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Cities, the Middle Class, and Children

Joel Kotkin argues that Jane Jacobs's insights are of limited value because cities are no longer useful for middle-class families.
Michael Lewyn | August 25, 2015, 9am PDT
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In a recent article, Joel Kotkin critiques the work of Jane Jacobs; he points out that Jacobs idealized middle-class city neighborhoods, and suggests that because cities have become dominated by childless rich people, middle-class urbanity "has passed into myth, and... it is never going to come back." He suggests that Americans are "moving out to the suburbs as they enter their 30s and start families" because central cities are only appropriate for "the talented, the young, and childless affluent adults." This claim rests on a couple of assumptions: 1) that cities have little appeal to families and 2) that the only Americans whose preferences are typical are those middle-class families.

The first claim has an element of truth: families do tend to prefer more suburban living environments. But what Kotkin overlooks is that the tide is turning (at least a little). Although American suburbs clearly have more children than cities, the most desirable city neighborhoods are more appealing to parents than was the case a decade ago. 

For example, Kotkin writes that Greenwich Village (where Jacobs lived) "today now largely consists of students, wealthy people and pensioners." But according to the Furman Center's neighborhoood-by-neighborhood surveys of New York housing, the percentage of households with children actually increased in New York's more desirable urban neighborhoods. For example, in Jacobs's own Greenwich Village, 15.1 percent of all 2013 households had children under 18—lower than in most places to be sure, but higher than in 2000, when only 11.4 percent had children. Similarly, the "households with children" percentage increased from 11.4 percent to 15.1 percent in New York's financial district, from 14.6 percent to 17.8 percent in the Upper West Side, and from 13.3 percent to 16.6 percent in the Upper East Side.

Kotkin sees an America polarized between child-friendly suburbs and child-hostile cities, But in reality, there seems to be a kind of convergence between the city's affluent central neighborhoods and the rest of the city—while the urban core is becoming more child-oriented and outlying areas (especially poorer outlying areas) are becoming less so. The percentage of households with minor children decreased from 38.1 percent to 29.3 percent in Central Harlem, from 40.8 percent to 29.4 percent in Washington Heights/Inwood, and from 38.1 percent to 29.3 percent in East Harlem. Similarly, the "households with children" percentage increased from 25.1 percent to 27.1 percent in affluent Park Slope, while declining in low-income Brownsville and East New York (two parts of Brooklyn especially far from Manhattan). New York is not unique: in Washington, D.C., the number of children increased in the city's most affluent areas and decreased in the city's poorer areas. 

Kotkin correctly points out that despite widespread commentary about gentrification, even cities with lots of rich people (such as New York and Chicago) still have plenty of low-income areas. He therefore reasons that cities are perfectly fine for the very rich and the very poor, but not for the middle classes. However, he overstates this trend by relying on some statistics that might not support his case. In particular, he relies on a Brookings Institution study listing the most and least unequal cities: according to Kotkin, the most compact, walkable cities are the most unequal. However, Kotkin, by comparing central cities alone, misses one relevant fact: most of these compact cities are trapped within their 1950 city limits, while, according to the Brookings study itself, the low-inequality cities are usually "Southern and Western cities with expansive borders, and either include many 'suburban' neighborhoods alongside a traditional urban core, or are themselves overgrown suburbs like Mesa, Arizona and Arlington, Texas." It logically follows that if 46-square-mile San Francisco was compared to the inner 46 miles of Omaha or Oklahoma City, the latter cities might seem somewhat more unequal, and San Francisco might seem less exceptional in comparison. 

Despite my quibbles, Kotkin is on to something: it is true that large cities tend to be more unequal than their suburbs. But unlike Kotkin, I don't treat this as an inevitable fact of life. Some cities are too expensive for middle-class families, but that is a result of public policy rather than some force of nature. Because older cities are more likely to be "built out," those cities are less likely to be able to add housing to meet increased demand. So to retain the middle class, a city must go out of its way to encourage new housing. Instead, many cities have restrictive zoning that artificially limits housing supply, thus causing prices to rise. And when cities attempt to solve this problem, they sometimes do so by trying to build or mandate the creation of low-income housing, which may help the poor more than the middle classes. If cities had less restrictive zoning, perhaps more housing would be available for the middle class. 

By contrast, Kotkin believes that cities are inherently undesirable because "[f]amilies in urban apartments today, says Cornell researcher Gary Evans, generally have far weaker networks of neighbors than their suburban counterparts, a generally more stressful home life, and significantly less social support." However, the study that Kotkin links to says nothing of the sort. Evans does not mention the word "urban" at all. Instead, he claims that the "number of people per room [is] the crucial variable for measuring effects of crowding on children's development." This means that an apartment with one child living in one room is less stressful than one where four children live in two bedrooms. Evans also focuses on noise pollution, such as traffic noise.*

Kotkin writes that because urban centers are (allegedly) only for the childless, "the central city offers at best only a temporary lifestyle." It appears to me that Kotkin is assuming that "desirability" and "desirability to 35-year olds with small children" are the same thing. This may have been the case in the America of the 1950s. But delayed marriages, an aging society, and plunging birth rates mean that "35-year-olds with small children" are a much smaller group than in the United States of the 1950s. In 1960, almost half of all households were families with children under 18. Since then, this number has fallen to under 30 percent. In 1960, only 13 percent of households included just one person; that number has more than doubled, to 28 percent. In sum, thirtysomething families no longer dominate American housing markets, and their preferences no longer need govern the majority of American construction. 

*Kotkin may have been thinking about a portion of the article stating "families living in high-rise housing, as opposed to single-family residences, have fewer relationships with neighbors, resulting in less social support." But since the sentence is in a paragraph that doesn't even mention Evans, it is not clear that this sentence even refers to Evans' research, or to some other research. Moreover, "urban" and "high-rise" are not synonymous, nor are "apartment" and "high-rise." 

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