Jennifer Griffin is a Strong Towns member, architect, urban designer and mom based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This story is part one in a series on the future of families in cities. Look for a new installment of the series every Wednesday.


In a series of articles posted over a year ago, we began a conversation on the current and future demand for family-friendly urban living.  Since then, we’ve dug a little deeper to find that this demand is already much greater than expected, and it’s forecasted to grow even larger in the very near future.  Ultimately, meeting this demand will determine the future success of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

Measuring the Demand

Empirically and anecdotally, the current and future market demand of family-friendly urban living is easy to see.  What happens when millennials — the majority of whom want to live and work in walkable, mixed-use urban areas — begin to form families and have children?  Will they suddenly head to the suburbs, no longer desiring that urban lifestyle that they have clamored for over the last decade?  On the contrary.  In fact, demographic data from a number of cities now shows that the opposite is true; young adults today desire to continue their urban lifestyle even as they form families and have children.

A great example of this is the city of Chicago.  In fact, Chicago is a particularly interesting case study, in part because, over the last 10-15 years, the city has struggled, both in terms of population and fiscal stability.  From 2000 to 2010, the city as a whole actually lost population — a decrease of 200,397 people.  This is an almost 7% decrease in population overall.  With regard to the population of children under the age of 18, it was a whopping 18% decrease.

 Data Source: US Census Bureau 2000 and 2010 Census.

Data Source: US Census Bureau 2000 and 2010 Census.

However, when examining Chicago’s downtown urban neighborhoods — those highly walkable and mixed-use neighborhoods immediately in and around the Loop — what you find is the exact opposite.  These neighborhoods not only gained population, but they did so at an incredible rate, and even more so with respect to the population of young children.  From 2000 to 2010, these neighborhoods saw an 86% increase in population overall with a 45% increase in children under 18.  In fact, the most striking statistic is the 107% increase in children under the age of 5, which is an indicator of young family starts.

 Data Source: US Census Bureau 2000 and 2010 Census.  Downtown Chicago Neighborhoods = those contiguous census tracts in and around downtown with an overall population gain of 500 or more from 2000 to 2010.

Data Source: US Census Bureau 2000 and 2010 Census.  Downtown Chicago Neighborhoods = those contiguous census tracts in and around downtown with an overall population gain of 500 or more from 2000 to 2010.

Moreover, this trend in Chicago is by no means unique.  Cities like Seattle and Minneapolis are seeing the same trend.  Since 2010, downtown Seattle has seen a 22% increase in total population, including a 46% increase in children under 18 (Downtown Seattle Association).  

From 2000 to 2010, downtown Minneapolis neighborhoods had a 23% increase in total population (compared to 0% citywide) as well as a 24% increase in children under 18 and a 53% increase in children under 5 (compared to a decrease of 8% and an increase of 5% respectively, citywide).

 Data Source: US Census Bureau 2000 and 2010 Census.  Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhoods = Downtown East, Downtown West, Elliot Park, Loring Park, North Loop, and Stevens’ Square – Loring Heights neighborhoods.

Data Source: US Census Bureau 2000 and 2010 Census.  Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhoods = Downtown East, Downtown West, Elliot Park, Loring Park, North Loop, and Stevens’ Square – Loring Heights neighborhoods.

This just confirms that not only are young adults moving into walkable mixed-use urban neighborhoods at a faster rate of increase than anywhere else, but they also desire to remain there once they have kids.

The Dilemma

The problem with this growing demand is the difficulty that young families have in actually finding kid-friendly urban neighborhoods in which to affordably live.  There is simply not enough supply to meet the current or future demand.

 Source: Emily George

Source: Emily George

In fact, the trends noted in the cities above are happening in spite of the fact that most walkable mixed-use urban neighborhoods today still present significant challenges for young parents to conveniently, comfortably, and affordably raise their children there.  Whether it’s a lack of attainable family-sized housing, quality neighborhood schools, or access to urban parks and playgrounds, many of these neighborhoods are still not yet inclusive of all the kid-friendly amenities, institutions, and infrastructure that young urban families require.

For example, Seattle, which now has nearly 3,400 children living downtown, still does not have a public elementary school located within its downtown.  Moreover, the average home sale price in downtown Seattle reached just over $600,000 in 2017, with less than 1% of downtown housing stock being comprised of 3 bedrooms or more.

The apparent contradiction of the above data illustrates a really important point: it highlights the extent to which young families with kids today truly desire an urban lifestyle — so much so that they are willing to do so against all odds and with significant challenges along the way.

Why Should Cities Care?

For any city looking to secure its near- and long-term success, providing family-friendly urban living is key.  The reason for this is simple.  If cities want to attract and retain the next generation — especially the next generation of young talent as well as the businesses that employ this talent — they need to shift their efforts to accommodate and capture this demand.

In fact, the private business sector is already starting to do so.  For example, major companies (including the recently courted Amazon) are shifting their standard ways of doing business to meet the changing needs and desires of young adults today who are starting to form families and have children.  Beginning in 2015, a whole slew of prominent companies have begun to offer new or expanded paid parental leave solely for the purpose of attracting and retaining young talent.  In fact, Amazon touts this perk along with their efforts over the years to build a walkable, mixed-use, urban headquarters in downtown Seattle as major selling points to prospective employees.

Moreover, the combination of a rising demand for and a low existing supply of attainable family-friendly urban neighborhoods offers an amazing opportunity for cities on which to capitalize.  For those cities that focus their efforts wholeheartedly on doing so, they stand in an incredible position to gain and grow.

With all this in mind, what would it look like if a city actively worked toward making its downtown urban neighborhoods family-friendly?  More importantly, what would be the results?  In the next article, which will be published Wednesday, January 17, we will take a look at a city that decades ago decided to do just that.

Read the next article in this series, "Lessons Learned in Meeting the Demand for Family-Friendly Urban Living."

(Top photo source: Thiago Cerqueira)



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.