Unexpectedly Intriguing!
April 4, 2005

Knute Berger editorializes about the success of cities in reinventing themselves and their future in the March 30, 2005 edition of Seattle Weekly (HT: Jim Miller at Sound Politics). Focusing on Seattle, the points raised in the article directly apply to many urban centers, which share many of the same trends that face Seattle today and that will ultimately determine what the future of cities around the world will look like.

Knute Berger's assessment of how well Seattle is doing centers on how well the city is meeting the needs of families with children. He notes that current trends toward greater population density within the city do not favor families:

The density freaks — who promote urban design models that cater mostly to well-heeled gentrifiers — tout a vision that often leaves families out of the equation. Families are priced out, too, as our model modern cities are turning into gated communities for wealthy urban sophisticates.

He notes that this anti-family tendency is shared by the city's political and civic leaders:

Seattle and Mayor Greg Nickels are slavishly devoted to cramming more residents into our own downtown in the name of smart growth. And the mayor, at least, is willing to pay through the nose for it by selling off public property assets to facilitate the wealthy developers who'd like to profit from making it happen. He has the support of most other civic leaders, who seem more interested in trolley lines and sculpture gardens — and tourists — than the city's lower-caste residents, who might need something as basic and unglamorous as crosswalks. In Seattle, whimsy is for the adults; real kids can basically sod off.
After summarizing the history and motivations of middle-class flight from cities to the suburbs, Berger notes what it would take to make a city successful in attracting families (excerpts below), focusing on affordability, safety and education:
  • To be family-friendly, you have to be affordable, because — and you know I'm right, parents — it is freaking expensive to raise kids today, let alone pay a mortgage.
  • You won't have kids and families in your cities unless people feel safe. Joel Garreau, the author who documented the emergence of the suburbs in Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, noted that families will settle in communities where women feel safe and where they know their kids are safe.
  • Another factor is education. If the school system is bad — if kids are neither safe nor well socialized nor sufficiently educated — families will move until they find more acceptable options. Can anyone say with a straight face that Seattle's public schools are truly the best option in the region? A shrinking school-age population makes that even tougher to turn around.

So why not just write off families from urban life? That is, in effect, what many cities have done, although many city leaders still pay lip service to the concept of being supportive to families. From a marketing standpoint however, it makes sense - by playing to the market for singles and others without children, cities don't have to make much of an investment in the features that would potentially attract them, allowing them to focus on the high-margin "preferred" customer that is attracted to the non-family-friendly aspects of a city environment. But does that marketing strategy come with unintended consequences? Berger concludes his editorial with the following comments:

One might ask about the kids: Who needs them? Perhaps being a city of singles and empty nesters is a good thing, a marketplace inevitability. Let kids thrive in the burbs. But surrendering too easily writes off some of the fundamental issues any community needs to grapple with, issues of class, well being, diversity, and brain power. It's also self-defeating for those who chase the image of modern, eco-savvy urbanity. Do we want a city populated by civic Shakers? The Shakers were a religious sect that didn't believe in breeding. You guessed it: They're nearly extinct now, a suicide cult in slow motion.

Quoting Glenn Reynolds: "Indeed."

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