unregulated) economic competition is a race to the bottom. At the most we’re creating ultra-‘creative’ ’boutique cities’ as niche markets, supported by remote slave labour and further degradation.

    We’re doing this funny kind of Potemkin village dance pretending there’s some kind of cultural urban renaissance underway–and maybe there is, on the surface–meanwhile the economic and political structure is unmoved or worsened, with inequalities growing.

    It’s as if we think by simply persuading ourselves and others to become enlightened urbanites…we can add a moral quality to capitalism. This is possible, and happening now, but it can be no more than a faint dye, a light gloss…the fundamental character of the system won’t be flipped.

    To more of the matter on hand–but very related to the above–if we could spend more time marshaling our analysis and differentiation (study of the many vicissitudes) to support what we WANT for cities (rather than what we estimate is economically optimum, opportune or shrewd), then we might find the following quote completely obvious:

    “If cities are not meant for children, they are not meant for citizens either.” -Aldo van Eyck.

  12. Charles says:

    A definitional issue. What do we mean by family-friendly? Nice to cite amenities but what does it really mean? I suspect a good definition might be demographically self-sustaining. However, my recollection is that core cities have just about always and everywhere been net population importers; i.e. they are not demographically self-sustaining. London, Paris, Berlin in European history. Mexico City, Shanghai, Mumbai today. I am not sure I can conjure an example anywhere at anytime of a large city that has been demographically self-sustaining for more than a generation or two. There are examples of cities with stable population levels but that masks constant churn of childless arrivals and family departures. Cities are enormously productive, and net are beneficial to people compared to alternatives but the idea of family-friendly cities may be a chimera. It might be desirable but I suspect that any effort to become child-friendly/ demographically self-supporting is a much more daunting task than might be anticipated.

    Perhaps the issue is that we are being too constrained in our concepts of urban vs. suburban. Perhaps we ought to be thinking of suburbs as the extended metropolitan neighborhoods which sustain families while the urban core supports all sorts of much smaller in number subgroups (young professionals, university students, artists, entrepreneurs, musicians, businesses, and other self-defined groups.) In other words, maybe cities are already family-friendly and the solution has been the development of urban areas which have family-friendly environments with lower density, higher park prevalence, etc. We just happen to call them suburbs.

  13. Charles says:

    A second thought. I wonder if this is not also the product of the intersection between patterns of movement with concentrations of power/money.

    Specifically, I am thinking that core cities have relatively high population churn (movement in and out) compared to suburbs. At the same time, because of the density, there tends to be higher concentrations of government money in core cities with all the rent seeking and regulatory capture that goes with that.

    My suspicion is that it is much harder for the average citizen to access and influence government in an urban environment (pitted against an array of concentrated interest groups and lobbies/lobbyists) than it is in the suburbs.

    So I wonder if parents don’t flee to the suburbs, not just for the amenities but also for the opportunity to exert more control over their environment.

    The example I am thinking of is k-12 education. Core city school systems seem largely immune to change and improvement principally because of entrenched special interests in the cities. Better suburban school results are often attributed to better funding but the average suburban spending per student is usually a good deal lower than that of cities. More than that, my sense is that parents exert a good deal more power over the school boards in the suburbs than in the cities.

  14. Alex Forrest says:

    A city is a place where you can experience something new every day. A *good* city is one where this opportunity is available to every resident: young, old, rich, poor, etc.

    As far as child-friendly cities go, look no further than metropolitan Tokyo–I lived there until I was four, and even at that age the city was so child-friendly that I could explore with some degree of impunity. If I had stayed until my sixth birthday, I’d have been old enough to travel to school by myself, as many Japanese children do. The city offered playgrounds, small parks, safe streets, negligible crime, great transport, frequent street festivals, and a binding sense of mutual care. When my family moved back to the USA (Somerville, near Boston), the difference was obvious.

  15. The suburbs were built, then the urban centers declined. Urban Vulnerability, the fear of nuclear attack that prescribed dispersion to survive an attack, rather than harden cities, created the effect it was to defend against. Cratered cities.

    The U.S. became a suburban nation by 1970. “The Costs of Sprawl” was published in April, 1974. The inefficiency of the suburban style was already evident, but irreversible because American runs on land speculation. Since housing construction cannot be the base of a local economy, there would come a bust – and then, the need for schools, parks, fire stations, libraries, etc. all the services required when a building lot gets a building.

    Was any of the tax increment from the subdivision of farmland into building lots banked for the services that would be required? No – so localities incur bonded debt to fund infrastructure. The housing stock is the only thing to tax, since local industry and commerce (buildings, equipment and jobs)were not the drivers of the growth. Housing growth has to be controlled, so standards go up, increasing the cost of new housing. Builders leap-frog out to cheaper land and localities that haven’t been smacked by residential housing hangovers.

    That’s why in many major metros people have a 30 to 70+ mile commute. They can’t afford to live near where they work. In Northern Virginia, though the localities have the highest incomes, the housing is most unaffordable. If you make the median income, you can’t buy the median house.

    I wonder if in Mr. Kotkin’s book he comes clean that a named cluster of people in a suburban county, say Tysons Corner, is not a city, nor is it ever likely to become one. Cities are municipal corporations chartered according to the laws of a given state.

    Cities are where civilization was invented and practiced. Because people are able to specialize, they are a highly interdependent community, regardless of the make-up. In order to do your job or develop your skill or art to a high degree, everybody else has to be doing their job so the city runs and you have the peace and security to really accomplish something.

    Competition goes hand in hand with cooperation. No city needs to dominate the world, but all need the network of cities and the city-regions that do all the other things an individual doesn’t want to do.

  16. Mike Lanza says:

    Aaron – You provide a much-needed perspective here – namely, that cities need to be more accommodating to children. I agree, but that’s taking the perspective of how to make cities better.

    Shouldn’t our perspective be people, not cities? I mean, I think it’s most valid to focus on what people need than what some urban form needs. From the perspective of what children need, I strongly believe that, in general, suburbs are better than dense urban cities. To state it differently, when urbanists ridicule suburbs and hope for their extinction, they’re being anti-child. See my arguments in this article:

    Suburb Hating is Anti-Child

  17. Edwin Williamson says:

    I would love to see a post on trends. These data would look very different if the trend is a decline (I assume it is) than if there is a recent trend of increasing (as Pete-Rock) is predicting.
    I have seen lots of people of all demographics come and go from cities. What I would like to see are some good data points!
    Thanks for the post.

  18. waitwhat says:

    A. Lots of cities are trying to build more playgrounds (DC certainly is) and even do whats harder, improve urban education.

    B. but especially in places like DC there is only so much room in the central city (which in DC and SF are very small pieces of the total metro area). As long as families have high square footage needs relative to income, its always going to be hard to make them work for families (leaving aside those neighborhoods where crime and blight make them unappealing to anyone with a choice, and so the poor remain). The only way to change that is to increase the amount of square footage available, by removing supply constraints, so sq footage becomes cheaper. Forcing developers to build 3BR apts will only result in apts split among roommates, at least in high cost cities. Note this assumes families with children only need more sq feet, and can forego yard space and auto centrism.

    If you dont have more capacity, theres no point to marketing beyond a niche anyway.

  19. Brandon says:

    I think many cities retain viable options for families within perhaps 5 miles of the core. I would however like to see an attitude shift among some urbanphiles to speak more generously about families and not be so disdainful of them, as some do in my neck of the woods. (It is acceptable in some younger circles to openly voice a dislike bordering on hatred for children, which is really messed up.)

    The other thing often missing from this discussion is that the large Millennial generation which reportedly is “flocking” to cities is simply in one young life-stage right now and will be progressing into others. In other words, this generation will start having children very soon if they haven’t already. The micro-apartments, reliance on bicycles, overpriced groceries, and other sacrifices of urban density will no longer suit their needs. Despite what they may claim now, the same necessities of child rearing will start to seep in for Millenials as with every previous generation.

    Therefore the greatest challenge for accommodating more urban families is the higher cost of larger housing units (most often detached), and the inability to produce more of them in an urban area that is already built out. The only place to produce larger, lower density units is the suburbs.

  20. Tone says:

    Brandon, I’m not sure what city you live in, but groceries are quite cheap in my city. Also, I would say it’s the opposite that 5 miles outside the core, it’s easier for families to live. I in the city with kids but further from downtown.

  21. Brandon says:

    Tone, I meant that there are few options within the core, but beyond the core, perhaps within five miles you start to find viable options for families that then extend further outwards towards the suburbs. I think we’re agreeing.

    In the truly dense areas of my city everything costs more, groceries, restaurants, sundries, parking, housing of course. Basically life is more expensive. Theoretically you may save on car ownership/gas (though many residents there own cars anyway.)

  22. Stan Mordensky, Sr says:

    I am a residents of south Frederick County, MD where BoCC has or will soon will be approving large developments for approximately 18,000 new houses squeezed into the SE corner of this county w/existing homes on one acre. We lack the needed infrastructure to safely handle this on some of the most dangerous roads in our county. The state has no money to improve roads or schools.

    Can someone please contact me. Day three of BoCC public hearings takes place at 6 PM in Winchester Hall Frederick, City, MD on January 16, 21 and 22 regarding the rezoning of a 457 acre farm to 1,510 homes, town homes and 2 + 2 housing. Sincerely, Stan Mordensky C 301-639-8584

  23. Jay Kay says:

    Jane Jacobs argues that cities only exist because they are economic units and that is their sole purpose. In her words:

    Jane Jacobs: “I think you’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion. That’s called teleological thinking: people do get together in cities, but it’s not because they decide “Well, we’re going to get together and we’ll have a city.” No, you have to have work in a city, or you have to draw a whole lot of taxes or tribute of some kind. Essentially, cities are economic units, and from those economic circumstances you get various social things, but you have started that train of thought altogether wrong by saying the reason for the cities, if I understood you, is for people to get together. That’s like saying the reason for plants is to use the rainfall.”

    Full interview here:

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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