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Designing Cities for the Family

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, November 27, 2007, at 10:54PM

Given how often I've criticized Joel Kotkin, it's worth noting when he writes something reasonable. Yesterday Kotkin had a piece in the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal talking about how urban cores needed to be planned for the family, not the single young professional.

There is a basic truth about the geography of young, educated people. They may first migrate to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston or San Francisco. But they tend to flee when they enter their child-rearing years. Family-friendly metropolitan regions have seen the biggest net gains of professionals, largely because they not only attract workers, but they also retain them through their 30s and 40s.

It's a smart point, and I wrote in my "Five Steps" piece that we need to create a Downtown where young professionals can remain comfortable as their station in life changes.

I do take issue with one point, though.

The evidence thus suggests that the obsession with luring singles to cities is misplaced. Instead, suggests Paul Levy, president of Philadelphia's Center City district association, the emphasis should be on retaining young people as they grow up, marry, start families and continue to raise them.


Such a shift in emphasis could mark a new beginning for many long-neglected urban neighborhoods across the country. It's time to recognize that today, as has been the case for millennia, families provide the most reliable foundation for successful economies.

What gets glossed in this treatment is that it may well be that luring the singles is still the way that urban revival must begin. The young professional is much more likely to move into a not-yet-arrived neighborhood than is the family. The singles that pioneer the neighborhood create the market that can support the retail and nightlife, which then in turn can make the neighborhood viable for families. That's a sort of step two in urban revitalization.

Is figuring out how to keep families in the urban core vital? Absolutely. Should Downtown have been renewed as a family spot from the get-go? Somehow I don't see how that would have worked out.


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