Density is the new fertility bogeyman
Joel Kotkin's muddle-headed theory on babies and urban living is aimed at blocking housing choice for young families.
Photo Credit: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
Insanity has been described as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Anti-smart-growth pundit and New Geography editor Joel Kotkin has been pushing the idea that low US birth rates can be blamed on, in part, urban redevelopment (links here, here, here). Low density suburbs are pro-family places, he argues, and since smart growth and New Urbanism favor compact, mixed-use places, they must be anti-family.
There's one glaring problem with this theory. The birth rate in the United States peaked in 1957. Since that year, the better part of six decades, America suburbanized on a vast scale. We went from a nation that was mostly walkable and mixed-use to one that is characterized by low-density regions accessible by automobile only.
If low-density, drivable suburbs boost fertility, the United States would be awash in babies. Given the vast supply of drive-only suburbs today, we could sit back and watch the babies roll in like a full-moon tide for another generation at least.
Yet the record over the last half century contradicts Kotkin's theory. So I'm guessing that some other factors that have led to a lower birth rate -- like advancing birth-control technology, the changing roles of women, and perhaps widespread higher education that delays child-rearing.
The idea that smart growth and New Urbanism have any effect whatsoever on the birth rate is a humbug. The underlying premise that smart growth undermines families, and that low-density suburbs support them, also defies common sense. Smart growth and New Urbanism are, to no small degree, about building places with physical qualities of the towns and neighborhoods where our grandparents grew up.
Those neighborhoods were compact, mixed-use communities with significantly higher densities than the far-flung suburbs of today. And they were full of children.
Life was far from perfect back then, and I'm not nostalgic. Yet those communities offered advantages for growing up and raising children that today's drive-only suburbs lack. The children could walk and ride their bikes to the playground, school, grocery store, church, and their friends' houses. Play dates did not need to be scheduled. The parents and neighbors could keep eyes on the kids, who still enjoyed a degree of independence. The neighborhood — the community — was a coparent.
Many of the postwar suburbs of the 1950s and '60s retained aspects of traditional neighborhoods and were good places for families. The children still walked to school. The commutes were short, traffic was light, and usually transit was available. But everything changed as we piled suburb onto suburb, created no new town centers, and built everything further apart. As the suburbs turned to sprawl, their family-friendliness took a hit. Play dates became a necessity, the parents were drafted as unpaid chauffeurs, and both parents often needed demanding jobs to meet the mortgage and two car payments. Walmart or the regional mall became the town center — the so-called heart of the community.
The children of the 1980s and 1990s fully experienced what it is like to grow up where the main street is a parking lot. Far from eager to carry on the cul-de-sac lifestyle, this generation — the Millennials — is desperate to live in real neighborhoods. (link, link, link)
Urban cores and centers, the relatively small areas of maximum density in cities, are not ideal places for most families to raise children. Yet downtowns play key roles in families and civilization that Kotkin doesn't appear to grasp. They intensify economic activity and culture. Also, as urban planner Andres Duany has pointed out, the core holds the greatest concentration of "genetic material." Prior to settling down and starting a family, you have to find a mate. The young instinctively flock to "where the action is," and that's not at the end of a cul-de-sac.
When young families settle in cities and towns, they tend to live outside of downtown. Yet the core still functions as a center of employment, entertainment, shopping, and enrichment for families.
Given that many Millennials show no inclination to return to isolated exurbs, a deliberate effort to make urban neighborhoods more family friendly is not a bad idea. That has nothing to do with making them less urban, and everything to do with addressing two issues -- crime and schools. Much progress has already been made in solving the horrendous urban crime problem of the late 20th Century. Many cities across America have crime rates that they haven't seen since the 1960s. Revitalized urban neighborhoods today typically have lower violent crime rates than the US average. Yet many poor neighborhoods are still far too dangerous. Public officials are finding ways to make them less so. For example, in 2013 crime is down 40 percent in Philadelphia and 20 percent in Chicago from 2012.
Expect this trend to continue — because revitalization and lower crime feed upon each other. Recent demographic trends indicate that the 2010s may be the best decade for cities since the 1940s. Many fully built out cities are poised for population growth of 10 to 20 percent this decade.
The biggest issue for children is schools — many parents head to the suburbs when their first child turns six. If we improve the schools, young parents will flock to urban neighborhoods. I live in a small-city neighborhood that has many of the qualities of our grandparents' towns that I mentioned before. On most days on my block, kids play outside without play dates. I'll just add that families from all over the county bring their children for Halloween. We call the candy purchase our neighborhood "tax," and it is worth every penny.
Now, it seems that whenever a house is up for sale, a family with kids moves in. That's because our city has good public schools -- still a rarity in urban neighborhoods.
I don't know what the answer is to the problem of urban schools — but I won't be shocked if they begin to turn around. They don't have to be perfect -- they just have to be more competitive with suburban public schools for the tide to shift. This article discusses strategies for maintaining racial balance in schools located in revitalizing neighborhoods shifting from all black to multiracial, trending towards white. That's happening in a number of cities, including Washington, DC, where test scores are improving from when the District ran the worst schools in the nation.
But smart growth isn't an urban versus suburban issue. We can do many things to make the suburbs more walkable and mixed-use, and therefore appealing to young families today. I've argued that the postwar suburbs in particular — those built from 1946 to 1965 — are especially ripe for revitalization. With investment and a little vision, these neighborhoods could be made walkable, bikable, and mixed-use — while retaining many of the characteristics that were appealing to young families in the middle of the last century. These suburbs already have parks and, often, decent schools. They are increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. But they need town centers to be attractive to Millennials and the "creative class."
Although Kotkin has been flogging the idea of a dangerous recent dearth in children, the birth rate of women ages 15-44 in the US has been essentially flat since the mid-1970s. The big drop occurred from 1957 to 1972, a period of unceasing suburban expansion (and when modern birth control became widely available).
That time period was followed by 35 years more of rapid suburban expansion, ending only in the Great Recession, all of which failed to raise that birth rate one iota. Now we have an oversupply of large-lot single-family housing across theUS that is expected to grow in the next two decades.
Americans strongly favored suburbs after World War II -- and these suburbs offered many benefits, at least for white families at the time. But the suburbs were also built through public initiatives — highway construction and the adoption of thousands of zoning ordinances that mostly separate uses and limit density. Those policies took on a life of their own — helping to create the current oversupply. In light of that, smart growth and New Urbanism represent a much-needed counterbalance to outdated policies.
Kotkin's wild reference to a "coalition favoring forced densification," which sounds a little like "forced sterilization" in this context, borders on the hysterical. This coalition, Kotkin says, includes "greens, planners, architects, developers, land speculators" — wow, greens and developers and other groups? It sounds like a coalition of the left, right, and center.
In fact, when higher density is allowed to take place, it almost always responds to the market. Compact, walkable communities are in high demand today and they offer wide range of housing choices.
Kotkin is laboring to shore up the political impediments to density and choice. Grandma's neighborhood is not good enough for you, because Joel Kotkin wants you to drive everywhere. Needless to say that would do nothing to boost fertility, unless they still have lover's lanes.
The barriers to New Urbanism get in the way of many a family friendly community being rebuilt and revitalized.
These family friendly communities are compact and mixed-use and appeal to today's families — namely the Millennials — that are in child-rearing age. It meets a market demand for connected places with greater transportation choice. It is built through smart growth, New Urbanism, and urban revitalization. Joel Kotkin is rallying the forces of "no," but his ideas are muddle-headed — maybe because his tactics are aimed below the belt.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better! Cities & Towns.
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