Cities have been at the heart of many of the greatest achievements throughout our history, with the most significant contributions to cultural, economic, and scientific advancements emerging from places rich in human capital. From Athens and Rome to London and New York, great cities inspire and captivate by virtue of their irreplaceable role in our histories—the history of those who have called them home and those who have admired them from afar, in distant lands and in different centuries.
Today, we tend to view our cities through a more practical lens as places with unique economic opportunities, cultural dynamism, public amenities, night life, and so forth. These features are particularly appealing to younger adults who value the ability to live, work, and play in the same area. For many, it’s the logical progression following the move away from home, graduating college, and beginning a career. The adage of “moving to the city” reflects the excitement of transitioning to a phase of life characterized by change, novelty, freedom, and opportunity.
Many of the qualities that make cities attractive to young adults also keep cities desirable as people get married and have children. The density of cities means that there are more things in a smaller geographical space: more jobs, parks, restaurants, coffee shops, schools, churches, museums, and just about everything else. Families value these kinds of places as much as anyone, giving cities a competitive advantage over suburban and rural communities. Despite this broad appeal, remaining in the city is infeasible for many families. As much as they would welcome staying in the city—rather than having to move out to the suburbs—our cities are often not welcoming to them and can even be hostile in some cases. The declining percentage of children being born in cities suggests that urban life is becoming less suitable for families. There are numerous ways in which our cities are failing to support families, but three key issues stand out: housing, education, and safety.
For most families, housing is not only the largest expense, but the primary factor in determining where to live. It becomes especially important with a growing family that requires additional bedrooms and amenities. Much has been made about the “missing middle” in housing, and for good reason. Our cities are overwhelmingly zoned for single-family housing and high-rise apartments. In Los Angeles, for example, 78 percent of residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes. The story is similar in Seattle, Chicago, Charlotte, and countless other cities across the nation. The result is a chronic undersupply of housing, augmented by an even greater undersupply of truly affordable housing. Per capita new housing construction remains near historic lows, pushing perspective buyers and renters alike away from urban areas.
While high-rise apartments utilize space efficiently by building up instead of out, they still have their limits. These units tend to be specifically designed for singles and roommates because of their layout design and amenities. Features like equally sized bedrooms, large walk-in closets and bathrooms, and limited dining space may work for those without children, but are unsuitable for many families. Some have concerns about whether the height of these high-rise buildings prevents them from being “human scale,” but the real problem is that they lack units that are family scale. The goal of developers is generally to maximize rent per square foot, which makes studios and one-bedroom units the most profitable. However, this approach ignores the demand from families for alternative layouts that are more conducive to raising children. We can blame restrictive zoning, prohibitive environmental regulations, myopic housing development, rising material costs, and a variety of other causes for these issues, but the overlying point is that poor housing options have made urban life much more difficult for families.
Identifying problems is easier than finding and implementing solutions, but there are some policy options that can significantly improve urban housing options for families. Upzoning to accommodate higher density—including single-family residential zoning—is the first necessary step to increasing housing development. Single-family homes offer comfort, stability, and the opportunity for homeownership, but require much more land than higher density options.
Missing middle housing options like townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, and even mid-rise condos allow for more homes to be built, reduce housing costs, and preserve homeownership as an option for families. Additionally, working with developers to provide more family-oriented floorplans is a less conventional, but crucial way to improve housing options for families. Bobby Fijan, a housing developer and expert in redesigning apartment floorplans to suit families, notes the error of many housing advocates in “fixating on density, setbacks, and facades rather than the interior spaces of where people actually live.”
We must see housing from the inside and outside—at both the neighborhood and bedroom level. More bedrooms per square foot, smaller second and third bedrooms, windowless bedrooms, dedicated dining areas, and single-staircase buildings are some of the design reforms that make these units possible and profitable. Cities often require developers to provide a certain number of “affordable” units in new buildings, and there is no reason why the same can’t be done with family-oriented units. The current undersupply of family-oriented units presents an immense opportunity for developers, who have an important role to play in mitigating the housing crisis in our cities.
Most of us can agree that quality schools that educate and prepare the next generation for adulthood are an indispensable social good. Horace Mann, the iconic education reformer of the nineteenth century, identified education as “the great equalizer” in conferring opportunities for success to those who would otherwise be excluded from the ladders of social mobility. We all have an interest in the proper education of children, but parents have a unique concern for the education of their children. Limited educational options for students is a major factor that drives families away from cities in hopes of finding higher performing schools. It’s a great sacrifice to do so in many cases, but one that parents will readily make if it means their children will be able to attend better schools.
An unfortunate (and somewhat paradoxical) reality is that many of America’s most desirable cities have the worst performing school districts. San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and other metropolitan areas are struggling to provide educational options that match the desirability of their other urban qualities. When we wonder why a family would abandon an otherwise enjoyable urban life, we need not look much further than the schools. Arguably the biggest issue with urban education is that the schools—and school districts—are simply too large and serve too many students. The Clark County School District in Nevada, for instance, manages 375 public schools and serves over 300,000 students. Accountability, oversight, and responsiveness are much less feasible with an organizational bureaucracy of this size, and it’s the students who suffer. Wealthier families can capitalize on private schools and other alternatives when they are unsatisfied with the local public schools, but lower-income families do not have this luxury.
The problem of an inadequate supply of schools is similar to the inadequate supply of housing in that the logical first step is to increase the supply. More schools—and more school districts—allow families to have greater educational options for their children. It also allows schools to serve a more manageable number of students, which seems to have social and educational advantages for children.
Insufficient school funding is a common explanation for poor educational outcomes, but this claim is not well supported by the evidence. Nationally, inflation-adjusted per pupil, education spending increased nearly 50 percent between 1990 and 2019, with little to no improvement to show for it. Some of the worst performing urban school districts are among the highest funded, such as New York City School District, Los Angeles Unified School District, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Atlanta Public Schools. Despite spending much more than the national average per student, these districts continue to underperform.
Parental engagement in education appears to be a much better indicator of student success, which warrants a more concerted effort to involve parents in our schools. Increasing communication between parents and teachers, providing parents with opportunities to volunteer in schools, and scheduling more “open houses” for families to engage faculty are a few options for improving parental engagement, which will allow schools to better serve their students. While no panacea, these are the kinds of changes necessary for urban areas to remain viable for families as they have children and education becomes a greater priority.
The third area in which cities must improve to better accommodate families is public safety, which encompasses everything from reducing crime to limiting traffic fatalities. Suffice it to say that no one prefers to live in a high crime area, as violence is detrimental to both economic and cultural vitality. When our streets are unsafe, it affects the entire community. Crime is especially concerning for families, and any sensible parent will do whatever is necessary to protect their children from danger.
While the difference in crime rates between urban and suburban areas is often exaggerated, the perception of an unsafe neighborhood is more than enough to deter a family from living there. Cities that are able to reduce and prevent crime are, by definition, better places for families to live. New York City’s success in reducing crime in recent decades is an intriguing case study that goes beyond the scope of this article, but what is particularly interesting is that the city has a relatively high population of minors. About 21 percent of residents are under 18 years old, which mirrors the national average and is much higher than other big cities. San Francisco, by contrast, has one of the lowest minor populations at just 13 percent. Unsurprisingly, New York is a much safer city than San Francisco, which partially explains why this population discrepancy exists.
Reducing crime is easier said than done, of course, but we have seen effective policy solutions that more cities should consider. It may be controversial, but the data overwhelmingly show that hiring more police officers leads to less crime. The simple reasoning is twofold: (1) the presence of police deters criminal activity and (2) more arrests means that there are fewer criminals on the streets. A 2019 study in the American Law and Economics Review examined data from 7,000 U.S. municipalities, finding that a “10% increase in police employment rates reduces violent crime rates by 13% and property crime rates by 7%.” New York’s crime spike in the 1980s and early 1990s quickly reversed after the New York Police Department dramatically expanded hiring beginning in 1990. Setting aside complex debates about criminal justice reform and police misconduct, it’s difficult to deny that our cities become safer by having more police officers on duty. Another way to improve safety is with greater urban street lighting, an idea proposed over six decades ago by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs argued that good street lighting creates the perception and reality of safety; it’s more comforting to walk where you can see and where others can also see you. When onlookers can easily see the streets, whether from the sidewalk or their balcony, the sense of safety for pedestrians grows. The University of Chicago Crime Lab conducted a randomized control trial featuring 40 public housing developments, half of which received new and improved streetlights. The result was a significant reduction in “index crimes,” including murder, robbery, and aggravated assault. There are many other policy options that may reduce crime and make cities safer for families, but more policing and greater street lighting are two proven solutions that any city can implement.
Prioritizing Families in Our Cities
Cities represent the greatest achievements of our past and the best hope for our future, but the trends pushing families away from urban areas should be concerning. Quality housing, better education, and safer neighborhoods are necessary for families to flourish, and also improve the quality of life for all residents. Our cities should be livable for people of all ages—and their prosperity in the long term depends on it.
Families are worth prioritizing because they are particularly invested in the success of their community as the place in which they live, work, play, and raise their children. This generational commitment to the city is indispensable because it builds a form of social capital that is nearly impossible to replicate otherwise. Perhaps the best indication of a thriving city is the desire of parents to raise their children within it. Edmund Burke famously wrote that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely,” and the same can be said for our cities. Families should have great cities to call home, and cities should have loving families to call residents.
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