How Families Can Benefit the Planning and Design of Cities

An August 19 article in the Washington Post took a tough stance on the value of families to urban settings. Here Bradley Calvert responds by describing how families provide opportunities for planners to rethink cities for the better.
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A recent article by Lydia DePillis poses the question of whether we need to create cities that are family-friendly, ultimately concluding that the economic value of families is not worth the effort because the costs of families, as well as their demand for services and amenities, are too great for cities. However, in crafting this provocative argument, DePillis relies on out of touch perceptions of urban families and fails to recognize that many of their demands for services and amenities parallels that of young professionals and empty nesters. Most importantly, she considers the inflated costs of these services as a byproduct of families and not one created from the inefficient distribution and managing of resources and services by cities.  

Defining the Urban Family

DePillis attempts to separate city residents into one of two categories to establish their economic value. There is the young urban professional that has a propensity for local consumerism and a large disposable income, versus the budget-minded family that spends little, saves a lot, and shops at big box retailers. And the family, as she begins to make clear in her conclusion, is either wealthy or low-income. Bundling residents into two neatly predefined packages might make for an easy analysis in a short article, but it ignores economic diversity and how it relates to complicated policy decisions. 

The prospective urban family does not uniformly resemble that of the typical suburban family. Their interests align more with that of young professionals and millennials. That is the premise for being an urban family—to rid ourselves of the cumbersome expenses and time consumption that suburban living can represent and to utilize the efficiencies and diversity of a city to enrich our lives. An urban family is not searching or asking for the same amenities and lifestyle as our suburban counterparts. We want the same parks, the same restaurants, and the same retail opportunities as our smaller household neighbors. To assume that an urban family fits the profile of Leave it to Beaver is a gross generalization that ignores the entire premise as to why a family would choose an urban lifestyle. This generalization causes others, such as DePillis, to miscalculate the value and efficiencies that urban families can offer a city. Rather than viewing families as an expensive liability to cities, their willingness to ditch oversized homes, yards, and poorly planned schools should be viewed as a tremendous opportunity to increase efficiency in school siting, service distribution, and housing density.    

Dollars and Sense

Families do consume city resources, but the costs of those resources are made more dramatic by the redundancies and inefficiencies in how those services are distributed. How much would the $6,000 per year that DePillis quotes as the average cost burden per family decrease if cities more intelligently planned and designed their distribution of services? If every school was not treated as a warehouse facility, but rather integrated into the community as multi-use facilities (which planners such as Charles Marohn advocate for), schools could serve as community and recreational hubs for all. With more intelligent school siting and uses follows reduced transportation needs, reducing the dependency on fleets of school buses. Partnerships with local transit agencies create opportunities to further reduce this expense. It is hardly fair to place the burden on family households for bloated public service expenses while cities and planning agencies fail to correct their own inefficiencies and antiquated standards.

DePillis reminds us of the economic peril many of our cities once faced, arguing that the pursuit to retain middle class families would create a similar scenario. But the reason our cities spiraled downward was not the result of attempting to retain families, but because of their loss. The social engineering we kindly refer to as sprawl precipitated that decline. Inefficient distribution stretched services beyond their means in an effort to reach each and every rooftop that dotted the once natural landscape. These are inefficiencies that carry qualitative and quantitative costs in physical and mental health that far exceed $6,000 per year. The premise of the urban middle class family is to reduce that inefficiency.

What DePillis fails to mention with the quoted $6,000 is the economic gain that families can represent. Per Mildred Warner’s study in 2012, the amount of money that a family contributes into the local economy is far greater than that of a single occupant household, about $15,000 per year more. Warner also found that a large percentage of that money is spent in the local economy.

DePillis’ proposal to build as densely as possible in one community for one household type, but to build differently for another in a separate location, defies the success and principles of an economically diverse community. In his book, Mapping Decline, Colin Gordon refers to this tactic as "hysterectomy zoning," which cities such as St. Louis have yet to recover from. Hysterectomy zoning is, frankly, a Ponzi scheme that will eventually collapse. At some point millennials will want to move from their micro-apartments, and if we have not made a community that welcomes households of multiple compositions, there will be no one to replace those millennials. There are only so many young professionals for a city to attract. Suburbs and exurbs are now facing the same challenge because they failed to create communities that were attractive to a diverse range of household compositions, such as young professionals. This has carried financial consequences in inefficient services and demographic dependent businesses. Rather than confining residents to neighborhoods and cities based on age and household composition, we should diversify our housing stock by including various housing styles that do not have to include single-family homes.

Ethics and Responsibility

There are problems with reducing citizens to dollar signs. From a planning perspective, it violates a code of ethics that accepts a responsibility to “…seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons…” For governments, it creates opportunities for discrimination and exclusion. By reducing citizens to a value based on economic return and, in turn, selective discrimination, we proclaim that we do not value our future. It also diminishes the gains we have made in re-urbanizing our cities. We no longer accept that our cities are for everyone, but rather for a distinct few that meet the preferred goal of economic returns. That is the behavior of someone playing SimCity, not of someone who is managing our greatest resources. In effect, such a choice sends a clear signal to families, and more specifically children, that you are only welcomed if your current economic return can be justified, not for the potential that you may hold. This creates the potential to develop a new stigma of the city that may have lasting consequences for future generations—a new form of inequity and discrimination.

No one will argue that a city should be managed in a fiscally responsible manner. But we must also acknowledge that a city is not a business traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It is a publicly accessible resource, one that must meet the needs of all of its citizens and potential citizens, regardless of age, income, or household composition. It is not the duty of a mayor or an economic development official to decide who the city is for; it is their job to ensure that the city does not become exclusionary.

DePillis' halfhearted attempt at solutions—to cram as many millennials in one neighborhood and hope there is enough space for families elsewhere while relying on a trickle-down economics approach—misses a critical premise to urban living. It takes away from the beauty and vibrancy that emerges from the complex layering of a diverse population. Segregating neighborhoods by household composition and income is the type of classist solution that prevents cities from crafting real and responsible solutions to their toughest challenges.

This is not an issue absent of a solution, nor is it as daunting as DePillis depicts. Cities all over the world have been successful in retaining and attracting families that are rich, poor, and middle class. They have used policy tools, public-private partnerships, and development incentives that cost the city very little while achieving great successes. Like it or not, DePillis will have to accept the fact that there is a booming generation of parents that wants and demands an urban life. From urban cities such as Seattle and Washington, to the rapidly urbanizing suburban cities of Bellevue and Arlington, urban families are becoming more prevalent.

Bradley Calvert is a land use planner and architect raising a family in Downtown Seattle.

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