Suburb Hating is Anti-Child


Sure, suburbs have big problems. Their designs force their inhabitants to drive in cars, instead of walking and bicycling. This diminishes face-to-face interactions, physical health, and the quality of the environment. Aesthetically, many of them, particularly those dreaded “planned communities,” are quite boring. People who live there tend not to have much contact with people who aren’t like them, so suburbs reinforce racial, religious, and class segregation.

A large proportion of intellectuals and politicians, including President Obama, decry these problems with suburbs as reason to hate them and advocate for their elimination, in favor of dense, big cities.

Yeah, I get it. I agree that all these problems exist, and they bother me a lot.

There’s just one big problem with suburb hating. The alternative to suburbs in metropolitan areas, cities, are much worse for children. Sure, adults can have a great time in hip, dense city centers like Manhattan or San Francisco. In fact, if my wife and I never had kids, we’d still be living in San Francisco, going out practically every night.

However, it’s clear that cities are worse for kids than suburbs.

Why do I say this?

First, just look at where newly married urbanites choose to live once they have children. They leave cities in droves. The hipper and denser the city, the more likely are parents to flee to the suburbs.


Richard Florida made his name over a decade ago writing about how cities should attract the “creative class” – a code name for childless urban hipsters. In his book, Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, he lists cities he thinks are best for different groups of people. The table here shows the percentage of total population in the United States that is school-aged children (age 5-17) versus that for large cities that Florida lists as best for 20-29 year-olds.

The only two cities that are even close to the national average of 17.5% are Los Angeles and New York. Los Angeles covers an awful lot of land area, and I suspect that if I could get data for what Florida really means by “Los Angeles,” the percentage would be much lower.


New York is also quite large and diverse, but there, fortunately, I have data for what Florida really means by “New York.” I’m sure he’s thinking of Manhattan when he thinks of “creative class.” There, as you can see on the table here, Manhattan’s percentage of the population that is school-aged is 11.8%, far below the national average.

In her suburb-hating book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher gushes that Manhattan “has become overloaded with families.” To back up this assertion, she points to US Census data that there were 2,600 more married families with children 0-18 in 2010 than in 2000. Actually, that’s unimpressive for two reasons. First, the census data show that Manhattan’s total population actually increased by more than the population of children, so children as a percentage of the total population actually dropped. Second, even if the percentage of children had increased, the 11.8% figure for school-aged children is horrifically low.

The New York Times contributed to this gushing sentiment for children in Manhattan in a 2005 article. It pointed to a small surge in children under 5 in Manhattan’ census data between 2000 and 2004. Unfortunately, this trend did not extend to school-aged kids.

This disparity hints at the major reason why families leave big cities: public schools in large cities are, by and large, awful. So, for the most part, families that have the means to move out of cities when their children reach school age flee to the ‘burbs. Most middle and upper-middle class families that do stay send their children to private schools. 30% of San Francisco children go to private schools, and my guess is that the figure for Manhattan and other dense, hip urban centers is close to that.

So, to some extent, when you hear people complain that cities are too expensive for families, they are calculating private school into the cost of living there.

But private schools not only cost a lot of money. They also destroy neighborhood life for children. In big city neighborhoods where many or most children go to private schools, children who live on the same street hardly know each other because they tend to go to different schools that their parents choose.

Beyond running bad schools that force families with the means to go to private school, some big city school systems put the final dagger into neighborhoods by forcing or enticing children to go to a school outside their neighborhoods.

For example, San Francisco has done this for decades in an effort to forcibly integrate students of different races and backgrounds, but instead, what it’s done is destroy neighborhoods and push more families into private schools than any other city in America. In the last year or two, that city has made a small change in its policy in an apparent effort to make it more possible for children to go to school in their own neighborhood, but this change hasn’t gone nearly far enough to pull neighborhoods together.

So, big cities are left with neighborhoods where children spray out to all parts of the city to go to school every day. When school’s over at the end of the day, playing in their neighborhoods isn’t an option because children there don’t know one another.

The families that do flee for the suburbs leave a diverse place where parents like them have a small amount of political power and huge teachers’ unions dominate, to a more homogeneous place where most residents are like them, in terms of socio-economic status, and parents wield great power over schools. Left behind are the less fortunate kids, with their families.

The other primary problem that families have with cities is space. Yes, while it’s trendy these days for urban planners to advocate for dense development, families with children flee from density. Every large city in the United States that has high density – including those in the Richard Florida list above and other dense cities like Miami and Philadelphia – have very low percentages of school-aged children.

To put it simply, play requires space. If all kids have outside their crowded apartment building is a sidewalk, they can’t play a game of soccer, nor can they play even less formal games like hide and seek or tag. Also, sidewalks are a lot less complex, and therefore they’re a lot more boring for kids, than yards that have grass and bushes with hiding spaces.

As Richard Louv writes so eloquently in his book Last Child in the Woods, children really do love being in nature. They’re drawn to play among trees, bushes, grass, and creeks rather than sidewalks and brick walls.

Those who tout the attractiveness of city life for children always cite the importance of public parks. Parks are great for families that live right next to them, but unfortunately, we’re never going to put a park in every other block. The fact is that children don’t roam very far on their own these days. In fact, most preteen children don’t roam on their own more than a few feet from their front doors, whether those front doors are to their single family homes or to their apartment buildings. So, parks are of very limited use, even to most city dwellers. While kids and caregivers go there together, kids hardly every go there on their own to play freely.

Clearly, children can get a great deal of value from a yard outside a single family home, which is one important reason why so many families aim to move to the suburbs. Yes, most families don’t exploit their yards nearly enough once they move there, but that’s a problem with how families live in suburbs. It’s not a blanket condemnation of suburbs.

So, we need to fix suburbs and the way families utilize them. They should be far more pedestrian friendly, and not favor cars so much. Residential yards should be used as social hangouts, not merely admired from afar for their manicured shrubs and flower beds. I’ve written a great deal about these fixes on my blog and in my book Playborhood.

But what we shouldn’t do is try to force families to live in dense city centers. Most families don’t like it there, with good reason.

Suburb hating hurts children. Politicians who advocate anti-suburb policies are hurting children. They are, dare I say, anti-child.

Mike Lanza is author of the parenting book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place For Play, and blogs at

Suburbs photo by Bigstock.

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Lanza on Cities as kid incubators

Every negative of the urban environment Lanza cites in his misdirected critique of kid-friendliness is not only countered by the problems endemic in suburbs, but based on his notions of the inner city. Does it typically have problems? Sure, but we should not be talking so much about existing conditions as the opportunities to improve them via an influx of talent, money, and motives to improve the urban environment to make it more kid friendly. Also, sidewalks may not of themselves be too exciting, but the activities on and adjacent to them in cities are far more interesting than the banalty of the slurbs. If you want to talk cities in terms of kid friendliness, talk Paris, or Rome, or even London.

Also, what is Lanza's notion of a child? A hot-house raised, pampered suburban hybrid? Small kids play at home, but as children grow in knowledge and capability, their interests expand rapidly, and although a pickup game of baseball may require a field, cycling, walking, running, and hopscotch do not. The swing set in the backyard is not used after 6 year olds graduate to the front yard and neighborhood. I'd rather have youngsters learning first hand about the urban environment that undergirds the arts, commerce, industry, and social responsibility as citizens rather than the intricacies of backyard mums and petunias.

Must we make the city more habitable for families? Sure, but the suburbs have run their course as a model environment. Their problems are not soluble because built into the low-density, private vehicle, and domestic cultishenss of the low density, sprawling environment. Urban issues can be settled by superior urban design choices (and better schools) which will become possible as the money and demand becomes available with the influx of more families.

Cities as kid incubators

Wow... 6-year-olds emerge from the swingsets in their backyards to learn "first hand about the urban environment that undergirds the arts, commerce industry, and social responsibility?"

Uhhh, you missed a few important steps in childhood.

You've proved my point...

My kid had a great childhod

We live in a downtown neighborhood of Boston, Our son now off in College had a great childhood. He did attend a private school until the 6th grade, but then moved to a public school 6th grade thru high school, that was rated on of the top 10 in the US. He had friends that he could walk to from a young age took public transit from the 6th grade to school. He spent his afternoons with his friends sailing in the harbor, playing hockey, or doing volenteer work. I didnt have to spend my time driving him around on weekends as he could get where he wanted to go on his own.
For middle class teenagers the City is actually a safer than the suburbs, the leading cause of death in this age group is from auto accidents, my son and the majority of his fiends did not even want or consider driving until a few years into college. Not all cities are the same but our son had access to resources and culture not available in the suburbs, he was never bored. He had a very deverse group of friends from all over the world, ate in great resturants (not the crap chains the populate the burbs). Our friends that did move out all regretted it, many moved back, and all said the drug problem in the burbs was a major problem

Our NY freinds kids all had similar experiances growing up, If you ask the kids if the wish they grow up in the burbs they would laugh at you.

Small towns - the road not really taken

Suburbization vs. urbanism are not the only options. There is a lot to be said for the small town as an ideal place for families to raise children and to live out their lives. If there is any truth to the proverb "it takes a village", then it actually does take a VILLAGE - i.e., a small town. People tend to know their neighbors, and the social bonds are stronger and more extensive. Local civic institutions tend to be strong and well-maintained. There are exceptions to this, of course, and there are small towns that are terrible places. The same could be said for suburbs and for cities, of course.

The irony is that the whole suburban idea started out as an attempt to replicate the small town on the outskirts of the city. Good idea, poor implementation. Suburbs largely failed because all too often they didn't include the whole package that comes with any good small town: a variety of housing types and styles, a grid (more or less) network of streets and sidewalks, a downtown with a mix of all the essential stores and services, several local employers, and a full array of schools, libraries, churches, parks, and other essential civic institutions and facilities. A subdivision, or even a collection of several different subdivisions, with a shopping mall a mile or two away, is not the same thing as a small town. It doesn't even come close.

There have been, of course, a few suburbs that do match up pretty well with the typical small town. Some of these just happened to be small towns that used to be farther away from cities, but with urban sprawl have gradually become exurbs. The closest in of these were eventually annexed and became urban neighborhoods rather than suburbs. Which brings me to my last point. Not only is there a better way that can be imagined to do suburbs, there is also a better way that can be imagined to do urban neighborhoods. It is the same way in both cases: make them look and feel and function as much as possible just like small towns. If you are looking for a humane and family-friendly way to live, that is the way to go.

Stefan Stackhouse
Black Mountain NC

"Design" and planning is the problem, not "the suburb"

Yes, there is no inherent reason suburbs couldn't have been well designed from the outset to incorporate such features. Like I say, I have lived in "suburbs" like that all my life.

There is also no inherent reason that suburbs that lack amenity cannot be retrofitted with it, especially seeing they often have very low density, low land cost, and opportunities for redevelopment.

High land costs are the enemy of everything; they make the opportunity cost of amenities too high. This means that urban growth boundaries or proxies for them have unintended consequences for most of the things that planners are trying to achieve inside those boundaries. They only thing they achieve, is stopping development from occurring outside them, but they also stop beneficial (re)development from occurring inside them too.

Small Towns


You're right - small towns are the ideal model for many planners and town designers. New Urbanism is a school of planning and design that attempts to boil down the essential elements of a friendly small town on to a small footprint so that everything is within a five mile walk. Also, I would consider my town to be a small town, but it's suburban, so perhaps it doesn't qualify by your definition.

The problem with the small towns as you refer to them is jobs. Large metropolitan areas are increasingly the engines of economic activity, so many small towns far away from a large metro are starving for jobs.

- Mike


I meant "five minute walk," not "five mile walk."


"Sure, suburbs have big problems. Their designs force their inhabitants to drive in cars, instead of walking and bicycling. This diminishes face-to-face interactions, physical health, and the quality of the environment. Aesthetically, many of them, particularly those dreaded “planned communities,” are quite boring. People who live there tend not to have much contact with people who aren’t like them, so suburbs reinforce racial, religious, and class segregation."

There is no big traffic director out there flagging people down and forcing them to move into all white neighborhoods, or predominantly Christian communities, or more female populated neighborhoods. People choose of their own free will where to live and no one is prohibited from making whatever choice they desire. I've lived in the burbs all my life and I have had black neighbors, asian neighbors, middle eastern neighbors, neighbors with kids and neighbors without kids. I've had elderly neighbors, gay neighbors, and neighbors that have lost their homes through bad decision making. There are three parks in my 100 year old neighborhood, a bike path, a ball park, and basketball courts. The kids all play together regardless of color, we have sponsored bike rides, we have a community-wide yard sale twice a year, a very active civic league, and a very active gardening community. Cities are no more or no less active, people are active or not, not their housing choices.

ALL public schools are awful

Interesting article. I both agree and disagree with some of the author's assertions:

"...public schools in large cities are, by and large, awful. So, for the most part, families that have the means to move out of cities when their children reach school age flee to the ‘burbs. Most middle and upper-middle class families that do stay send their children to private schools. 30% of San Francisco children go to private schools, and my guess is that the figure for Manhattan and other dense, hip urban centers is close to that."

It's not just that public schools in large cities are awful. Public schools are awful everywhere, including the suburbs. (I've taught in both urban and suburban schools in Portland and Seattle.) The author is correct about 30% of children in dense urban cores sending their children to private school; that stat is also true in Seattle. Why? Because large urban districts are generally worse than suburban schools in part because they are far more bureaucratic and unresponsive. But make no mistake: Suburban public schools are not much better and share many of the same problems.

"But private schools not only cost a lot of money. They also destroy neighborhood life for children."

Really? Private schools "destroy" neighborhood life? This is a hyperbolic load of excrement; in my neighborhood, I see private school students walking down the neighborhood's central avenue, interacting with the community and public school students. Just because they don't attend the centrally located overcrowded and dilapidated public school, staffed by ineffectual burnouts, it doesn't follow that their "neighborhood life" has been destroyed; one could argue the opposite: that the public school destroys neighborhood life, especially when students from the south were bused in to the neighborhood; they brought gang culture, drugs, weapons, and vandalized and terrorized the neighborhood. One could also argue that since public schools are predicated on force, public schools are in fact the destroyers of neighborhood life because, by force, they bring together people that may have chosen never to associate, thereby creating tension and resentment.

Great column.

Great column. Dense urban areas are not for everyone, certainly they are not that great for kids.