When I speak openly about my commitment to urban living, I get a lot of mixed responses. The most common response seems to be something along the lines of, “I agree with you that urban living can be great, but I like where I live and I’m just not convinced that it really matters that much whether I live here or there.”
In a way, I agree.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter where you live. Any place–city, suburb, rural village–can be terrible or wonderful and provide a rich, fulfilling life, especially as it relates to parenting children. An overwhelming majority of what fosters a healthy family life has more to do with the health of the family itself and not its location. This is why I don’t question the independent decisions of friends and strangers who have made different decisions than me. I may talk a lot about my commitment to urban living, but I don’t make a habit of picking fights with suburbanites.
But, in another way, I couldn’t disagree more with the idea that it doesn’t really matter where you live. Where you live–and why you chose to live there–says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe to be your role in your community.
And that’s why I’m willing to raise the issues.
When addressing the issue of where to live, parents especially tend to focus entirely on the practical questions. I think this is a backwards way to make your decision. If you are committed to providing a healthy family life for your children, you can adapt to any circumstance and living situation. The logistics matter, of course, but they are not primary. Think bigger.
There are a few ideological questions to consider when addressing the question of where to live–especially if you’re making the decision as a parent.
1. Where/how will my tax money, purchases, and investments be best spent? This may seem like a practical question of affordability, but it’s not. Depending on where you live, your income will be spent in different ways. You can live comfortably on the very same income in two very different places and spend your money in completely different ways. How much of your income will go to paying for that “perfect house?” How much will you waste on transportation costs? How much will be spent investing in your private property, for your own gain? How much will you be contributing to public, shared amenities from which everyone benefits? How much will you use public amenities in other communities that someone else is paying for? How often will you be able to (conveniently) support local businesses? Will you even have the option?
2. How will this place change me? What can it teach me? What will it teach my children? First, I believe that it is your job to control the education and socialization of your own children. So, building on the foundation you build at home, what will your community have to offer your family? What can you learn from your neighbors? Will it be a place of constant comfort (and, therefore, complacency) or a place of constant challenges (and, therefore, struggle)? Can it offer both comfort and challenges? What will the “life experience” of growing up here teach your children about themselves and about the world? Will this place help them become wise, competent adults? Will it prepare them for the adult world?
3. How can I improve/change this place? Does it need me? I would not recommend moving into a community with some sort of savior-complex, committed only to change it. But I likewise would not recommend moving into a community that is perfect as it is. The fact is, your perfect community does not need you. Your “perfect” community is perfect because 10, 20 or 30 years ago, someone loved it enough to commit themselves and their family to making it the best it could be. They invested years of their lives into that community and it’s your job to do the same–somewhere else. You don’t necessarily need to adopt a decrepit building or become Mayor or anything like that. But all people of conscience should be committed to seeking the welfare of their community–not just themselves and their family. If you are no good to your neighborhood, then you are a free-loader. Everyone has something to give. Find a place that could use what you have and move there.
4. What will living in this place communicate about who I am and what is important to me? This question gets tricky because it assumes it’s possible to place judgement on the decisions and motives of other people, which is not really true. BUT. There is something to say for the power of our decisions to communicate to the world around us, whether or not the message is our intended message. The best example I could give is that of a church I was associated with a long time ago. The particular congregation was “committed to the city.” They showed this commitment by bringing food to the homeless, serving food at a shelter, and attending quarterly outreach events in the public park. These are all good, important things. But, you know what no one in this congregation did? Not one person moved to the city. Their commitment only ran deep enough to affect a weekend a month or a few hours a week. Their “commitment” never affected their life decisions–the way they spent their own money on a daily basis, they place they built their homes, the people they introduced to their children. I cannot judge the motives of the people in this church. I knew many of them and loved them a lot. But the simple decision of where to live communicated something that they did not intend. Namely, that they were faking it. So, does your decision about where to live align with what you claim to care about? If you hate the city, you hate the city. And if you love the suburbs, you love the suburbs. But, if you claim to “love your city,” then you should live there. If you “value diversity,” then you should live among people who are different from you. If you “want to make the world a better place,” then live in a place that you can make better. Seems simple enough to me.
Asking these questions will take us all to different places. Some will live in the urban core of their nearest city, some will cozy up in an ex-urban community outside the urban core. Some people will commit themselves to a rural farming community and some will run for a Council seat in their suburban paradise. I would simply encourage you to concern yourself more with the ideology of the decision, rather than the logistics. Why are you living where you are living? Are you doing it intentionally, or have you just settled for a nice, cozy house that you thought you could afford? You might not think it really matters, but I believe that it does.
* You’ll notice there are three important things I didn’t include in my list: affordability, safety, and quality of public education. Funny enough, these are the three excuses most people use for why urban living is impractical for families. I have some pretty strong opinions about these issues and it’s probably better for all of us if I don’t go into them now.
We’ll save that for another time…