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Families and the Modern American City

Monday, August 5th, 2013

In City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres argue that our “childless cities” are ripe for change. “If cities want to nurture the next generation of urbanites and keep more of their younger adults,” the authors write, “they will have to find a way to welcome back families, which have sustained cities for millennia and given the urban experience much of its humanity.”

Up until the 1950s, American cities embodied a “commitment to familialism,” with strong public schooling, childcare, and community parks. But in the past two generations, cities have witnessed a rapid exodus of families to the suburbs. According to the Census, the population of children age 14 and under in cities with populations greater than 500,000 declined between 2000 and 2010, despite growth in the other major demographic groups. Chicago, for instance, has 145,000 fewer school-aged children than it had a decade ago. According to Kotkin and Modarres, the city space once occupied by families has been replaced with single professionals, childless couples, and college students.

As a result, city architecture has been shaped to provide ample options for recreation, arts, and restaurants, which has profoundly changes the character of American cities:

Best-selling urban booster Richard Florida, a pied piper for today’s city developers and planners, barely mentions families in his books, which focus instead on younger, primarily single populations. Eric Klinenberg, a New York University professor and author of the widely touted Going Solo, celebrates the fact that “cities create the conditions that make living alone a more social experience.” But perhaps the most cogent formulation of the post-family city comes from the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark, who see the city, and particularly the urban core, as an “entertainment machine.” In their view, city residents “can experience their own urban location as if tourists, emphasizing aesthetic concerns.” Schools, churches, and neighborhood associations no longer form the city’s foundation. Instead, the city revolves around recreation, arts, culture, and restaurants—a system built for the newly liberated individual.