cities and suburbs

I get a variety of pitches for stories in my inbox, most of which I can delete just from the subject.  One that did catch my eye enough to open the message was headed "everyone wants to life like Friends and Seinfeld, not the Sopranos."  The trick was that it was a pitch for the merits of the urban life of Friends and Seinfeld, versus the suburban life of the Sopranos.  I clicked through, glanced at the article, and then moved on.

Then, yesterday, I read David Brooks' column in the NY Times, where he claims that most Americans prefer the suburbs.  So, which is true?

I went back to the blog post at the Infrastructurist and found that Leinberger's argument was actually far more complicated than the trick headline.  What he actually said is "Gen Xers and Millennials want a lifestyle closer to Friends and Seinfeld (that
is, walkable and urban) than to Tony Soprano (low density and
suburban)."  Brooks agrees that "Cities remain attractive to the young. Forty-five percent of Americans
between the ages of 18 and 34 would like to live in New York City."  But Leinberger implies that the preference for urban living is a permanent characteristic of this cohort, while Brooks suggests it's something they will age out of: "cities are profoundly unattractive to people with families and to the elderly."  Neither one provides evidence for their hypothesis.

Leinberger goes on to say "It’s not that nobody wants Tony Soprano. About 50 percent of
Americans actually do want that configuration. But if we’ve
built 80 percent of our housing that way, that’s the definition of
oversupply. The other 50 percent of Americans want walkable urban
arrangements and yet that’s just 20 percent of the housing stock."

I'm not sure where those numbers come from.  The Pew study that Brooks' article cites (although the Times still doesn't include links) says that "Americans are all over the map in their views about their ideal
community type: 30% say they would most like to live in a small town,
25% in a suburb, 23% in a city and 21% in a rural area."  If the small town and city figures are combined as part of a "walkable lifestyle" you get about 50 percent, but that's sort of a stretch.

There's also an issue about whether people are talking about cities as they are, or cities as they might be.  If I could live in the world of Friends where people who aren't investment bankers can afford huge Manhattan apartments, sure, I'd be interested.  In the real world, I'm unlikely to move back to NYC unless I win the lottery.  Do people with kids say that they don't want to live in cities because they think yards are essential to childhood, or because they assume the schools will be bad?

16 Responses to “cities and suburbs”

  1. Laura/Geekymom Says:

    Two things kept us out of the city (Philly in this case). One was the schools. There are good schools in the city, but you either a) have to know where they are and navigate the system to get in (public) or b) be able to afford private schools. Two was the cost of a decent-sized living space. What we could have afforded in the city would have either put us in an undesirable school district or have been smaller than what we had in the suburbs (which is tiny by our former standards coming from a rural area). Our town is somewhat walkable. We live two blocks away from the main business district. We can walk to the drug store, restaurants, banks, and small shops. But we don’t that often, mainly because there aren’t enough crosswalks. There’s one at either end of a fairly long stretch of road, despite there being a couple of cross streets where lights could be erected. There are plans to make this area more pedestrian friendly. I’d like to see a coffee shop. There’s a Starbucks some distance away. I’ve walked to it, but it takes about 1/2 hour. I’d also like to see another couple of restaurants. There’s a good Thai place and a tavern-like place, plus a deli and a cheesesteak/pizza place. But we could use another restaurant like the Thai place with a different cuisine. Actually, Mr. Geeky and I have talked about moving into the city when we’re older. I don’t want to drive and we might not need as much space at that point.

  2. jen Says:

    Well, there’s no one thing that works for everyone, that’s for sure. I’m not sure I agree with the “cities are profoundly unattractive to people with families” line, although it depends on the neighborhood and on the kids.
    My husband and I both grew up in the suburbs and HATED IT, and so we resolved right from the jump to stay in the city (Chicago). Before we had kids we bought a house in the city that was kid-friendly (as opposed to buying a loft knowing we’d later have to relocate). Also very early on I ran the numbers of staying in the city vs. moving to the burbs and found that taxes were so much higher in the burbs that we could easily afford to stay in our house and pay for private school. And so overall it has worked for us, but we’re very aware that it doesn’t work for everyone.
    Here are some things that I’ve seen:
    1. It seems that people with high-energy kids have trouble in the city. They need a place for low-supervision active play, a.k.a. a yard. Although the park system in Chicago is fabulous, you have to be there with the kid for safety reasons. This isn’t tenable long-term if your kid needs to run 2-4 hours every day.
    2. Staying in the city with kids does not mean staying in the same neighborhood or living arrangement that you had before kids. You can’t stay in the low-noise-tolerance-but-glamorous high-rise. You can’t stay in the night-clubby part of town. You have to be near parks and pediatricians and schools, and this is probably not where you lived before. But that doesn’t mean the are no parts of the city for you. Note: this also applies to restaurants! Don’t think you’ll still be welcome in the old restaurants with your kids in tow.
    3. PubTrans is a pain in the *ss with very small children. Try to make your life walkable/strollerable as much as possible, at least until the kids are in elementary school.
    4. One of the biggest advantages to suburban living with kids is the horizontal-ness of it. Lots of great apartments and houses in Chicago have tons of stairs, which are really difficult with small children. You can get around this, but you need to overtly choose your housing arrangement for avoidance of stairs when the kids are little. No third-floor walk-ups, that’s for sure.
    5. Just accept that you’ll probably be more cramped in your residence if you stay in the city. Everyone I know who lives in the city fantasizes about an extra bedroom (just like all suburbanites seem to fantasize about a 20-minute commute). You’ll have to get used to throwing things out and living with fewer possessions, and you have to be organized. Oh, and totally give up on having lots of sleepover guests such as grandparents. That’s rarely tenable in the city.
    6. Be prepared to work hard to get your kid into the right school. Although it all really tames down after pre-school and kindergarten, this is no small thing. I see people go thru the nightmare of school selection and I can totally understand why people just bail. BTW this is TONS easier if you’re open to religiously-affiliated education.
    Our kids are currently 6 and 8 and they are flourishing in the city. We love their school, we love our community. The kids have great social cirlces, and so do we. We walk everywhere on the weekends and have keys to 4 neighbors houses, so we can all take care of each other’s pets. But then again, I have kids who ask to be taken to the museum and we bought our house in 1999. So obviously YMMV.

  3. sinda Says:

    I’ve always been pro-urban, or at least, urban as it exists in Texas cities – close-in neighborhoods where you can walk rather than drive to destinations. Nonetheless, we moved from our groovy, tiny house several years ago, to a bigger, 1950’s ranch house on an acre. We live on a quiet, dead-end street, the kids all run loose throughout the neighborhood until dusk, and we can’t walk ANYWHERE – except in the woods, and in the 10-acre field next door. As much as I miss the coffee bars, restaurants, and park to which we could walk easily before, I wouldn’t trade in what we have now.
    I’m extremely lucky in that school is not an issue for us – my husband teaches at a private montessori schoool, and my kids will attend it until they are 15. Otherwise, the urban house was in a better school district than my current one.
    What we lack, however, is diversity. Austin as a whole is lacking in diversity, and on my street of 30 or so houses, only 2 families aren’t white.

  4. Amy P Says:

    There’s actually been a huge push toward putting up condos in even the most unlikely parts of the US (like Montana). I once saw an ad for “Manhattan-style living!” for condos in a totally untrendy region of Northern Virginia. Millions, if not billions of dollars have been invested in testing the theory that what Baby Boomers want is high-density, low-maintenance luxury living near where the action is. (Pardon the realtorese.) What we are currently discovering is that when these condos were purchased, it was mainly as an “investment” and very few people bought them planning to actually live there.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    I lived my teen years in a suburb and hated it. Before that I lived in small towns, which I did like; so when I had kids, that’s what I went back to — a small town.
    I find it hard to believe that 45% of young Americans want to live in NYC. I mean, if they want to live there, then why don’t they? There’s not a single thing stopping them from moving — except, of course, the realities of NYC, which you mentioned. Is urban planning only about the ideal, then, and not the reality?
    This city/suburb dichotomy always surprises me. No one writing these articles seems to consider small towns a viable option.

  6. Amy P Says:

    “No one writing these articles seems to consider small towns a viable option.”
    Or even smaller or medium-sized cities. You can get from any two points in our town in around 20 minutes, driving. It’s very car-centered and concrete-y and strip-mally, but you don’t need more than a fifteen minute commute between home and work unless you are determined to live on a horse ranch out in the country.

  7. Ross Basch Says:

    I don’t think that families live in cities. They live in small towns, where neighbors and shopkeepers know everyone’s children etc. The towns happen to be located in the middle of urban conglomerates that are called cities.

  8. jen Says:

    Ross is exactly right: Chicago is an enormous quilt of mostly self-contained neighborhoods. We interact with the same ~200 people all the time. It shows why, in Chicago at least, when meeting a new person you’re just as likely to ask them what neighborhood they live in as what they do. These things define people.

  9. Sarah Says:

    We moved to the suburbs and I am surprised at how much more walkable this little town (and it is an old small town and the city just grew out toward it) seems to me than when we lived in the city. In the city, I worried about crime and that inhibited my walking. Of course it is all the details – other city neighborhood would have had more going on and less crime than the one we picked. I grew up in that same city in one of the far out area that felt very suburban. And if we had moved about a half mile closer to the town center of our suburb, we’d have sidewalks and it would be very walkable. And so I have no idea how I would have answered any questions about city versus suburban.
    I would be in the 55% who don’t want live in NYC, but I always had my heart on SF. My husband and I shocked each other when randomly discussing what if we won the lottery (if we ever played) and I said we’d move to San Francisco and he said NYC at the same moment.

  10. Jackie Says:

    We live in Baltimore, which is just like people are saying about Chicago– a quilt of many neighborhoods that are often very self-contained and small-townish. We have a spare bedroom, a yard, and live in a good school district where my kids are thriving– though we had to search for a long time to find this house, and Baltimore has a lot of its own well-publicized issues.

  11. S Says:

    I live in a town where everything is about a mile or two at the most – mall, banks, restaurants, library etc. Its actually a pain to take the car and would be easier to walk/bike except it is not very pedestrian/bike friendly. The township has solicited input from the citizens on walk/bike paths, but when I followed up with them they told me there was not much interest. So who is to blame here? The townships that don’t want to spend money on making the area pedestrian/bike friendly or the people who have no habit of walking/biking anywhere and are so used to the cars !

  12. trishka Says:

    i think that many people who answer the survey that brooks is referencing are likely to be thinking of the ideal of the place, not the reality. like the way the “friends” people lived in NYC, not what life in NYC is really like. how life in denver is all about having mountains right out your backyard, not sitting in traffic for 2-3 hours on friday evening in a traffic jam witn everyone trying at the same time to get to the mountains.

  13. amy Says:

    Exactly, trishka. I was lucky enough to have one of those wealthy bright-lights, big-city Manhattan boyfriends in college, so I took the glamor ride and loved it, but also noticed that it was a) boring, eventually; b) hysterically expensive. I figured I’d want about $200K/yr to live there, enjoy the place, and not feel filthy and aggravated all the time, and that was 20 years ago. Odds of my making that kind of dough: approx. nil.
    I was in London recently and noticed how much I’d missed the energy of cities, but also noticed the horrific time the few parents I saw had as they dragged children around. It can be physically dangerous trying to maneuver small children around on the Tube; everything’s made for throngs of lone youngish adults who can hop to it. And then there’s the noise issue, where you’re always hoping your kids aren’t disturbing your touchy-ass neighbors. (I am, btw, a touchy-ass neighbor, so I feel entitled.) And then there’s the space issue — I wouldn’t mind too much living in an 600 sqft apt with my daughter now, but when she’s 12, I bet there’ll be far lower odds of violence, mental illness, truly and memorably embarrassing things being said, etc. if we’re living in a place big enough to get away from each other occasionally.
    People manage in big cities, sure, but I think living in a small city’s a hell of a lot easier with kids.

  14. Cecily Says:

    We’ve been in the suburbs now for almost four years. And we desperately want to move back to the city, and for our daughter. But part of that is the suburb we live in; there are others nearby that are better. :)

  15. lisa Says:

    We just had this discussion on my neighborhood listserv-about 1000 families with small children in an urban neighborhood. Most of us bought our homes before kids, and the debate about the suburbs arises as they hit school age. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and would never consider raising my (multiracial) family in that environment. My partner is also a conservation biologist, and our world view includes sustainable simple living with an emphasis on smaller private spaces and larger public spaces. We share a car and I bike to daycare/office. And I’m an urban farmer, raising at least 50% of our food. So we probably aren’t typical ; ) But I was surprised in the neighborhood debate to find people pretty evenly split. It also seemed that the suburbs were more attractive to people who grew up in small towns, whereas, those of us committed to the neighborhood for the long term were more likely to be people who grew up in the suburbs, or people like my partner, who grew up on an isolated ranch. Or people who have lived all their lives in this neighborhood, which were several. The big issues were space, affordability and schools. I lucked out on the first two, and I think looking for schools based on test scores is a much too narrow idea of education and success. We live in a midsize western city, though I would love to live in Chicago.

  16. dave.s. Says:

    “..Leinberger implies that the preference for urban living is a permanent characteristic of this cohort, while Brooks suggests it’s something they will age out of..”
    You seem to have aged out of it – off to the bucolic difficult-commute burbs from your edgy Alexandria place. Was it schools? Yard? C’mon, the personal is the political here. In our case, we have pretty much both, through accident of zoning and lucky purchase in a time of affordability, and I think we would give up close-in easy commute stores, etc. in trade for good schools and yard for the kids, if we had to.

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