Parents Paving the Way for Family-Friendly Urban Living

Jennifer Griffin is a Strong Towns member, architect, urban designer and mom based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This story is the final installment of a 3-part series on the future of families in cities. Read part one, "The Future Success of Cities Depends on Urban Kids" and part two, "Lessons Learned in Meeting the Demand for Family Friendly Urban Living."

As young adults today begin to form families and have children, the demand for family-friendly urban living easily outpaces the supply of family-friendly urban neighborhoods — so much so that those highly sought-after urban neighborhoods that are inclusive of the various amenities, institutions, and infrastructure that families with kids require have become financially unattainable for most young families with kids.

This is particularly true in most major metropolitan cities today.  Not only are young families with kids competing with each other for a place within these cities’ urban neighborhoods, they are also competing with singles and boomers making six-figure salaries who are willing to live in 400 square foot apartments.

This is only exacerbated by the financial challenges characteristic of the millennial generation.  Thanks in part to the rising cost of higher education, 62% of millennials have incurred student debt at an average sum of $27,000 (ULI survey 2014).

Data source:  The Economist , Zillow, and the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Data source: The Economist, Zillow, and the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

For young adults today starting families, the cost of having kids has also increased.  When adjusted for inflation and compared in today’s dollars, there has been almost a 17% increase in the cost of raising a child (from birth through age 17) between 1980 and 2015 (Data source: US Department of Agriculture’s Expenditures on Children by Families annual reports).

One of the main causes for the rise in costs of raising kids is the dramatic increase in housing costs over the last 4 decades.  Since 1980, housing costs have increased by 18% across the US (when adjusted for inflation and compared in 2015 dollars).  As seen in this chart, this is further exacerbated in major metropolitan cities, where people of all ages have flocked in recent decades in part to attain that highly-desired urban living.

Moreover, when adjusted for inflation, 92% of American 30-year-olds in 1970 earned more money than their parents did at that age, compared to the barely 50% of American 30-year-olds that do so today.

Thus, in comparing dollar for dollar, young adults today have less money, while at the same time, things cost significantly more.

However, these same young adults are also incredibly resourceful, adaptable, and entrepreneurial, and many of them are pursuing unique and creative ways to affordably obtain their desired urban lifestyle with kids. 

Creative Solutions for Attainable Urban Family-Sized Housing

Data source:  Pew Research Center

Data source: Pew Research Center

Young adults today have already proven that they are willing to live small in order to affordably obtain an urban lifestyle and a number of them are continuing this way of living once they have kids.  An impressive example of this is Adrian Cook — a single dad who blogs about his intentional choice to live with his five kids in a 1,000 square foot condo in downtown Vancouver so that his family can enjoy the various benefits of urban living.  Though this is an extreme example, stories of young parents intentionally living in small urban apartments abound.

Young adults today also have a track record of engaging in shared living arrangements.  In recent years, there has been not only a rise in the number of young adults living with roommates, but also a particularly noticeable increase in those living in multigenerational households.  In fact, multigenerational living is what my own family decided to do in order to pursue an affordable urban lifestyle with our kids.

Another interesting iteration of urban multigenerational living is what Eric and Melissa Laska are doing in downtown Minneapolis.  This couple lives with their three kids in a downtown two-bedroom condo, and a few years ago, they convinced Melissa’s parents to buy another unit within their building just a few floors up.

Creative Solutions for Quality Urban Neighborhood Schools, Parks, and Playgrounds

Though some young parents have been willing to adapt their housing situation in order to remain in a mixed-use urban neighborhood once they have kids, access to quality schools, parks, and playgrounds within these neighborhoods still remains a significant challenge.  As the number of young urban families are on the rise, however, many parents are beginning to come together to affect change in their own cities.  Two examples of this are the groups Parents for a Better Downtown Seattle (PBDS) and Downtown Families Minneapolis.

A few years ago, the growing number of parents living in downtown Seattle came together to form PBDS to advocate for downtown kid-friendly streets, recreational spaces, and schools.  Since then, they have been influential in the design of downtown parks and plazas, such as securing the inclusion of play equipment within Westlake Park as well as a 3,000 square foot playground within the planned Waterfront Park.  They have also been instrumental in advancing citywide efforts to provide new public school facilities downtown to serve the growing population of downtown kids, including the recently announced partnership between the City of Seattle and the Seattle Public School Board to do just that.

Similarly, Downtown Families Minneapolis was instrumental in getting Minneapolis Public Schools to reopen a formerly closed magnet elementary school to serve the growing number of kids in and around downtown Minneapolis.  After an extensive renovation, Webster Elementary was opened in 2015 as a community school for both the downtown central and downtown northeast neighborhoods.

Image source:  Tiny Trees Preschool  (Seattle, WA).

Image source: Tiny Trees Preschool (Seattle, WA).

Some downtown parents have also taken matters into their own hands in order to affect change more quickly.  An example of this is Tiny Trees Preschool, a non-profit startup in Seattle. Begun in part by young urban entrepreneurial parents, this group is working to make high-quality preschool affordable for the increasing number of families in and around downtown. 

The school is based off of an innovative model started in Europe that eliminates the cost of building, renovating, and maintaining a childcare facility by locating the classroom outdoors in public parks and play spaces in the city.  To overcome the challenges of Seattle weather, all students are provided with a high quality rain suit and boots at no cost.  This is combined with an active play-based curriculum to keep kids moving and warm, while providing them with hands-on opportunities to explore nature and engage in other creative preschool activities outdoors.

The results of Tiny Trees highlight the incredible unmet demand for this kind of infrastructure.  In their inaugural school year (2016-17), they received 2,000 applications for 160 spots at 4 locations.  This current school year, with a 94% return rate from last year’s class and with additional families applying, they expanded their program by opening 3 new locations, one of which is in Seattle’s downtown Olympic Park.

The various examples above illustrate only fledging attempts to accommodate an ever-increasing demand for family-friendly urban living.  In fact, few cities have devised long-term strategies to meet the demand.  For those cities, towns, and neighborhoods that do — especially those small and mid-sized cities that are still affordable — there lies a potential golden opportunity ahead.

(Top photo source: Christin Hume)

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Jennifer Griffin is a practicing design professional and founding principal of J Griffin Design, LLC. She has worked in the US, UK, and Central America on a variety of projects, from small-scale renovations and additions of historic structures, to mixed-use urban infill projects, to master plans at both the neighborhood and regional scales. Her work has received multiple Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Awards. Jennifer was educated at the University of Notre Dame, from which she received both her Bachelor of Architecture and her Master of Architectural Design and Urbanism degrees. She also has served on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, where she has taught urban and architectural design courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level while conducting research on the relationship between the built environment and human flourishing.