For the past two decades there’s been a growing influx of young adults into city centers. Whether cities will be able to hang on to this new population base depends critically on whether the recent generation of immigrants to the urban core will follow the historical pattern of families with children moving to the suburbs. Here we measure whether young families are staying in cities, and what factors shape their decisions to stay or move.
For the past two decades, there’s been an increasing tendency for well-educated young adults to choose to live in close-in urban neighborhoods. (See our report, and more information.) While many believe that dense urban environments make sense for singles and childless couples, there’s been growing interest in whether they will stay when they have children. For several decades, families with children have gravitated towards the nation’s suburbs. Will the young and restless living in the urban core stay there, or will they move outward as have previous generations?
The data suggest that some families with children, but by no means all, move away from the central city as their kids reach school age. Data from the American Community Survey show that of married couple households with children, the probability of living in the central city declines as the age of the household’s youngest child gets older. For those whose youngest kid is less than one, 42% of households live in the central city. For those whose youngest is 10 or older, its about 28% to 29%.
These data suggest that families with kids under 1 are about 50% more likely (42%/ 28%) to live in central cities than families with kids 10 or older. Because this Census data series doesn’t track individual families over time, we can’t directly tell how many families with children move from the central city to other locations in the metropolitan area, but these cross sectional data suggest that perhaps a third of married couple that have children move out of the central city as their children reach school age.
These data are taken from the American Community Survey using 5-year, 2007-2011 Census Tract level data , and were calculated using the IPUMS on-line table generator. The data use the “central city” classification defined by the Census (typically the largest or two largest municipalities in a metropolitan statistical area).
Data are from the 2007-11 American Community Survey.
According to an Illinois Institute of Design study commissioned by CEOs for Cities that interviewed families living with young children in cities, three factors are key: schools, space and safety. In each case, families living in cities report creatively tapping city assets to make city living kid-friendly: using the cities creative and cultural resources to enrich educational opportunities, making parks, playgrounds and public spaces compensate for small or non-existent private yards, and relying on neighborhood networks to create the “eyes on the street” that enhance personal safety for kids and adults alike.
Some anecdotal evidence suggests that young families with children are increasingly choosing to remain in urban centers. For the past two decades, Portland has been one of the nation’s leaders in attracting talented young adults, and they have disproportionately settled in the region’s close-in urban neighborhooods—within three miles of the center of the central business district. But after shrinking by more than 8,000 students in the 1990s, enrollments in the city’s K-12 schools have increased by more than 5,000 in five years, confounding projections that forecast further declines. The city is now coping with crowded schools in many of the neighborhoods that have attracted the most young adults.
Similarly, there is evidence of increased school enrollments in New York City. Two separate reports were created for the New York City School Construction Authority by consultants, predicting enrollment from 2012-2021. Both predicted slow but steady growth. In particular, there is growth in younger grades (pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and 3rd grade), an indication that long-term enrollment will increase. If these predictions are correct, it would mean that at least in New York City, many younger families with school-aged children will stay in the city, bucking the trend of moving as children age.
In general, cities can accommodate families with children by encouraging different development practices that provide for the different needs of a family versus a single resident, as well as things like outlining design requirements in play spaces and building the correct number of schools.
Some evidence from Vancouver tells us that more than schools and safety, urban parents care a lot about affordable space. The spacial needs of a family are different– more cabinets in the kitchen, places to put sports gear for every season, a garage to house not a car– but holiday decorations and all the seasonal extras families have more of. (A place for a car wouldn’t hurt, either, despite the increased accessibility in a city.) Developers in Vancouver are beginning to build enclosed underground parking spaces to meet the demand of young families, in addition to small improvements in design which reduce extra space in bedrooms and increase the number of “sanctuary spaces” within a unit to provide each family member a place to go individually.
Finally, developments with access to play space that fit all or most of the following criteria would go a long way towards keeping young parents:
Providing the correct amount of schools and daycares for children in urban areas– something Vancouver did not deliver– is also key. In general, while enrollment predictions are not a precise science, if a city’s elementary schools are completely filled, and there’s a 2000-child waitlist for daycares, it follows that families would not find the environment suitable to stay.