Boston Has Become a City Without Children
The current exodus is also undermining Boston’s education system. Many of the families who move out of the city are exactly the kinds of engaged people that schools need to advocate for them. They care deeply about education, and have both the drive and the means to uproot their lives in order to relocate to a different school district. Not that BPS parents aren’t already engaged—but imagine if the parents we’re losing stayed in the city and poured their resources and energy into schools here. Study after study has shown that engaged parents produce better students, and better students make for better schools.
Let’s shift over to culture for a minute. What makes Boston, or any place, unique? Values, dialects, attitudes, and tastes—all of these things get passed down from generation to generation and imbue a place with its identity. Boston’s milieu has certainly shifted over time, from America’s Athens to Irish Catholic populist enclave to technology and innovation hub. Each of these periods has left an indelible mark on the city’s architectural fabric. Protestant Boston is most pronounced in Bulfinch’s State House and the elegant Public Garden; Storrow Drive and the Prudential Center are remnants of an egalitarian period. As populations move in and out, what is uniquely Boston becomes harder to define—and you can read that vagueness in our skyline. The city’s builders have struggled in recent years to decide what a modern Boston tower should look like, reflecting our own ambiguity. Are we young and itinerant, just passing through? Or are we mature, fresh from the ’burbs, looking to be entertained? Either way, we’re no longer a population that can define itself through culture, or even neighborhoods—the foundation of former Mayor Tom Menino’s appeal.
The lack of retail diversity; the fickleness of restaurant-, museum-, and concert-goers; and the loss of cultural icons are all symptoms of a city that has lost its most valuable demographic: families. The area’s latest likely casualty: the quirky Curious George store in Harvard Square, which is potentially slated to be replaced by a stairwell being built by a New York developer eager to take advantage, he says, of the building’s below-market rents about to expire.
More insidiously, the urban diaspora only further fractures our already-fraught political climate. Cities were always more progressive than their suburban and rural counterparts, presumably due to the diversity of their populations. That we could see the issues—poverty, immigration, race, ageism—firsthand, just by walking around, made us collectively somehow more compassionate. “Now people are voting with feet,” says Phillip Clay, a professor of urban planning at MIT. They’re moving to communities that reflect their values, rather than sticking around to work with others.
During my interviews, I noted how moving to the suburbs accentuates this polarization. People I spoke with were comforted by the fact that they’d moved to communities where they found kindred spirits both in age and in politics. Their social circles rally around kid-centric, hyper-local issues such as schools, roads, and parks, while tuning out the larger political circus. Arlington mom (and urban exile) Heidi Rosenberg confides that this concentration of like-minded people worries her: “It’s really disconcerting to me to think that because of the decisions we made—where we ended up, in contrast to where we started from—my son doesn’t have a lot of exposure to different cultures. It’s a huge loss.”
Meanwhile, Boston is losing a huge, activated voting block of our most engaged citizens. When people become parents, they tend to get more demanding and expect more of their local municipality. It happens the first day you drop off your kindergartner: That’s the moment of reckoning for a lot of us, when we start to look around and realize that we have to pay attention to something bigger than ourselves. Concern for the next generation drives us to engage.
Without that civically minded population, Boston’s leaders have fewer constituents to answer to. Those committed to the city long-term tend to build for the next generation, or two, or three—as our predecessors did when they constructed the T (our country’s first subway), the Emerald Necklace, the Esplanade, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. They buy property with their children in mind—maybe someday their kids will take over this house, this neighborhood, this school, even this whole damn town.
What does the new, child-free City Hall focus on? Short-term, easy-to-execute projects such as office buildings, late-night T service, and liquor licenses. As Boston shifts from a family-centered collection of neighborhoods to a more homogenous adult playground, the city will become more amenity-driven. Its goal will be to attract a young, itinerant population that acts more like a group of tourists than stakeholders. If you want to see how that plays out, look no further than the South Boston waterfront, where faceless condos are anchored by bland, big-box restaurants, bars, and a smattering of commerce—not exactly a playground for parents or their kids.
Lacking a concerned, empowered constituency, the city isn’t forced to provide as many services—like schools, parks, and thoughtful urban design—in this new “neighborhood.” After all, the young singletons will come in droves anyway. Sure, once they have kids they’ll head for the ’burbs. But Boston seems perfectly fine with it.
If you’re one of the lonely families still stuck in or clinging to the city, hope is not lost: There are a few things Boston could do to get the kids and parents back, if we wanted them. The planners I spoke with, including Andres Sevtsuk, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, talked a lot about safe streets. Sevtsuk says that when you build a city for the most vulnerable populations—kids and the elderly—it works better for everyone. That’s a great place to start.
We could look to cities such as Amsterdam, where kids and parents walk and bike everywhere together, eliminating the financial burden of owning a car or two. Such enlightened cities as Copenhagen and Vancouver throw enormous resources into supporting their families—in the ’90s, those cities’ planners laid out tons of multi-bedroom housing in the city centers, which has now borne fruit. They also created a network of parks, schools, museums, and bike lanes to ensure equal access to amenities citywide.
Perhaps more than anything, Boston needs to focus on housing—not quantity but quality. What kinds of housing work best for families? What do parents need? The high-rise, mid-density units that the city has been advocating are actually the most expensive housing to build. According to a Chapman University study on changing urban demographics, a high-rise of more than five stories costs nearly three times as much per square foot to build as a mid-rise apartment. “What the strictest pro-density policies—known as ‘pack and stack’ among opponents—do effectively, however, is undermine the aspirations of young, middle-income families with children,” the study asserts. Mayor Walsh says that high-rise density will bring down costs, but it will likely have the opposite effect. So here’s a thought: How about zoning neighborhoods for low-rise (three-story) courtyard blocks where the interiors are equipped with shared green space and playground equipment?
Speaking of zoning, how about shifting planning away from height to use, ensuring that basic services—a grocery store, a dry cleaner, a coffee shop, a hardware store—are within a few blocks of every home? After all, it works for New York City, which—although it has some of the most excruciatingly high real estate costs in the country—is also seeing a steady uptick in families after a decline in 2010.
The funny thing is that when you start designing for families, you find yourself designing for human beings. Safe streets benefit young and old alike. Walkable communities, beginning at the block level, create excellent neighborhoods where we can age in place. We wouldn’t have to do so much moving around. And someday, maybe it will be safe for children to walk or bike to school instead of sitting on buses for hours.
This all takes much more sophisticated, integrated planning than anything currently in the works. But if we continue down this same path, Boston could easily become a city where only a very slim demographic is welcome. At that point, it will no longer be up for debate: You’ll have to check your stroller at the door.