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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Frank Lloyd Wright insights

Frank Lloyd Wright did once comment to the effect that people's preferences might stem from whether their ancestors were cave-dwellers or hunter-gatherers.....!

He despised the "concrete canyons" and "the tyranny of rent". (See my other comment about land prices). I find it interesting that writers as disparate as FLW, Henry Ford, Charles Booth (social reformer) and Ebenezer Howard (early urban planner) all clearly understood "the tyranny of rent" and how automobile based development was ending it.

Excellent point, and one I

Excellent point, and one I hadn't considered. I'm not familiar with most of the people you cite but home ownership would be next to impossible if everyone lived in a high-rise simply due to the cost, and equity in one's home is a huge store of wealth for the middle class.

One of my friends moved to NYC in the late 90s, lured by a $85,000 salary. That's excellent money here. He found out that $85,000 was good for a mere 350 square feet atop a bar in a dilapidated building. He lasted two years before moving back. He told me that he had to leave NYC because he couldn't survive on $85,000. Apparently everything costs two or three times as much in NYC, right down to a soda at McDonalds. I can only imagine what his current 2000 sq ft home would cost in NYC. My guess is he would never be able to afford the same home were it in NYC.

Thanks for the insight!

This is about a lot more than just "preferences"

Of course everyone's location choice, if they are a typical family, has to involve compromises on location relative to two jobs and one or more schools. Not every couple is going to have skills and qualifications and desires in life that will fit them to normal kinds of central city employment. The suburbanisation of jobs is heavily weighted according to the land intensity and the income level of the employment sector concerned.

See also my comment on land prices below; I address the question of "subsidies" there:

Employers locate where they can afford to, too.

If dad is a stock broker and mum is a media executive, it might make sense to live in "the city", but perhaps the kids best interests are not the driver here? I call it "The Second Life Fallacy" of urban planners to assume that everyone can live in mini-Manhattans and ride on replicas of the NYC subway system. This kind of local economy is in any case a "vampire" sucking the wealth created in suburban industries, out of the real economy. The USA, and the world, would be better off without Wall Street. Finance should be "handmaiden to industry", not the reaper of 50% of all profits earned in the entire economy.

And don't get me going on bureaucratic parasitic concentrations of employment.....

It is worth noting here that the main opponents of any proposed international financial transactions tax in current international crisis negotiations, is the Conservative government of the UK. They are well aware of what this would do to the economy of London. The always insightful Oliver Hartwich in the “Business Spectator” 14 Dec 2011, comments:

“……Merkel and Sarkozy could not have been under any illusions that Cameron would pave the road towards curbing the power and profitability of the City of London. Finance is the only major industry left in post-modern Britain. Besides, anything that weakens London’s position would automatically be a promotion of its closest European rivals in Paris and Frankfurt…..”

Note his comment about finance being the only major industry left in post-modern Britain? This is what happens to an economy where planning assumes that every sector in the whole economy can pay global finance sector "rents". As Cheshire and Hilber (2011) "The Political Economy of Market Revenge" point out, every city in the UK, no matter how small and economically stagnant, has higher central land rents than Manhattan......! Imagine, if you can, every city in the USA being like this, and what it would do to the chances of, say, the manufacturing of machinery. Even Silicon Valley started on low cost rural-exurban land.


Congratulations. I wish you and your child(ren) well.

Good luck.

It's really not a matter of good policy

so much as voting patterns that inform the "progressive" push for urban centers over suburbs. The left is now doing what the right has done for years in terms of looking for patterns and trying to amp their numbers through back doors. It's disgusting on both counts, because it's not informed by making a logical case for anything, it's simply a matter of trying to corral people into their fencing.

Urbanites vs Suburbanites vs Rurals--really?

I grew up in urban areas and despise cities to this day. The congestion, filth, lack of privacy, constant exposure to undesirable elements (think panhandlers, drunks, etc.) and overall atmosphere of any urban area are personally repugnant and there is nothing a politician or a geographer could do to convince me to return short of a loaded rifle to my head. Yet I have no issue with anyone who wants an urban life. If urban living is your ideal by all means, live there. I don't care.

For some strange reason many politicians and some geographers have made my forcible return to the urban area their lives' mission. Many residents of urban areas make a point of ridiculing us while voting for measures to forcibly repatriate those of us who fled and corral those who were never been there to begin with. Why is that? Why does Obama or anyone else care where I choose to live and raise a family?

When my first child was an infant my husband and I moved not to a suburb but to a rural area 30+ miles from our workplaces. We refused to raise our children in the urban area and the suburban areas weren't much better in terms of schools, crime, affordability, etc. Our eldest is now married and expecting her first child. She and her husband are doing everything possible to raise their family in rural areas given the realities of military life.

I am neither a geographer nor a politician, and I have long been struck by the assumptions each make regarding the intensely personal decision of where to live and raise one's children. The notion of "class segregation" immediately invokes a marxist flavor that I reject on the premise of my life experience, yet it is somehow a bludgeon with which to beat suburbanites? The assumption that mixed architecture is superior to standardized architecture (the "boring" meme) and the offhand negativity toward personal vehicles are both personal opinions that, while perfectly valid for the individual making the statement, have neither authoritative nor factual basis from which to demand others agree and consent. Honestly, why should Obama's personal opinion matter one iota? Why should politicians and geographers and central planners have any say at all into where a family decides to live?

Contrary to central planners' assumptions, I've never heard anyone clamoring for mass transit so one can sell one's car(s) and be restricted in one's movement by the arbitrary schedule dictated by the mass transit union. The city council in the local urban area cannot get a penny sales tax increase passed to fund the bus system because no one rides the bus if they can possibly avoid it. I well remember the drunk vomiting two rows in front of me, the homeless man snoring on the seat opposite the aisle, and the panhandlers at every station. I still recall the graffiti on the walls, knife marks in the vinyl seats and the fear every time someone got on the bus: is that one of the gang bangers or a drug dealer or a flasher? I remember the relief when the new rider was an elderly woman who looked at me with the same cautious, assessing glance. I will never again ride mass transit for any reason and by design my children never suffered its dangers and indignities.

Only brute force will bring the central planners' dreams of all Americans stacked atop each other in Tokyo-like proximity to fruition. Lacking force, free people will decide for themselves where they want to live. Many will refuse to live in cities, and some will refuse even suburbs. Why that freedom causes so much angst is beyond me.

I can write thousands of words extolling the virtues of rural life, particularly for children. My kids knew the cycles of planting, growing, and reaping as they watched the fields around us. They raised laying hens and know that chickens are among the dumbest of creatures yet the most vital for human nutrition. They had their own little gardens, struggled with pests and disease, and celebrated success with fat, ripe tomatoes dripping juice down their chins. They played safely in field and wood, watched by the few families within line of sight, and knew that any misbehavior would be immediately reported to Mom and Dad. They raised a goat, played with the neighbors' herds of horses and cattle, spent summers with dirty feet and smudged faces, sang while flying on their swing set and learned the names of the birds that live on and pass through our acreage. They protected wild hares from our dog and vainly tried to nurse an injured mockingbird nestling thrown from the nest. Their schools were safe and effective, supplemented by Mom and Dad at every opportunity.

The difference was summarized when at the state fair we passed a display of wheat, combine, flour and bread. The kids asked why it was there and Dad answered, "to educate people about where bread comes from." The kids were astonished that anyone wouldn't know that most basic thing and didn't believe the explanation for years.

If other parents wants to raise their children in the city I have neither reason nor authority to pass judgement on their decision. Why so many feel vested with the authority and insight to pass judgement on those of us who fled urban areas is a mystery but one thing I know: no one will ever convince me or my now-grown children that life in the concrete jungle is healthier or more desirable than the life we've lived among the fields and trees, even with a long commute.

City-lovers, enjoy your lives in the city. Suburbanites, enjoy your lives in the suburbs. Rural citizens, enjoy your lives in the country.

Central planners, leave us all alone.

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Suburb Hating is Anti-Child

I ask: what business is it of the authors or for anybody to dictate policy that would prohibit anybody from moving out into the suburbs?! I know that in California they have made it cost prohibitive as well as made miles of red tape for developers to even construct new suburbs! All of the so called intellectualls want us to move to the cities for all of these pre-conceived notions that were stated in the opening paragraph of this article! If I want to isolate and segregate myself from the chance of encountering gang bangers, thugs, or the possibility of my children being shot in an urban environment because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, then I think I should have that right! If I just want to be left alone, and not pay the crazy property tax that is usually associated with living in a megalopolis, then I should be able to do so! I don't even feel the slightest bit guilty about doing it either! If I chose to live among like minded people, then I should have that right! I also know that our federal government is starting a dangerous precedence of using the census to locate and force lower income people into higher income areas, using tax dollars to subsidize them. That is going to lead to a lot of problems! I believe we have a right to choose where we want to live and move to where we want to !

Why Not Change The Schools?

By the time I was 8, I roamed 2 miles from home nearly every day, and in decent weather might be found 20 miles away - I had a bicycle and also hiked. Sometimes in the woods - which extended with a few breaks for roads about 100 miles to the ocean - sometimes in the city - which extended 20 miles into the next state. I don't suppose parents today would approve, possibly on grounds of real risks, possibly for other reasons (the modern fear of just about everything).

Yes space is good. So is cheap and decent public transportation, so I could visit the big city library by bus for the kind of money I had to spend ($.50 round trip for a kid).

I don't care if people segregate themselves, but I prefer not to see organized efforts to exclude other types. Gated communities maybe, restrictive deed covenants NO.

Why the Hell schools are any business of the general public escapes me and YES I DENY that paying for something conveys any right to an opinion about it. Certainly DEPENDING on something DOES NOT grant the right to an opinion either.

It is those who experience the benefit or otherwise, the efficiency or otherwise, of products and services who ought to control what happens, Not voters not taxpayers not administrators and certainly not employees. START by excluding voters taxpayers administrators and employees from any control at all over schools - except amount paid in the case of taxpayers; direction of employees for administrators; whether to quit or not for employees; and no role whatsoever for voters.

Let the parents run the school. Period. If necessary, voucherise and privatize the whole mess.