Richard Florida wrote an article on Friday in the New York Times declaring that the Urban Revival was over. He points to data showing that the suburbs around cities are actually growing faster and that most young people polled still prefer to live in single-family homes with yards. The larger truth is much simpler: an urban revival never really happened in America. You only need to look at children to see why.
Much of the narrative about the urban revival over the last 20 years focused on the “Creative Classes” that Mr. Florida coined in 2002. The term described the type of jobs (mostly tech-forward, service-based) and workers (mostly young and highly educated) fueling growth in (mostly major) cities. This lens, as Mr. Florida himself has pointed out, was less a complete picture of modern urbanism and more of a snapshot of emerging economic trends. However, media coverage tended to miss this nuance. As a result, “urban revival” has become a mostly bullshit catchall.
This was never a story about a revival of urbanism. As much as city planners praised this rediscovered appreciation for cities and helped promote trendy concepts like bike lanes, as much as developers internalized this fetish and marketed it, and as much as some people sincerely enjoy living in dense neighborhoods, nothing about our country has embraced urbanism as a way of life.
Our country remains anti-urban. It remains pathologically geared towards car ownership and single-family homeownership. These two pillars are deeply embedded in our cultural DNA, our built environment, our tax code, and our politics. Nothing about the “urban revival” has challenged this in a meaningful way. And it was never intended to.
This brings me back to children. If the urban revival was anything more than a development fad, fueled by short-term profit more than long-term planning, we would have embraced policy changes that increased the many natural advantages that urbanism has for raising children. We, or I should say market-driven public policy, have not done that.
1. Did it build more housing for families?
It is obvious and well documented that most new construction in city centers has been on the high end of the market targeted for wealthy residents (or foreign investors who don’t live there). That type of housing doesn’t benefit the majority of renters and is certainly not intended for most families. It was mostly intended for speculators.
Last year, NYC built 16,000 new housing units, the vast majority of which are luxury studios, 1-bedrooms, or 2-bedrooms. This is true every year. Affordable units, let alone three and four bedroom apartments are rare at any price-point in the current market (to rent or to buy), which means families either have to double-up or cycle out of the city. When number of kids you have has become a status symbol in the city, something is wrong.
2. Did it provide more family-related services?
Many of these new developments are in parts of cities that were not traditionally residential neighborhoods. This has meant that there are limited services and amenities for families close by. Most new buildings have doormen, fancy gyms, and skydecks — how many have playrooms or daycare centers? Amenities are titled away from families.
Older residential neighborhoods also don’t have enough family-related services, public or private. It is estimated that as many as 61% of New Yorkers live in what is called a “childcare desert” with limited or no access to childcare services. An entire generation of economic development, has precluded families, which disproportionately impacts lower-income and single-parent households.
3. Did it create jobs that work for parents?
For every creative-classy job that pays well, there are more service jobs that don’t, which are brutal on parents. Just this week, Richard Florida writes that 45% of the American work force — 65 million people — are in service jobs. In addition to the low pay, no benefits, and limited growth potential, these jobs also generally lack predictable scheduling and paid time off — which makes it that much harder to secure childcare or to be there for a sick child (or to get sick yourself). Without improving the lives of service workers on a grand scale, many of these people simply can’t afford to have kids or their kids suffer from their absence.
It is also important to understand that our modern economic “hustle culture” has caused women’s participation in the labor market to decline since the 1990s, which is very bad. At most levels of the labor ladder, we are working more for less, with less protections and accommodations. Lyft proudly touted a pregnant driver picking up a passenger while on the way to give labor — like it was a good thing. This is batshit crazy, terrible for our society, and — as a far second — terrible for our economy. We have designed an economy that priorities the shareholder over the family and it is damaging our social and civil health.
4. Did it commit to public education?
The public education system in the US is one of our greatest achievements. Despite the apocalyptic language in many circles, it still is. However, the very concept of public education and local commitment to it has been under constant threat during this age of development. Whether its disaster capitalism in New Orleans post-Katrina, or education Secretary Besty DeVos in DC, the idea of “school choice” has ravaged the larger civic ideals taught in and expressed through our public schools that are the bedrock of our democracy.
Many urban school systems are struggling; in NYC 1 in 7 public school students will be homeless at some point in the next year. Blaming schools and teachers for that is insane. But when systems are dealing with these types of issues, it makes it unlikely that young creatives will stick around a neighborhood when they want to have kids. Those that can will move to the suburbs, enroll kids in charters or private schools, or fight desperately for the few spaces in “good” public schools. Those that can’t leave will find fewer resources and allies left to help teachers and parents support their schools. Addressing the larger systemic issues hurting public schools becomes impossible.
5. Did it invest in public transportation?
Schlepping kids around is hard enough with a mini-van and ample parking. It is nearly impossible even on the top public transportation systems. As the Summer of Hell ends (Winter is Coming, though), we have no illusions that NYC is near the top. Part of this is the age of the system, but lots of it is the lack of commitment to long-term maintenance. Making our subways and buses more efficient helps everyone, but when even getting back to a baseline of reliability is a challenge, how can we plan system-wide upgrades to be friendlier for families with young children?
Public transportation should be one of the biggest assets to a family, sparing them prohibitive transportation costs and making it easier and quicker to get to places. It should also make it easier for school-aged children to be able to travel alone. But most cities have done little to invest in their systems (don’t get me started on streetcars.)
At least in NYC we have an extensive network, as flawed as it is. But we (until recently) missed the opportunity to have highly lucrative development pay in to improve our public transportation.
Urbanism is a set of values, not wonky prescriptions. It is about creating an inclusive, shared identity as much as it is about dense development. It is about guaranteeing access to ideas and resources as much as parks and transportation. It is a commitment to public life first and private gain second. I firmly believe urbanism is a better way to organize our society and economy — at any age, in any type of household.
But we have not actually embraced those values over the last 20 years. As much as glossy design, food halls, and bike lanes might give cities a veneer of urbanism, the underlying reality of development is still mired in an isolating, individualistic, and profit-seeking ideology that favors the suburbs. That’s where we’re supposed to raise kids, unaccountably.
Perhaps we should welcome Mr. Florida’s pronouncement that this urban revival is over. The missed opportunity of this period is staggering and the consequences are alarming. We must fight for a true urbanism to come next.