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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City being anti-child.

After over 25 years handling these situations... I would offer 'luke-warm' support to the author's thesis. Liberal ideology dictates an urban planning approach that calls for centralization of population and resulting required services and infrastructure. Centralization in a urban environment makes it is easier to provides services, and control such.

However, children need breathing room, not cheek-to-cheek 'other children'. For the health of the child, to develop better, to have individual playgrounds in one's own back yard... move to the suburbs or beyond. Growing up with Trees is far better than growing up with tall buildings or streetlights.

housing policies keep minorities out of established suburbs

You need to also differentiate also between established suburbs relatively close in to the nearby city and those that are newer and farther out. The close in suburbs engage in anti-single family home policies as rabidly as do the cities. Because of affordable housing mandates, a handful of high density buildings get built near train stations, but the deed restrictions often makes them uneconomic to build, so relatively little is actually built and housing quotas or plans are seldom met. This acts to limit the stock of single family homes relative to the demand driving prices higher and enriching their owners further.

Families with children, by definition almost always headed by young(ish) adults, are these days about half minority and even more in some states. These housing policies are act to enrich older, often white, homeowners while keeping young minorities out of pleasant leafy neighbourhoods. How that is not discriminatory I don't know.

Yeah, but we need to go forwards, not backwards

There are solutions to this, but we need to acknowledge that urban growth containment that forces up the cost of all land in an urban area is a HUGE backward step and causes far more harm to lower income people than any efforts at assistance can ameliorate.

I find it ironic that a certain kind of advocate is always against "exclusionary" suburbs, yet they often love exclusionary CITIES like Boston, Seattle and Vancouver. In fact they generally claim that "smart growth" results in local populations that are brighter, better educated, and higher income, which makes even less sense than claiming this about exclusionary SUBURBS (which no-one has the chutzpah to do).

In fact Prof Nicole Garnett of Notre Dame writes "....there is something slightly unseemly about dramatically curtailing suburban growth at a time when racial minorities are responsible for most new suburban population gains. It is difficult to avoid concluding that changing the rules of the development game at this time is tantamount to pulling the suburban ladder out from under those who previously were excluded from suburban life by economic circumstance, exclusionary zoning, and intentional discrimination.......”

Look at the UK to see what happens when ALL cities have these policies that force up the cost of urban land. The bottom quartile in a US median multiple 3 city is many times better off in terms of the living amenity they enjoy, than their counterparts in any UK city. The overcrowded inner city slum conditions that are now a small-scale holdover from the past in most US cities, are much more prevalent, and rising, in the UK.

The UK also illustrates how this is not a matter of racial minority status, but of socio-economic class. The UK has slums full of "white trash" that upwardly mobile Asians flee as soon as they have the means.

Confirming little factoid

Valuable little factoid from a new WSJ book review (by Joel Kotkin)

".... Metropolitan Atlanta's African-American homeownership rate is approximately 40% above those of San Jose and Los Angeles, approximately 50% higher than Boston's, San Francisco's and Portland's, and nearly 60% higher than New York's....."

pro-city, pro-child

I think you make a fair point about schools in cities being difficult for kids--our three boys in NYC public schools have experienced overcrowding, and as a parent you hear/read about overcrowding. That aspect is certainly minimized at larger suburban schools.

I'd disagree with your defense of the suburbs as stemming from young families moving out of the city. While my experience witnessing that is anecdotal, I think a lot of that trend is due to where one grows up ("I grew up with a yard and a dog; therefore, I want my kids to have that."); I grew up in NYC and can't imagine a better place to raise kids.

You make a good point about play space. While I'd be tempted to romanticize stickball and playing in open fire hydrants, that's certainly less than ideal. Yet, at least in NYC--where plenty of young marrieds move to the suburbs--plenty more stay and congregate with their children in neighborhood playgrounds, even ones that are largely concrete.

In fact, I'd argue that it's very pro-child to be able to stroll from home to the playground, play with diverse others one wouldn't normally congregate with in suburbs, and then stroll around a dense neighborhood for a child to see all sorts of new things rather than staring at the headrest of the minivan seat in front of him or the DVD player overhead.

Howard Freeman

Design, duplication, and dispersion

There are suburbs and suburbs. I grew up in a suburb and was never dependent on being ferried anywhere by car. There was everything a kid could want within an easy walking distance of home, including the primary school I attended, playing fields, an adventure playground, the public library, a shopping arcade, tennis courts, more than one swimming pool, and exciting walking tracks and overgrown public green space. There was never a lack of familiar playmates either.

I have lived in suburban locations that are like this, all my life, without even having consciously decided to look for them. It just happened that "the right house" was coincidentally in a location like that, not in some more "sterile" location.

It is all a question of design, duplication, dispersion and affordability. Affordability is a factor of duplication and dispersion of the right amenities, along with an absence of growth constraints that force the cost of land up. Centralisation and concentration of the right amenities merely results in a strong spatial rationing effect by "ability to pay".


The rise of suburbs has always been politically paired with the rise of the middle class. After WWII, the desire to have "the good life" led to an exodus from urban centers as a rite of passage. Because this seems to reinforce the "middleclassedness" despised by leftist writers, the political left embraces views that would tear down suburbs ("The Rich") for the sake of largely liberal and dependent urban centers. It's a type of political consolidation that wins elections, but it ignores that for most children a childhood spent in the city is one where they are mainly indoors, mainly sedentary and often subjected to provocative and even dangerous situations that their suburban peers do not experience. This seems to go beyond just a dislike for the suburbs and into an active dislike for traditional families within the liberal mindset.

What is truly odd is that any belief system-whether religious or political-relies on passing views from one generation to the next. Having fewer children and supporting programs that do not support traditional families is hardly going to earn the people supporting these views much love from the younger generation. While nobody should be mandated to have kids, it's really rather shocking the number of well educated couples who choose to remain childless. I don't begrudge them their summers in France or their hip urban lifestyles because somewhere down the road they are going to need younger people to help them. Having not had their own children, these childless by choice folks will have to pay dearly for help. Right now, the hipsters in SoHo and San Francisco can't see thirty years down the road. As the sole caregiver for my 84 year old mother, I have seen the future. One without children will leave urban hipsters as seniors isolated and unloved victims of a government that doesn't value them.

Interesting point, EllenK.

Interesting point, EllenK. In my large extended family only one elderly member, my great-aunt, spent time in a nursing home. All other elderly family members have been/are cared for in by the family in someone's home. My great-grandmother, who died when I was 19, was cared for by my grandparents, with the help of four adult children and a passel of grandchildren, for more than 15 years. We were pressured to put her in a nursing home more than once but the family refused and had a nurse come in when required. I can't imagine not having had her in my life as a child and young adult. Her perspectives and unique needs shaped me in ways I've yet to realize.

I have friends who are childless by choice and I wonder what will happen to them when they are elderly. They won't have the family to take care of them in their infirmity. I've been inside nursing homes and they are not a place I'd want to spend my last days. Even the best are staffed with people for whom the elderly person is part of the job, not part of the family.

I suppose "professional companion" will be a growth industry in the next 20-40 years.

Response from a pro-city, pro-child urban designer...

1) There are plenty of vaild reasons for families with children to live in the suburbs. Such places are often the only affordable options, particularly for large families. Most urbanists don't (or shouldn't) look down on those who choose to live in suburbs, because it is often the only choice. The relative affordability of suburban life is only possible with a slew of subsidies, and the relative expense of city life in most places is only because of the encoded difficulties and consequent rarity of building such places today.

2) The author is too quick to link poor education to cities, rather than to poor social conditions in particular places. There are plenty of terrible suburban schools which the author conveniently ignores. A child's willingness and ability to learn has more to do with his family structure and values than with neighborhood density.

3) I will give the author credit for his criticism of the separation of schoolchildren and their neighborhoods, but he whitewashes this effect in the suburbs, where it is perhaps more pronounced. Unwalkable, unsafe arterial roads combined with absurd state/municipal requirements on the amount of land required for new schools make it impossible for suburban children to live in the same neighborhood as their schools, in most suburbs.

4) The charge that cities don't have adequate spaces for play, even with public parks, comes from an overprotective and unimaginative mentality. In a traditional city, narrow, often brick-paved streets with wide sidewalks in a well-connected network slow and disperse traffic naturally, making streets safe places to play. "Eyes on the street" keep children safe, too.

5) "Suburb hating" doesn't hurt children. Bad policies and un-virtuous families do.

Also, Mike, I give you

Also, Mike, I give you credit for your recognition that suburbs need some sort of reformation to improve their quality for children. Are you familiar with the urban design concept of the transect? It's a visual way of understanding the changes in density, height, and types of buildings, as well as their relation to public space, as one moves from the edge of a city to its center. It's organized into "T-zones" ("T" for transect), T-1 being essentially rural countryside to T-6 being a city's dense core.

The transect accounts for a suburban zone - T-3 - and a general urban zone - T-4 - which closely resemble the more traditional streetcar suburbs of the early 20th century. These zones more easily permit larger single-family homes with front yards, but also preserve more urban walkable public spaces with narrower traffic lanes and wider sidewalks. You might find the transect, and these zones in particular, a helpful way of thinking about the changes you propose, and further, in thinking about how these less-dense types of places might be incorporated into urban neighborhoods where there's already the structure of a community with civic places and spaces.

As one last counter to your comment: "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." I would argue that what we already do is force families out of urban neighborhoods. We should not presume one-size fits all for families. There are plenty of working and middle class families who actually would prefer life in a denser urban neighborhood for many reasons (they don't want to rely on a car, they want to live closer to work, school, family, church, etc., or they simply prefer urban neighborhoods) but can't afford it. Seventy-five years ago, the opposite may have been true, when urban neighborhood life was the norm for middle class families.