Cities are hot. After decades of decline, demographic, and economic trends now favor urban living as a denser, greener, hipper alternative to suburban sprawl. Increasingly, US cities are drivers of their regional economies and laboratories of new ideas. Even the suburbs are trying to be more like cities, with development near train stations and new walkable town centers.
In their recent book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley sum up the ascendancy of cities, especially as the federal government continues to abdicate its role in domestic policy: “Cities are positioning themselves at the cutting edge of reform, investment, and innovation.” With their food trucks, festival waterfronts, and rooftop farms, cities have become buzzing beehives of creativity.
Boston is at the vanguard of this trend — a thriving, brainy, magnetic metropolis the mayoral candidates were sure to celebrate in the recent preliminary campaign. But all of this dynamism obscures another, not-so-positive trend in Boston: the incredible disappearing family.
In the decade between the 2000 and 2010 US Census, Boston’s population grew by 4.8 percent — a data point rightly trumpeted at City Hall. But the number of families with children under 18 fell by 11 percent, to just 16.8 percent of the city’s overall population. Only San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., had a smaller cohort of children.
Of course, couples without children are families too. And the cities nationwide with the fewest children proportionally tend to be those with wealthier, educated residents and knowledge-based economies — characteristics Boston would not want to give up. But there is something a little bit bloodless about a city dominated by empty-nesters and young hipsters, a kind of shell without a core.
Compared to young professionals just out of college and retiring baby boomers with pricey pied-a-terres, families with children tend to be more stable, community-focused, and civically engaged. It’s no surprise that the neighborhoods with the fewest children (Allston-Brighton, Fenway, Back Bay, Beacon Hill) had the lowest voter turnouts in Tuesday’s preliminary election.
The twin factors driving families out of a city like Boston are the high cost of housing and uneven public schools. Mayor Thomas Menino is trying to address the first problem by vastly increasing the supply of housing, famously calling for 30,000 more units in the next seven years. For all the development pulsing under Menino’s decree, though, not enough of the new construction is of the three-bedroom residential variety growing families need. Kids want neighborhoods with schools and playgrounds — and other kids. They aren’t going to go trick-or-treating in the Innovation District.
That means encouraging density and development in the neighborhoods, where “the financials” aren’t quite so enticing for developers. Forty percent of Boston’s children are concentrated in just two neighborhoods: Dorchester and Roxbury. Most live in single-parent households, and nearly half have at least one foreign-born parent. Immigrant families have always been a vibrant force in urban growth, but they needn’t be isolated in one district, where their concerns can be out of sight for much of the population.
There’s also no reason why families with children can’t live in dense neighborhoods of brownstones or even properly designed high-rises; Vancouver, Tokyo, and New York City do this well. We need more housing in Dorchester and Roxbury, but we also need more children in the South End, Brighton, and — why not? — the waterfront.
Happily, both finalists in this week’s mayoral election seem ready to address the demographic divide. “Boston is growing and attracting new people, but the high cost of living makes it hard for seniors and middle-class families to stay in the city they know and love,” said Marty Walsh on election night. John Connolly lamented that Boston’s children “are living in two different worlds” — one that is healthy and safe and one that is not. Both candidates have committed to improving the schools, and that ought to include new schools that can grow as they attract families to non-traditional neighborhoods.
The next mayor needs to nurture the growing appeal of Boston to newcomers — of all races and backgrounds, yes, but also of all ages. Boston is a wealthy city, but without lots of thriving families with children, it’s not as rich.