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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Sorry, posted in wrong area

Sorry, posted in wrong area and don't see a delete option.

Bravo, you nailed it, just discovered this site


You nailed it.

I will bookmark this site and come back.

Below I have some disorganized random thoughts.

My wife and I adopted two children from Foster Care in the Washington DC area and just bought a house in suburb called Olney, MD. It was the best place for us, we are going from a 19 foot wide town house to a .45 acre home.

Personally, I love cities and seeing them get better. For example, in my hometown of Houston, Texas I read the HAIF Going Up Blog all the time and think it is awesome to see that big spread out city add more midrise and highrise housing to fill in the city and make it more livable. Rail, bike paths, retail,etc, it is all great to see.

I had a coworker from Oakland, CA who really strongly believed in the idea that cars should have meters on them to tax every mile you drive and that people shouldn't live in the country "because they didn't pay for the road to get there." I thought that was odd but I started reading it more and more so I guess that is an opinion shared by many urban planners, maybe it is the consensus from the "experts."

I just have one example of why these experts are well meaning but wrong. These are the same people that thought building high rise modern apartments in cities like Chicago was the way to win the war on poverty. It didn't work, those new building became crime infested, run down and instead of lifting the poor, created factories to propagate poverty to the children who had plenty of bad examples to pattern after.

So back to my wife and adopted kids (13 now, and twins) we are just skipping all that nonsense and moving to a place that has a good school, a neighborhood that does 4th of July parades and takes care of itself, and also has plenty of places to walk the dog. By the way, anyone have a Viszla puppy needing a home?

I challenge the assertion that suburbanites aren't as fit, it is just bunk. In our new neighborhood I saw tons of families out walking, the soccer fields are all out here, the kids swim team is a mile away, we can now walk to 4 grocery stores, we can walk to the town center 1 mile for 30 places to eat dinner and it is all a suburb. To reinforce that idea, I look at the parents that attended kick off for our confirmation class at a church out here, everyone looks healthy and fit to me. Kids and parents.

Any way, great article you are so right, these folks are never right about anything, people can decide best what to for themselves, my wife and I both have masters degrees, I don't need some group that overfocuses on their area of study and amplify it to an obsession to tell me how to live, they are almost always off base because by definition experts tend to see life in their weird unbalanced way because they hang out with people just like them and over-amplify the importance of their ideas.

To be totally honest with you, the kids I see on the Metro and a lot of the people I see in the city look much less healthy and overweight.

Mike Lanza, meet Circular Argument...

"This disparity hints at the major reason why families leave big cities: public schools in large cities are, by and large, awful"

And why, pray tell, are the schools awful? Oh, because any family with money either leaves or puts their kids in private school. There is nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, whereby population density causes the bad schools in the first place. This situation is a historical anachronism that we are stuck in due to a prisoner's dilemma: most middle and upper income parents would be happy to put their kids in an urban public school if the school was good, but none will *until* the school is good. Yet the school won't be good until many of them do just that!

Children are not

Children are not experimental subjects. What parent would intentionally put a child in a failing public school when better options are available, based solely on the premise that sacrificing their child's education for the greater good will mysteriously benefit that child in an intangible manner? Each child has one shot at age 6 or 10 or 16. Who in their right mind would disregard their child's best interests in favor of an uncertain hint of progress at some point in a vague future, after the damage has been done?

That's several bridges too far for most parents, me included.


I take it from your comment that you believe urban schools would be improved if middle and upper income white people were to repopulate urban areas and retake complete control of the school systems.

Leaving the city

Two points:

1) Where you grew up has a big influence on what you want to do when you are older and have kids. If you grew up in a city, paying for a car seems like a crazy expense. If you grew up in the burbs paying a city income tax seems insane. Net net, the burbs are A LOT cheaper. Sorry city lovers.

2) There are a lot of good reasons for people with kids to leave the "city". This does not mean the burbs are perfect, just that there are a number of reasons why they are better than the "city".

2a) You can afford a bedroom for your kid(s) so someone in the house does not have to sleep in the living room.

2b) If you have smart kids they need to go to private school. In a big city this is going to cost 25-50k per kid from age 5 to 18. Some of the public schools in cities are good. But most are crap. Parents who don't get this are (a) in denial, (b) put their own lifestyle ahead of their kids (see also "a"), (c) are living in a delusional alternate reality where the "experience of diversity" has some kind of value that makes up for actually getting an education.

2c) You will never have your son see you escort your family past a 14 year old black kid who is asking your wife is "she would like to be fucked by a real man", all while your wife tells you to just keep walking because neither of you know whether the kid has a gun. Yep, those are some great city experiences for any child! Every white person who has lived in a big city has *several* stories exactly like this.

2d) Most cities are broke. When the ability to keep the ponzy scheme going starts to fail, things get bad fast. Many US cities will end up looking like Detroit over the next 20 years.

When our kid came along, we

When our kid came along, we believed the hype about the suburbs being Shangri-La for children and set out from the "oppressive centralized planning hellhole" of Chicago for one of the tonier suburbs out west. A few years later we ran, as fast as our feet would carry us, back to the city. Here's some of the notions of which we were disabused: 1) "Suburbs are a respite from centralized planning." We found the opposite to be true. Is there anything that conforms more to the Soviet ideal than a dreary exurb cut into farmland and paved over with concrete? "Nature," pretty much consisted of a drainage ditch…er.."retention pond." Every house was the same. (But, the developer did offer five different variations!) The president of the Homeowner's Association was as despotic as any Tamany Hall pol. 2) "The suburbs are cheaper." Not in our experience. Heating and cooling a suburban house is not inexpensive. If you have only one car, that probably isn't going to work in the burbs. Add that to the budget. 3) "Suburbs are better for spontaneous "play" and nature." Kids today are over scheduled, and everytime we saw them outside, they were usually getting in the car to go some planned activity. We did schedule "play dates," and, like many harried suburban families, apportioned time for "spontanaeity." The woods around our subdivision were lovely, but our neighbors advised us not to let our kids go in unsupervised because the other suburban neighbor children tended to commune with the flora and fauna while smoking weed. 4) "Suburbanites don't want your fancified new urbanist ideas about walkability and mixed use zoning." In Naperville, IL (our suburban locale) the most popular area is the "downtown." Years ago, the city muckety mucks decided to promote and develop the area based on "people friendly" ideas instead of endless automobile accomodation. They built a beautiful river walk, parks, a huge swimming area, and they don't allow you to drop a Target or a WalMart smack in the middle of it. It is the most "citified" part of the suburb, and, by far, the most popular. The denisty allows for many things-- great festivals, tons of family activities, a place for teens to meet and hang out (someplace besides the mall), and just generally a nice place to be out and about. It's for everybody and it's not gated. In the end, we found suburbia to be just another consumer good foisted on us (with easy credit terms!) called "the good life." So, we decided to sell off the cars, downscale, and head back to the city and a more conservative existence. I don't mean "conservative" in the politicized sense, but the philosophical one- - there are limits in life. And, it worked out really really well. Our child takes the dreaded Soviet form of transportation called "the train" to school in the morning. If she misses it, she IS prey to the unions' arbitrary scheduling-- and she sometimes has to wait up to five minutes for the next one. It's hell I tell ya! Of course there are many ugly and scary things in the city, but there are many beautiful and wonderful things too. That's life. We find city living more amenable to the world we're trying to prepare our child for- - one that's going to require more self-reliance, more "street smarts," less entitlement, and, hopefully, zero attachment to the almighty god of the automobile. It's actually possible to be happy without a car. (a very un-American thing to say) Contrary to the (silly) assertion of this post, no central planners "forced us back to the city." Btw, just who ARE these central planners that are forcing us back to the city anyway? This seems made up.

You made a choice based on

You made a choice based on your family's needs and preferences and were not hindered by external forces working against you. Congratulations. I'm glad you found what works for your family.

But in the next breath you hope that what's best for MY family is somehow made difficult or impossible, presumably by government force since no other entity exists with the power to take that freedom away. What do you have against individuals owning and using cars or trucks? I don't care whether you want to own and use a personal vehicle--whatever works for you. Yet you are more than willing to see your personal preference shoved down my throat. What is that all about? Why should you have your personal preferences forced upon me? Why do you want to have your personal preferences forced on me?

I admit I wouldn't dream of allowing my kids to ride mass transit alone in the early morning until they were at minimum 16 years old. The mere thought gives me chills and I haven't endured it in more than 25 years. I can only imagine it now. But your child, your decision. I didn't want my kids to have to learn "street smarts" at all, much less before reaching young adulthood, so that perspective is almost alien to me but again she's your child so you choose her upbringing.

How about you extend to me and the rest of the population the same courtesy and rights that you assume for yourself?

A sample of the people advocating forcing populations into dense urban areas may be found on this site at . You may find others using the search engine of your choice and the terms "sustainability," "urban planning" and--my personal favorite for Orwellian irony--"smart growth."

You may also listen to the news station of your choice and hear government officials make statements like, "About everything we do around here is government intrusion into people's lives," [Ray LaHood] said. "It is a way to coerce people out of their cars. Yeah."

Or you check out the Orwellian "Partnership for Sustainable Communities" plan ( ) Odd that the only "partners" are federal agencies.

Where I live the urban area has given up on people willingly moving back and have resorted to annexing large swaths of developed, unincorporated property to bolster its ever decreasing tax base. The few people who still reside in the city limits overwhelmingly vote for annexation based on the promise that their tax bills will be shifted to the annexed. Thankfully I will be long dead before the annex axe reaches my property line but many thousands of other families are having to sell and move to escape the tax burden, crime and myriad other issues that forced annexation brought to their doors.

I don’t remember taking

I don’t remember taking “another breath” and advocating the federal government do anything. Smart growth or otherwise. To be totally candid, I prefer the federal government get out of the home ownership promotion business entirely. They should stop giving preferential tax treatment to home owners over renters. No Fannie or Freddie, no highway subsidies, no mortgage interest deduction. Once you put things on a free market footing, people, with their natural capacity for innovation, will organize their living arrangements accordingly.

This is what I really believe frightens shills for suburbia. (Like Joel Kotkin) They’re always whining that new urbanists are promoting the interests of the city “over” the suburbs. What they really want is for the federal government to promote the interests of the suburbs “over” the city. We get all this overheated rhetoric about “repatriating people to the city centers.” What many critics of suburban living point out is that the creaking infrastructure built to service suburbia and exurbia is literally falling apart in many areas, and will be unsustainable and unaffordable in the coming decades. And, much of this bedroom community sprawl is made possible via Uncle Sugar.

One of the things I find truly silly in this post is that while the author crafts his encomium for the glories of the burbs, he concedes that children don’t want to go more than a few steps from the front door. WTF? Don’t these people realize they’re in Eden? Which is the point of my post. The suburbs are not Eden. They’ve got their drawbacks and problems like anywhere else. (ps: I don’t begrudge anyone car or truck ownership. Have at it! Enjoy traffic. I’m just saying, I’m happier without one)

If I misunderstood your

If I misunderstood your comments on cars I apologize. Note that I said "presumably" via federal government action to eliminate cars since you didn't specify how anyone would go about separating people from their cars. Having lived my first 26 years without a car I couldn't disagree more with your take, but that's the glory of America--we can agree to disagree. I live my life my way, you live your life your way and we're both happy.

I agree completely with getting the government out of home ownership. Fannie and Freddie are the next dominoes to fall and when they go belly up it's going to be ugly. I advocate a flat tax with no exemptions, no EITC and no threshold below which one does not pay the tax rate on income. Everyone would pay the same rate.

Since we skipped the suburbs completely I have neither affinity nor prejudice for them, but neither am I antagonistic. It's just another place one can choose to live. No location is perfect. It's a 30 minute drive to the nearest grocery store so I can't "run out" if I forgot or need an item. We do our errands on our lunch breaks or after work so we don't have to make multiple trips back to town. When gas was flirting with $5/gal our budget took a huge hit and we had to seriously rearrange our other spending to accommodate it. I drive 52 miles one way to work and even with a small car was spending $500+ a month on fuel. My husband's workplace is 30 miles out and our total fuel bill at that time was around $900/month. So no, my patch of heaven isn't perfect but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the city or the suburbs.

Don't get me started on infrastructure spending. My husband works in civil engineering and you would not believe the waste and cronyism in every government project--local, state and federal. I saw one estimate that in my state each road project costs 22% more than it would were it being done privately. The vaunted stimulus money repaved the same 10 miles of an interstate spur three times in 18 months, and that was in the urban area. The reasons behind the state of infrastructure are many and varied, but one huge cause is the misappropriation of funds. Every gallon of fuel purchased has a tax assessed that is supposed to go to highway maintenance. Where is all that money? The tax-free property in many cities is another issue. In my local urban area, 30% of all property is government owned or university owned, all of which is not taxed. Tackling that issue will require two things that are uncommon in politics--honesty and reality.

Regarding infrastructure, all but two of my utilities are provided solely on my property. Electricity and telephone service are run to my property, of course, but water and sewer are both dealt with on my property without any infrastructure at all. We take our trash to the dump since there is no garbage pickup here, and the road to our home is dirt (that was supposed to be paved 15 years ago, but oh well.) Our infrastructure use and needs are minimal and cost other taxpayers nothing. We paid to have both electric and telephone lines installed when we moved here. So why the push to move us back to the city? It's not like people living 30 miles away are paying for our water/sewer/electric/phone, etc.

When my eldest daughter was 2 years old I threw our one television away. Our kids grew up without a television. Most people thought we were insane but given the results I am so glad I stuck to my guns. If parents didn't allow their children unlimited access to TV/game systems/computers the kids would have to find other things to do and would be outside much more. That's a problem everywhere, not just the suburbs.

Additionally, most parents are far too wary to allow their kids to wander like we did when we were young, especially in urban and suburban areas. I dare say someone would call DSS were a mother to say to her child, as my mother said to me, "go outside and play, come home for dinner when the sun is setting." It would be considered neglect or child endangerment today. The solution to that problem is far beyond my pay grade but it is one reason we chose to move so far out. The greatest risk to my kids was snakes and we taught them how to avoid and if necessary deal with serpents.

I noticed that you refute the claim that people are trying to force others to return to urban areas. Did you read the link I provided to Ray LaHood's statement regarding the subject? He's the Secretary of Transportation (I don't think he left the Obama administration) and flatly said that the Federal government is doing everything possible short of physical force to move people back into urban areas and out of personal vehicles. Then there are the myriad bloggers, university professors and professional urban planners who are all trying to do the same thing. Forced repatriation into urban areas is not a paranoid fantasy. It's reality and its proponents aren't afraid to admit it. Of course all their efforts are currently "voluntary" or economic pressure. They haven't resorted to using the power of the government to physically force most people out of their homes and into government-approved city dwellings. Given their public statements, though, it isn't hard to imagine that happening in the future. I would love to be wrong about that.