Every December, we re-run some of our best essays from the year. (See them all here.) The piece below might seem a little out of place on a "best of" list: it's not particularly in-depth, it wasn't written by one of our regular contributors, and it doesn't deal with a heavyweight issue like affordable housing or infrastructure spending. But I found it to be one of our most important articles from 2017 for the simple fact that it provided a contradictory perspective to the prevailing attitude in America (and we're all about sharing surprising perspectives on our site). Additionally, it generated extensive conversation on social media when we published it — from people who both agreed and disagreed with its argument.
Parenting and family life might not seem like natural topics for an organization that's focused on helping towns become financially strong, yet every time we publish something in this realm, I see more and more connections between our mission and the concerns of parents and children. We can't have strong towns without having strong families, without having streets where kids can safely walk to school, without having neighborhoods that don't isolate stay-at-home parents from a community of support...
So I hope this essay (which we initially republished from the blog of our friends at VERDUNITY) helps kickstart more conversations about how to build strong towns, and I plan to continue contemplating issues of parenting and families on the Strong Towns website in 2018. - Rachel Quednau
My life changed forever when I became a mom. While I admit that I still hold onto a few of my selfish tendencies, most my daily decisions are now based on what is best for my son instead of myself. My husband and I plan our weekends around what and when we are going to eat, when he is going to get his nap, and what activities we can do that will adequately wear him out before bedtime.
So, when we started to think about the community that we wanted to live in, our criteria mostly revolved around the type of environment that was best for him. While good schools were at the very top of the list, we also wanted to be in a place that had an active community with friendly neighbors, at least one park within walking distance, and a safe environment for kids to play outside.
Surprisingly enough, when we looked around our single family suburban neighborhood, we realized it just didn’t measure up. Looking outside of our neighborhood, the place that most met our criteria was the old downtown. While I love old downtowns and all the charm that they offer, I have to admit that I always thought of those areas as being more for young people with no kids, or for the people whose kids are grown and out of the house. It took us a while to sort through everything, and we ultimately decided that the old downtown was the place that we wanted to be.
Now that we have been settled into our new neighborhood, I wanted to share my experience with others that may be on the fence about leaving their suburban neighborhood behind. While there are many issues to consider, the following were the biggest ones for us.
STRONG SENSE OF COMMUNITY
I sat through a keynote lecture about a month ago, and something that the speaker said stuck with me. He said, “Everyone wants to be a part of and contribute to something bigger than themselves.” I know that to be true in my life. I have been lucky enough to be a part of a close-knit family, an active church, and a healthy work environment. But, I have never had a connection with my neighbors. In the 12 years that we lived in a single family suburban neighborhood, I can count on one hand the number of times that I interacted with one of my neighbors. I might be able to recall two of those neighbors’ names.
My new downtown neighborhood, in contrast, is full of neighbors going out of their way to get to know us. It started when we were purchasing our home. Typically, the purchase of a home is an impersonal transaction where the buyer doesn’t interact with the seller at all. In our case, the seller somehow found our contact information and reached out to us to coordinate the move. They were also there when we did our final walk-through, giving us tidbits of information about the history of house, renovations that had been done, and things that were yet to be fixed. Our real estate agent said he has never seen this happen.
We have since had many neighbors drop by to bring us housewarming gifts or New Year’s gifts. We have also met a lot of neighbors just by being outside at the same time and even more by going to the neighborhood block parties or the numerous City-sponsored community events. There is a friendly, genuine, and inclusive community here and I am so excited that our family is now a part of it.
The amenities that my neighborhood had to offer wasn’t a big deal before I had my son because it was just as easy to drive wherever we wanted to go. After having a child who absolutely hated being strapped into a car seat, I desperately needed to find a walkable neighborhood with places worth walking to. While I will admit that my new neighborhood could be more walkable than it is now, it still has much to offer. There are three different parks, our church, and City Hall all within a five minute walk from my house. We also have a donut shop, coffee shop, and soon several new restaurants within easy walking distance. I love it. Spending more time walking the neighborhood instead of driving is helping us to establish a more active and healthy mindset for our son. It also gives us more time to chat with each other and meet more neighbors, which is an added bonus.
Safety is a big concern for all parents, but particularly moms. We are expert worriers and can find the danger in everything. I like to watch the news, so I really don’t need an imagination to find something to worry about. While the news will lead you to believe that more urban areas have higher crime rates, I have not found this to be the case. In fact, I feel safer here than I felt in my single family suburban neighborhood. A lot of my comfort is associated with the amount of community activity. People aren’t isolating themselves in their homes, but rather, spend a lot of time outside letting the kids play, working in the yard, or just socializing with the neighbors. In other words, there are a lot of eyes on the street.
An added benefit of this outdoor activity is that it tends to result in slower speeds of cars passing through, making me feel comfortable letting my son play outside. I should mention that my previous home was located on a cul-de-sac, but the street was so wide that cars still went by way too fast, preventing any play in the front yard. My more urban neighborhood is a huge improvement.
Lastly, the generosity of the community has reduced the frequency of petty crime by providing resources for those in need. For example, we have neighbors that have set up a food pantry in their front yard where people in need have access to food, water and other essentials 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
There is a reason that I am listing schools as the final topic of this discussion even though it was initially my biggest concern. While I could spend time discussing how schools are rated and the validity of the rating method, for the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to my personal experience.
I found in my research that the school ratings were a 2 or 3 out of a 10 in the downtown area (far right side of the graphic below), so there was reason for concern.
Instead of giving up when we saw this, we decided to do some of our own research about the neighborhood schools. It didn’t take much effort to make this issue a non-issue. We spoke to a few friends who either worked at or had children attending one or more of the schools in question and they actually had great things to say about the administration and the teachers. We also found out that there was a very reputable private school less than two miles from our house along with a publicly-funded charter school in the vicinity that give us a couple of alternatives to the local schools if we decided they were needed. While I realize that this may not be the case for all urban areas, I am sharing our experience to emphasize the importance of looking further than the school rating shown on the real estate listing.
It is also important to note that even suburbs are not immune to bad school ratings. In fact, with the incredibly fast-paced growth of suburban cities throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, we are already beginning to see school ratings in suburban school districts steadily decline because they cannot keep up with the growth.
In closing, I want to reiterate that our choice on where to live was not taken lightly and was considered through many different lenses. I can confidently say that I have made the very best decision for my son and my family. I am in no way saying that my choice is the right choice for every family, but that it is an option worth considering.
Related: Read Strong Towns member Justin Golbabai's thoughts on where he and his family decided to locate.