Comment Rescue: Country, City, and Town.

In Tod’s Swinging at the Fences Posts, I got into a conversation with Michael Cain about whether the Democratic Party has anything nice to say about suburbs. We are both Democratic Party supporters. Michael said this:

On the one hand there are conservatives who are fighting the demise of small town America, where the fundamental problems boil down to an inability to generate enough jobs for coming generations and an insufficient tax base to support contemporary levels of government service. On the other hand there are liberals who are fighting the demise of urban core America, whose fundamental problems come down to… an inability to generate enough jobs for coming generations and an insufficient tax base to support contemporary levels of government service. On the gripping hand [1], as they say in the sci-fi world, there are the suburbs, where an absolute majority of Americans choose to live, which have done the vast majority of the heavy lifting on job creation for decades, and which are routinely asked to subsidize government services in both rural and urban-core areas. There’s a growing body of evidence that given unconstrained choice, something over half of the population globally would choose suburban individual family dwellings and private transportation. Why isn’t the discussion, “What can the urban cores and the rural towns learn from the suburbs?” rather than “How can we preserve models that have largely failed in contemporary society?”

Will Truman added that he thinks the recent Supreme Court case that allows disparate impact lawsuits for fair housing/housing discrimination claims will hurt the Democratic Party in the long run. Will wrote: “I think suburban voters are the weakest link in the chain of the Emerging Democratic Majority. I think the HUD ruling may be a policy victory but may be a political liability.”

For the sake of this essay, I am going to take Michael Cain’s comments at face value. I will assume that suburbs do the heavy lifting for job creation and that “given unconstrained choice, something over half of the population globally would choose suburban individual family dwellings and private transportation.” Yet I will respond with why the Democratic Party needs to pay attention to urban issues.

Some asides, I am not as opposed to suburban living as I make myself out to be probably. I love cities but I can see why many people find them way too expensive and wonder why should I pay an obscene amount of money for a one or two bedroom apartment when I can buy a nice house in the suburbs and each of my kids can have their own room, and privacy, and we have nice school districts. The suburbs are not for me yet but I am starting to see why it is nice to have a quiet place to go to in the evening. I further admit that my cultural-recreational activities bend me towards wanting to at least live near a major metropolitan area especially a place like New York which can support festivals like Next Wave, the Lincoln Center Festival, and Brits Off-Broadway. So if you were to give me a choice between a huge house three to four hours from NYC or a one or two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn. I would pick the small apartment in Manhattan or Brooklyn for the cultural access. I don’t know what percentage of people would make the same choice. Obviously the ideal would be a house in a inner-ring suburb or a Brownstone of my own.

I also don’t think the HUD case will really hurt the Democratic Party because disparate impact housing discrimination suits have been going on for years and suburban counties have been ignoring court rulings for years.

Here are the issues on the problems of suburbs as I see them:

1. Structural Racism. Minorities have been excluded from suburbs and the job growth gains of suburbs for decades via intentional and unintentional policies. This started with redlining and continued with research that showed upper-income African-American families were more likely to receive sub-prime loans than lower-income white families. This is not an issue of equal outcome but an issue of equal opportunity. This is why disparate impact housing lawsuits are so important because they give minorities access to suburbs and good suburban school districts when they have been denied access for most of the 20th and into the 21st century. So the Democratic Party can either fight for bringing jobs and good schools to where their base is or they can bring their base to where the jobs and schools are, they can’t do both. I think it would be kind of cruel, evil, and self-defeating for the Democratic Party to tell their base that things just suck and they will be stuck in the inner-city without jobs and without good schools or government services.

2. The Paradox of Suburbs. LWA wrote this in the thread: “The paradox of suburbia is that the more popular it gets, the less desirable it becomes. San Francisco can accommodate growth by becoming more like Hong Kong, but if the suburbs of SF become denser, they stop being suburbs and just become cities.” Matt Yglesias wrote about this on Vox last week with his essay on “Want a good public education for your kids first? Better be rich first?”

The Vox essays proves Matt’s point and my own observations confirm it as well. Middle-class Americans tend to enjoy cities when they are young and single but as soon as they are ready to settle down and have kids, they head to the suburbs. The biggest reason is that urban school districts tend to be a chaotic mess. Most urban areas tend to have a handful of good public schools. When I was looking for apartments in Brooklyn, I really wanted to live in a neighborhood called Carroll Gardens. Carroll Gardens was split between two public elementary schools. My real estate agent was sure to tell me which apartments were zoned for the good elementary school even though I was a single, grad student and looking at studios and one-bedrooms. When I lived in the neighborhood, you would see that the good elementary school was filled with kids from “new” Brooklyn. The largely upper-middle class, professional, white and asians who are driving housing costs up. The public middle and high schools were 99 or 100 percent African-American and Hispanic. I think most of the new Brooklyn crowd sent their kids to private middle and high schools unless their kids got into the handful of “good” high schools. NYC has seven or eight good high schools as judged by the standards of middle-class people who expect their children to be college-bound.

Matt Y’s solution to this problem is allowing for more density or upzoning but this is clearly not what people want. My experience is that if people can afford it, they will travel as far as they need to in order to afford a house and find a decent school system. In San Francisco, there are people who live in Sonoma, Napa, or even as far East as Fairfield who commute into and out of the city every day. These are commutes of two or three hours. Basically Matt Y’s solution is to turn suburbs into mini-cities. He doesn’t even bother asking whether we can just improve school quality everywhere. My observation is that urban public schooling is really hard because you have vastly different communities with different needs and goals. Leeesq lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This used to be a very poor neighborhood filled with ultra-religious Jews and poor Hispanics. Now it is one of the most hipster filled and gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The neighborhood was called “Babyburg” as early as 2004-2005. Whenever I visit Leeesq, I always see posters about “taking back our schools”. There seems to be an on-going war between the educational demands and wants of the lower-income Hispanic residents and the upper-income white and Asian professional residents over the same public schools and resources. The ultra-Orthodox Jews do not send their kids to public school.

There are other reasons to prefer urbanization and public transportation. Urban density protects the environment and allows for more wild land and undeveloped areas for nature. Public Transportation can cut down on traffic and commuting times and climate change. Public transportation can also allow people to live in cities and commute to the suburbs for better paying jobs without increasing the need for car ownership.

Maybe most people want to have a detached house and maybe most people want to commute via private transportation. There could be a lot of really good reasons for this. I understand wanting a good amount of space. I am not a fan of the micro-house movement and microapartments are not good solutions for families either. But detached, suburban living for everyone and private transportation for everyone might not be possible or viable in the long run especially if communities enact a lot of policies that make it hard for people to live in their towns unless they are the “right” sort of people.

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55 thoughts on “Comment Rescue: Country, City, and Town.

  1. I (so far) love living in an Urban Village. It’s something that I think does strike the balance between urban & suburban, or suburban & rural (mine is more suburban & rural, but that is my preference).

    Building an Urban Village on the edge of a metro area is relatively easy, especially if you have lots of empty land. Building one in a urban setting requires displacing people or businesses for a few years while it gets built (e.g. your SF Shipyard).

    Either way, though, the focus on such a development should be clear & persistent*. In mine, it’s on medium density housing with very small yards (if any**) & lots of parks, communal green space, & wild space. Others could be focused around shopping, or night life, or sailing, or airports, etc.

    *By persistent, I mean that there are covenants that govern changes to the community. So my community CAN NOT develop on or sell off any space designated as a park or wild space without meeting some pretty stringent criteria and community buy-in.

    **The sound of weekend lawnmowers is non-existent in my community. HOA dues pay for yard service, who come during the business day. I no longer own a lawnmower since my “yard” is now a 20’x20′ paver patio. The land around my house is mostly shrubs & potted plants with a solid layer of mulch. All I have to do is some weeding and annual mulch replenishment.

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      • Mixed bag of detached homes & row/town houses, with a scattering of apartment/condo complexes.

        One of the features is that each development (since it’s been built in stages & continues to be so since the original land set aside for development is still available) has something of a dedicated park/green space, so that anybody can walk out their door and within a block or two be at a park (without having to cross a busy street). We also have lots of walking & biking paths strewn throughout the community, including links to a number of hiking trails through the 7500 acres of wilderness preserve (& beyond).

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    • Urban Villages are interesting and I think this is what Matt Y had in mind but they seem easier to do when attached to a big city like Seattle or SF than they do to a suburb like Mill Valley or San Mateo or Pleasantville or Lake Oswego.

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      • I’m 20 miles from Seattle, across a really big lake with a bridge that gets jammed up by traffic a lot. Not exactly attached. Also, the urban village should be easier to do the further from an urban core, since there is more land available. Doing one anywhere within the influence of a big urban core would be very difficult, I imagine, thanks to displacement & zoning. I know some areas of Seattle have been trying to do Urban Villages, with mixed success, but it takes a long time to start seeing benefits because of the politics & other difficulties of not being able to wipe the slate clean & build all new.

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  2. With regard to the HUD section, you seem to continue to argue that the policy is justified. That’s a different question than whether or not it will hurt the Democrats. These are two different questions.

    LWA’s comment about the paradox of suburbia only applies to a limited number of places. Everywhere else, new suburbs continue to be built outward.

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    • Is it going to have enough impact to harm anyone politically appreciably? I.e., if it harms the Democrats, will it harm them fully through its direct effect, or will it harm them through a big media magnification of its effects?

      If its effect will be big enough to harm Democrats, then okay, but if it’s going to be a media effect, I doubt it’s the kind of media story that is going to take off and have real political effects.

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      • I expect the media coverage will percolate from stories like McKinney and emanating from there. The coverage was critical of the cop, but I suspect a lot of people looked at the overall situation and thought they don’t want “that kind” of conflict in their neighborhood. It’s a really touchy issue, even if you’re unsympathetic to the complaints (as I largely am).

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  3. With regard to what the Democrats need to do, that’s a party decision. I personally would not advise that they abandon the urban cores, for reasons ideological and practical. I think where Cain and I are coming from is that they need to be mindful of the suburban votes they cannot win without. Which is, but and large, what the party has been doing. Getting aggressive of income housing integration puts them in a spot, though, because it’s ideologically important to them, and congress-level unpopular (especially in the suburbs).

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    • I wouldn’t advise them to abandon the urban core either. The question is what to do about the urban cores that are struggling.

      One question that occurs to me from time to time goes like this. Long-standing minority urban poverty is hard to solve. Long-standing white rural poverty is also hard to solve. The most successful rural strategy has been to subsidize work that can only be done there to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year. It doesn’t matter a whole lot that corporate farming captures some significant portion of those subsidies — it doesn’t go straight to the bottom line and they still have to hire local labor to do the work, including many in skilled trades: welders, electricians, pipefitters, etc. Who have to buy local services like food and medical care and auto repair. It’s not a complete solution, but it helps (as a labor economist friend of mine often says “Absent crop subsidies, much of rural America would make Detroit look good.”). What’s the urban equivalent?

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      • “It’s not a complete solution, but it helps (as a labor economist friend of mine often says “Absent crop subsidies, much of rural America would make Detroit look good.”). What’s the urban equivalent?”

        Hmmm….Good question. I think the answer was traditionally a lot of government paid for infrastructure work. Bridges, roads, buildings, etc. Also other government jobs. This is government as the employer of last resort. There is a lot of this in rural areas as well I think.

        The problem is that a lot of these jobs are being held up in political gridlock for a variety of culture war reasons between ruralish or exurban Republicans and their dreaded enemies in the Democratic cities. There are huge wealth transfers that happen between city-metro areas to rural areas. I think rural New York State would be even more economically depressed if it weren’t for huge transfers from NYC. Meanwhile the poor of NYC get lectured and all people who need the subways and commuter rails put up with aging infrastructure and spotty service.

        Even car dependent infrastructure like bridges are the victims here. How many bridges are in desperate need for upgrading or replacing? When are we going to read about the next major bridge collapse because of a lack of willpower to pay for things?

        The problem with a lot of infrastructure spending is that it is often used for big and new projects because those take years and employ more people than the less sexy work needed for constantly keeping things in good working order. You see this in the Seattle tunnel project to replace the Alaska viaduct.

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      • What Saul said. There is a well-known urban version of agricultural subsidies, necessary and make work infrastructure and beautification projects like the WPA during the 1930s. The problem is that American politics on the federal and state level makes subsidizing cities practically impossible. Rural areas are over represented in legislatures and will be even more so if the Supreme Court rules that only citizens count for determining electoral districts rather than everybody. Rural districts seem to have no problem sucking off the tits of the cities and suburbs.

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        • How many unskilled make-work jobs are there in urban cores? Construction jobs (bridges, roads, buildings) require some degree of skilled labor. Or would such programs include money for PJT or OJT?

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          • Another thing I wonder about is how the grey or underground economy differentiates in rural v. urban areas?

            The urban and suburban grey economy revolves can revolve around house-cleaning for example or home health-care for the elderly. Aka child-care. I often see young children being taken care of by immigrant women while their parents are at work. I wonder how many times these women are of somewhat questionable to highly questionable immigration statuses. The same goes for professionals who hire house-cleaners and seeing the elderly with an attendant.

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            • Rural’s easy, it’s mostly farm workers (including the watermelon peddlers)
              Urban can be any damn thing, and I mean it. Car mechanic, Drug Dealer, Chef, anything and everything. Mostly because a lot of people have a record and can’t get hired easily legit.
              Suburban’s just as likely to be Hebrew National as it is care workers, and don’t forget the back ends of restaurants. Anyplace that isn’t public can have illegals working there.

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        • Rural overrepresentation ended with Reynolds v. Sims in the 1960s. If you think they’ve got meaningful power, you’re not listening to the rural members of the legislature in either your state or mine. In both cases some number of them have supported rural secession movements (knowing that such would impoverish those rural areas) to get away from urban/suburban control (State of Jefferson in California, 51st State movement in Colorado). It’s a thing even in “rural” states — outstate Nebraskans are already terrified that when redistricting happens in 2020, Omaha, Lincoln, and their suburbs will hold an absolute majority in the Unicameral.

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      • “as a labor economist friend of mine often says “Absent crop subsidies, much of rural America would make Detroit look good.””

        I would love to see his numbers, as I think you could make a decent argument that crop subsidies are an urban subsidy, as they make food affordable for inner cities and such. And without them the amounts need to live in cities would be astronomical.

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        • aarondavid,

          I don’t know about that, Aaron. The primary subsidies are to the “white” crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton (which of course isn’t food). A loaf of bread that sells for about $3 contains about a nickel’s worth of wheat, so even if the price of wheat doubled on account of eliminating the subsidies I doubt you’d notice the difference in the store. Hell, half the subsidies for ag is paying farmers to NOT grow stuff so as to keep the market price above the costs of production.

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    • Actaually one might see how people relocate after children in retirement to see at least preferences at that stage of life. For me it meant moving from a patio home in Houston to a house on (effectivly) 2.5 acres in the exurbs of San Antonio. (All be it was my parents retirement house also they moved from a suburb of Detroit to there, partly to avoid the cold and snow.). But with the web unless one is an Extravert and finds crowds exciting in themselves much any performance can be gotten on the web on DVD. Further with the Web/Amazon/UPS/Fed Ex one has the shopping variety that a big city used to provide and provides the specialty stores that used to only exist in the big city are now accessible anywhere. (All be it one need to delay gratification for a couple of days). So it partly depends on if one likes to be alone or in crowds. I like the 100 to 200 foot spacing to the next house for example. In many respects living in a town of 20 to 40k 60 miles outside a big city might be a good comprimise. You get grocery stores and the like, and good delivery and are not cheek by jowl with other folks. I recall in Houston it took between 1/2 and 1 hour to get anywhere depending on the time of day for example.
      So where to live depends on preferences and on the stage of life one is at.

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      • I dispute the notion that every performance can be found on-line or via DVD. Many can but theatre is still different live and even if a person sits in the nosebleeds it offers better observation than a shaky camcorder recording. I will never see every performance that interests me.

        What I do concede is that a lot of Americans (and maybe most of the world if Cain is correct) seem to prefer radical atominization. A more common refrain is “why should I go to a movie theatre when I can watch movies from the comfort of my own home on a big screen TV?” or “Why should I go to a public park when I can sit in my own yard and use my own pool?”

        I sometimes feel like the odd man out for liking to see movies or performances with a crowd and feeling the crowd reaction. Yes there are jerks but there is also something to feeling how the crowd reacts.

        What is it about Americans and our desire for atominization?

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        • It very much depends on what a person desires. I suspect you tend to extraversion and gain energy from crowds. What you call atominization is also a sign of introversion where being in crowds drains ones energy. If crowds drain your energy you tend to avoid them.
          So it may just be a matter of ones preference, although I am given to believe more Americans are extraverts than introverts so that does not explain it all but it may be that many can gain energy thru crowds on the web just as well as in person.
          But then in my case I figure that if I wait long enough a movie will show up on the satellite dish.

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          • @michael-cain

            I was being a bit too hard but I think there are unconscious biases at work when we talk about introversion.

            I was listening to a fairly recent episode of This American Life called “Not It”. One segment was about a town (approximately 30,000 people) in Illinois called Kankakee, Illnois. The town was voted worst in America in 1999. In reality, the town is like a lot of other rust-belt cities. A lot of industry seemed to shut down suddenly and the suburbanish remained largely white while the city proper is more African-American and Latino(a).

            So the town has a reputation for being a bad, bad place. One local high school student reported that she heard a white woman say “Oh that place is filled with gang-bangers”. The gang-bangers in question were just dudes who liked to hang out in the park.

            So this is why I am semi-skeptical of introversion as a label. Yes there are a lot of introverts. I can be introverted myself at times and enjoy staying in my apartment. But I think this quickly descends into talk about the “proper” way to enjoy time and space and this divides on socio-economic and racial lines.

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            • This is a good example of my own biases that I have to be careful about. I’m influenced by my own experiences and studies, focused on the parts of the US west of the Great Plains. One of the big points made in Abbott’s The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the American West is the large differences between east and west of the GP. The West has far fewer but much larger suburbs; cases of a city of 30K that has both suburbanish and core-city sections are very rare. I should know better from my time in NJ — the suburbs were dozens and dozens of small towns.

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        • Saul Degraw: What is it about Americans and our desire for atominization?

          The continuing growth of urban areas tends to put that idea to lie. Perhaps it’s that Americans would like some urban living, but don’t want to have to pay the equivalent of a new/renovated large detached home in order to live in a postage stamp apartment with 1930’s amenities. (Yes I’m being a bit hyperbolic).

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        • …radical atominization.

          What? Everyone in my neighborhood knows their neighbors. Poor dogs don’t get far on the evening walk because their people keep stopping to chat. Within limits of the neighborhood, free-range children during daylight hours when school’s out. The movie theaters are full. The performing arts center in my suburb is full, both in the schedule sense and the seat sense (with a surprising portion of the audience out from Denver). The parks are full. The farmers market is crowded from mid-summer through the end of the harvest. The clerks at the local grocery know me. And as far as I can tell from the people I know who live in other areas here, we’re an absolutely bog-standard suburb.

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      • There is a lot to this statement. My wife and I live just outside s “as far away as Fairfield” distance, and while our commute is about an hour (we both work in Berkeley) the quality of life FOR US that is gained is immense. We don’t care about the latest restaurant, we don’t go to bars anymore, we don’t need the entertainment options that a city provides. We need shop space for me and gardening space for her. My son is in college, so schools matter not. Neither of us particularly likes people or crowds. Would we like shorter commutes, maybe. We have found that we do our unwinding on the drive home, and neither really brings the stresses of the day with us after the drive We find that we don’t drink nearly as much, and the reduced costs for living is money in the bank.

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    • Err no. Frankly, I’d have a Section of land all my own. That’s 640 acres. Preferably mix of high ground and fresh water. There would be a very large fence surrounding it. A sign would read “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” Only partially in jest.

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  4. When I was younger, I had a lot of fun living in a hip place where I could tell other people how to live but now that I’m getting older, I’m not so much into these whippersnappers telling me how to live so I’m going to find a nice house in a nice place surrounded by somewhat like-minded people and ignore everyone else.

    I’d still like to live close enough to the city to get a decent meal from time to time, though.

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  5. I brought this up in the other thread, that we tend to map “suburban” with “White/ Affluent” and “Urban” with “Black/ Poor” which is true enough times that it becomes a cliché.
    But it is false enough to where it weakens our discussion.

    How many people here know that Compton and South Central LA and Inglewood are all suburban areas, almost entirely single family and low density apartments?

    There are plenty of poor minority suburban areas, outside of most American cities.

    I suppose the Democratic Party could propose a massive program of financial aid to the suburbs of Compton and South Central, but I think everyone here will understand why this will not be supported by the Republican party, their suburban orientation notwithstanding.

    Right now our politics is being driven by the almost frenzied fear among the conservative base that undeserving loafers are getting a government benefit.

    Ultimately, it isn’t that the Democratic Party is seen as beholden to “people who live in cities” as opposed to “people who live in single family dwellings”- the image is that the Democratic Party is overly fond of “those people” regardless of whether those people are living in Cabrini Green or Compton.

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    • There are also lots of non-affluent white suburbs and ex-urbs. Nassau and Suffolk counties were very white places when I grew up but there were noticeable differences in wealth between each suburb. Each suburban town had it’s own character.

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  6. Much like , I had an aversion to the burbs for most of my young-adult life. The cities were where the action was, I could get around without a car, and I viewed them as more ecologically sound. The minute I had my daughter, I started to see why the suburbs were desirable for families. “Wait, it will cost me how much to get a two bedroom apartment in San Francisco?” Now I just have to live with the grind of driving into said urban area for work….

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    • Exactly.

      It’s possible to raise kids in small urban apartments, people do it everyday. But it can be challenging, and for a lot of people, when faced with the options of living in a thriving* urban core versus letting kids have space to run – if they can swing it, they’ll choose space. And it’s not all about space either.

      Pre- & post-kids, adults have lots of free time to do things like enjoy the adult things an urban core can offer. They have no problem walking or taking public transit to restaurants, or clubs, or shows, or museums, etc. Doing that with small kids can be anywhere from impossible to a mild PITA (kids come with literal baggage until they are fully potty trained, and even after that there is a certain amount of extra gear a parent likes to keep handy – this can make public transit so much fun!).

      Suburbs allow parents to keep the baggage in the car when they take the kids places, and it makes it easier to take kids places when schedules get tossed out the window (another reason kids & public transit can suck). And let’s not even get started on public transit after going shopping for a family (especially if you are a single parent).

      So, as a parent, I can live in a dense urban core with the higher costs & attendant headaches I have to find ways to deal with, & I don’t get to enjoy as much of the urban amenities as I used to. Or, for the same amount of housing money, I can get a large home in the suburbs. Sure, my commuting costs go up, but other costs go down (especially if I found suburban living options that did not consume my entire urban living costs).

      Is it any wonder families start to run the numbers and a significant number of them choose suburban living?

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      • Your point about the literal baggage that comes with small kids is dead-on. My wife and I are visiting friends in SF today, and the fact that we have to bring a carseat, stroller, and large diaper bag would be such a hassle if we were taking public transit like I did in years prior. I truly love a good public transit system, but moving a little one about on those systems can be challenging.

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        • Thank you.

          Thing is, public transit systems are primarily designed to move commuters & people traveling with a carry bag (purse, small duffle, backpack, etc). This is not a bug of the system, but it’s something people who don’t have kids tend to forget when they imagine a car-free community.

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