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.
|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.