Culture & Society

Going Out, Growing Up

Our built environments are downright hostile to young family life. We can build better ones

When many young city-dwellers “grow up,” they get married and raise their families in the suburbs. But are the suburbs what they really want? Image Credit: filo/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, a friend had a birthday and decided to celebrate at a late-night karaoke bar in D.C. After a few warm-up drinks at a whiskey bar—a bit faux-upscale, like so many places in the city, but the drinks were good—we walked half a block and crossed the street to the karaoke bar. It was packed, and while we waited for a private room to become available, we all got hungry watching plates of amazing-looking, mediocre-tasting Chinese food going by (the karaoke bar served Chinese food and sushi). I only passed on a plate of lo mein because I’m now, sadly, no longer young enough to eat a huge meal at midnight and sleep well. Or maybe I’m just out of practice.

As we waited in the packed main bar room, Adele’s “Someone Like You” came on. Maybe that was a bit of a downer for karaoke. But I swear, everybody in that bar sang along, as if we were Lutherans at service and the choir director announced “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” “Someone Like You” came out when most of us were in college. It’s one of those things you don’t think about often but never forget. Once my dad said, “You could have dementia and not remember your own name, but you’ll remember what song was at the top of the charts when you were a senior in college.”

That moment really did feel almost like a kind of religious observance. Maybe for 20- and 30-somethings, that’s our church—or maybe, to be more precise, it fills the same niche.

Between The Adult Playground And The Suburbs

Then another thought occurred to me—you have kids, and that’s it. You never do this again. After so many breezy years, it feels like an end, even a loss of oneself. Christ told us to die to ourselves, but family life shouldn’t be a punishment. Why, in America today, can it feel like one? How have we gone so wrong, that starting a family feels like it closes so many doors?

There’s a standard, expected progression for people like me—middle class or upper-middle class, highly educated, cosmopolitan, not particularly affluent (the demographic that Joe Coulombe, the Trader Joe’s founder, called in his autobiography “overeducated and underpaid”).

We come to the city (or the urbanized suburb, like the transit corridor in Arlington, Virginia) to go to school, to date, to play, to work busy first jobs—to be complete and full adults but in a way that still resembles being in college. And that goes on for five or 10 years—until you finally get married, have kids and move to the suburbs for the schools, and—remember, not particularly affluent—because you can’t afford a house or family-size apartment in an urban neighborhood.

But how many newly minted families actually want suburbia? What if we could unbundle the various characteristics of built places and reassemble them according to our preferences? If you gave the suburb-bound 20- or 30-somethings a magic wand and let them create their ideal living situation, what would it be? Sure, some would want maximum NIMBYism—no noise, no crime, no neighbors, no traffic, but all of the bells and whistles of crowded, productive places. That does not exist. But not everyone will ask for a unicorn.

Most young parents will certainly have a heightened awareness of crime. They might not like late-night noise (though they’ll probably be awake anyway). The quality of schools matters a lot—it’s a crucial consideration that influences where you want to live as a parent that’s virtually invisible to a non-parent. But the actual land use and transportation realities of American suburbia? The isolation, the physical distance, the endless and countless car trips—those experiential taxes of such an environment? How many people are really choosing that?

It’s simplistic to think that we mature, grow up, change priorities and risk assessments, and “outgrow” the urban lifestyle. You don’t “outgrow” the city. What you outgrow is the adult playground.

But how should urbanists, among whom I count myself, think about all of this? How do you make a place that works for everybody, so that land use and politics do not become overlapping categories of self-sorting, with Democrats living in cities and Republicans in suburbs and small towns? How do we build places that are good for families and good for kids and good for everyone in between? And how, despite all their faults, do we argue for the cities we have, as they actually exist, as opposed to the cities we might one day build?

A few more questions: How can our built environment resist the idea that having kids is incompatible with living in cities? How can this environment not strand, maroon, isolate families? And how can we design a world in which having kids is not a hard stop to everything that came before?

These are questions which, for the most part, are absent from our politics. This is, when you think about it, absurd. The built environment is not all-explanatory and does not determine everything, but it is a sort of ur-issue. It is the context of everything. And I find it hard to believe that the hostility of our cities to families with young children—the absence of apartments sized and designed for families, the myriad ways in which public transit or the built environment subtly complicate more time-constrained family life—is not a factor in delayed family formation and childbearing. It may be the case that cities do not merely attract, but to some extent create these trends.

Hello From the Other Side

But then I wonder, to what extent, Americans dislike urban life because they like it? I’ve gotten a feeling, from observing and discussing these things a lot, that perhaps we view its excitement, energy and fun as a kind of indulgence. Okay, we had our nice car-free festival in town, now it’s time to get back to work. Every day can’t be a day off. I wrote about that after going to one such street festival in Leesburg, Virginia:

We vacation in places like that and talk about how nice they are. But why are we fine with occasionally turning our own cities and towns into something like that—and obviously really liking it!—and then going back to the same old, same old?…

I almost wonder if our attitudes about work and leisure don’t have something to do with this. It’s almost as if we don’t do this more often because we like it; perhaps we view it as a slightly sinful indulgence, after which we have to get back to real work.

This, as it happens, is the sort of thing I can imagine doing as a parent. Maybe it’s not quite the adult version of the late-night karaoke bar. But it does provide much of the same feeling: of being surrounded by people, of being able to impulse-buy something, of breaking through the daily grind. The family-friendly equivalent of the karaoke bar is exactly the sort of thing we close off and squeeze out—in many cities, where work schedules and car traffic rule the day, in small towns where much the same is true, and in suburbs where the intersection of poor land use and NIMBYism ensures a critical mass of people never forms. Nothing will grow your world—force you to grow your world—like having kids (in ways, I assume, you love and don’t love—do I want to learn every version of “Baby Shark” on YouTube by heart?). So it is ironic, and tragic, that our built environment forces us to shrink our worlds.

Adele’s big hit following “Someone Like You” was “Hello,” which, unlike her first hit, I never quite understood. What does “Hello from the other side” mean? What, specifically, is “the other side”? Adele explained it years ago: “Hello from the other side was the other side of being a grown-up, the other side of being with my friends and my ex-boyfriends.”

After the long extended adolescence, the drama and the “situationships,” the bleeding together of college and grad school and urban life—after the breezy autonomy and the late nights out have run their course—we’ll find ourselves, finally, on the other side. And the great responsibility of those who care about families and the built environment separately is to care about them together: to make sure that on the other side, there is something there.

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