Read this: News from Elsewhere

A few excellent articles worth sharing:

 

1. Here’s How Much Money You Must Earn To Buy A Home In 25 Big US Cities via Business Insider

Although this doesn’t seem to take into account the enormous amounts of debt and extravagant living expenses of most Americans, it does point to the fact that homeownership is relatively affordable for most of us. In Cincinnati, where the average home is just over $100k, “the American dream” is well within reach.

2. Pigs and Chickens Save Struggling Kansa School via World

I might not be a fan of standardized schooling, in general, but I could get behind an agricultural-based school. I wonder what this would do in an urban setting in the Midwest?

3. Chicago Aims to Beat Detroit on Horse-Drawn Carriage Ban via NextCity

Our city has a few horse-drawn carriages in the Central Business District and, as a downtown resident, I’ve heard varied opinions about them. This article offers an interesting discussion about the issue and how it’s playing out in two other cities.

4. The Yuppie Price Index for Services via Locality

Cincinnati was not included in this list (I wonder why?), but it’s interesting nonetheless. What exactly does it cost to be a yuppie in this city?

5. The Case for Big Cities, in 1 Map via the Washington Post

In 31 states, one or two metro areas account for the vast majority of economic output in the state.  Those numbers make clear that while you may like to hate on big cities, you — and we — need them.

It’s hard to ignore such striking facts. I would love to see one done on a local level. There’s got to be some Cincinnati-based data analyst willing to put together a similar study (and infographic!) for our region…

 

 

Enjoy!

 

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Urban Families: How to Get Them & How to Keep Them

I’d be a millionaire if I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “Oh, I would love to raise my kids in the city, but…”

(Okay, maybe I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I would have a decent wad of cash.)

There are two sides to the “urban family” paradigm. There are the things we choose to live here for. These are the inherently valuable aspects of urban life, the positive things about the city. And there are the things we choose to live here in spite of. These are the battles we fight internally, as a family, and externally as we go about our lives.

I’ve argued over and over again for families to consider urbanism as a valid and valuable lifestyle decision for themselves and their children. And I know many people who have seriously considered it and, maybe in another life, would have actually done it. But the truth is that, in the past 50 years, our cities have simply not been designed with families in mind while the suburbs, on the other hand, have. And although I’d argue that the design of the suburbs is flawed in many ways, it is at least a response to what families wanted at the time. It delivered on its promises of safety, privacy, and comfort, and families flocked to get a piece of it.

So long as the people designing our cities are designing them for everyone but families, our cities will have a hard time attracting them and keeping them here. At another time, I’d love to draw out my manifesto a bit more and explain why, exactly, our cities need families (and why families need cities). For now, I’d just like to offer some suggestions for how urban planners can design cities that will appeal to families in the first place.

1. Make it safe. I don’t believe urban areas are actually any more “dangerous” than other areas, but the dangers are different. The population density and economic diversity of cities creates a level of insecurity that will probably always be present. But there are subtle ways to increase the comfort and safety of urban environments, which will make parents more comfortable having their children around. For example, get police officers back on sidewalks instead of in cars. Keep streetlights in working order, especially in alleys. Enforce vehicle/pedestrian laws that make walking safer. Enforce loitering and public drunkenness laws. Ticket speeding cars. Invest in “main street” districts that encourage foot traffic, which increases safety. Make bike lanes. Get guns off of the streets. I could go on and on…

2. Provide diverse housing options. As a city becomes more economically viable (or successful, even!), working- and middle-class families are quickly priced out of the housing market. There will always be low-income, subsidized housing options. And their will always be high-income options. But a family living near the median income of any metropolitan area will have a hard time finding a comfortably-sized living space that they can afford in the urban core. A city that wants to attract the sustaining power of the middle-class simply must find a way to make it possible for them to live there. I wrote about this a while ago, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then as my husband and I consider how long we will stay in our home and where we’ll go from here. In my mind, the perfect housing market is one in which a couple could move around the same neighborhood from their first apartment to their first home and eventually to their retirement condo, if they wanted to. But if this is ever going to happen, if young couples will consider investing in a neighborhood for the long run, there have to be a multitude of options for the present and the future. And there has to be space for creative situations like living/working properties and multi-family co-op housing.

3. Don’t neglect public (indoor and outdoor) space. This should be obvious, right? One of the biggest things a family gives up when moving to the city is literal space–both outdoor space and square footage. So families will be drawn to communities that have a variety of public spaces that offset that loss. And I’m not only referring to public areas like parks, playgrounds, and squares. I would also include amenities like libraries, zoos, and museums. Invest in making these places where people actually want to spend time on a daily basis. Make them clean. Make them beautiful. Keep them safe. And, please, make them free! (At least sometimes.)

4. Provide diverse food sources. “Where do you do your grocery shopping?” is among the top five questions other moms ask me when I tell them where we live. In Over-the-Rhine, this is a simple question to answer. Between the OTR Kroger, Findlay Market, GreenBean Delivery, a csa co-op, and the few big grocery stores within a 5-minute drive, food is the least of my worries here. But some other urban dwellers are much less fortunate, especially those without a car. (Have you heard of “food deserts?” This article from 2011 will–and should–break your heart.) Make it easy to find affordable and healthy food and parents will be able to cross off one of the things on the top of their “anti-urban” checklist. (Victory Garden, anyone?)

5. Support transit options. One of the hallmarks of young urbanists is their love for public transit and for car-lite cities. As these young folks get a bit older and start having children, they will be looking for other ways to get around. And they will want to live in places where loading and unloading a couple kids into a car five times a day is not necessary. I am very thankful to have a reliable vehicle. But I am thankful that, living in the city, I can go days without using it. And I am even more thankful that, if we continue to live here, my kids might be able to live, work, play, and attend school as teenagers without ever needing a drivers’ license (or needing to use it). Pedestrian- and bike-friendly, car-lite, rail-based commuter cities are a future that I’m willing to invest in. And I want to live in a city that invests in that future, as well. It will take some time for families (especially with multiple children) to get used to a pedestrian lifestyle. But, once they’re acclimated to it, I would bet that most will never want to go back.

6. *Invest in education. Another question on the top of the list of Questions Often Asked of Urban Families is, “But, where do your kids go to school?” People ask this because the quality of the public schools is probably one of the top 2-3 things that keep families out of cities in the first place. Most middle-class families cannot afford private schools, so public schools are their only option and sending their kids to a struggling school means a whole lot more work for the parents and risking all sorts of academic and cultural stresses for the child. A sure-fire way to attract educated, middle-class families to the city? Create a kick-ass neighborhood school. It will bring them in in droves.

7. Invite families to the table. Do you want to know how to attract families to your city? Ask them. Believe me when I say that many parents would actually love to move to more urban areas if they felt those areas were a legitimate option. But, for the past fifty years, it has not been (at least for those in the working- and middle-class) and, so, families were written out of the urban planning equation. Invite families back to the table and let them be a part of building a more liveable city.

I understand that this is really a matter of “the chicken or the egg” as far as urban planning goes. Will families move to the city because the city is designed with them in mind, or will the city design with them in mind because they move to the city?

There will always be pioneering-types who are willing to move their families to the city, regardless of its design. In our neighborhood, I could name a half dozen families who were here long before me, raising children in a neighborhood that is far safer and more comfortable now than it was when their children were young. In this aspect, I am in no way a pioneer of family-friendly urbanism. But, now that I’m here, I want to help steer the design of my city toward one that is more welcoming of my peers and more liveable for them once they’re here.

If you build it, they will come. Right?

I sure think so.

* On a personal level, I did not want to include “Invest in education” on my list. I have all sorts of wacky ideas about education, one of them being that a child’s academic success is almost completely dependent upon their family dynamic and parental involvement in their education. Basically, I believe that a parent who is committed to providing a good education for their child will do so, regardless of the schooling options available. This is especially true in a city like Cincinnati where children can opt out of attending their neighborhood school. I decided to include it on the list anyway because: 1) I am sympathetic to parents who are committed to public schooling (and neighborhood schools) and understand why the quality of the neighborhood school will make or break a decision to live in that neighborhood; 2) that urban schools are often the most under-served and academically weak; 3) regardless of what middle-class families may move based on the success of a neighborhood school, the lower income urban kids who have no other option than their neighborhood school deserve a chance at a better education. This, we all know, is the first step toward a better future for them post-graduation and is worth the investment, all middle-class yuppie families aside.

Seven Truths About Conservatives

Us vs Them.
In popular culture (and in popular media), the presentation of social and political issues would make you believe that all controversy comes down to this, right?

“Either you’re for us or you’re against us.”

Sometimes it’s easier to simplify complex issues and controversy by minimizing our enemies than it is to approach our differences with a generous and open mind. In Cincinnati these days, the political climate is quite hostile. A few key issues (namely, the streetcar) may have perpetuated the Us vs Them dichotomy, but the dichotomy between “Progressives” and “Conservatives” is not new. Regardless of the issue in question (the streetcar, healthcare, gay marriage, etc.) there is a lot that we assume about the people on the other side. Most of these assumptions are based on stereotypes and, though we know that stereotypes are often true, they are unfair.

While working in the secular nonprofit world, I’ve always been one of the most conservative–both socially and politically–of my peers. And, though I’ve never considered myself an “apologist” for Conservatism, it’s been necessary at times to step in and speak on behalf of other Conservatives. Even those with whom I disagree.

And, that’s the point.
If it’s possible for me to consider myself a Conservative, yet still disagree on certain issues with my conservative brethren, then it’s safe to assume that there is more diversity on all sides than we’d like to acknowledge. I’m sure there are just as many Progressives who could tell you the same story.

So, let me offer an oft-needed reminder of seven truths about Conservatives that every Progressive should know.

1. We are not your enemies. Although some of the loudest voices among us call you names and reduce you to the ignominious “Them,” they do not speak for all of us. Many Conservatives are interested in cooperation and are willing to work together with you.

2. Conservatives want a better world, too. You may disagree with them about what a “better world” looks like, or how to get there, but you should not assume that those worlds can’t co-exist. Sit across the table from an articulate, passionate Conservative and you might be surprised by how much you actually have in common. Many of them are motivated by the same things you are, things like a safe community, a peaceful world, millions of full bellies, and a thriving economy.

3. Most Conservatives are not wealthy. You may think that all people with a conservative bent are only out to protect their pocketbooks, corporations, and investments, but that’s simply not true. My guess is that most of the folks who stand on the conservative side on social and political issues are working-class and middle-class citizens. They might not be “the poor,” but they are definitely not wealthy by American standards. And this is why they often vote against issues that raise taxes. They are often the ones who are on a fixed budget and are most affected by small changes in tax rates.

4. Conservatives give generously. Progressives think that Conservatives are stingy and selfish and hate poor people. But that characterization is unfair. Sure, many Conservatives give to faith-based organizations instead of secular ones. Sure, many of them are donating more money to their church than they do to their neighborhood homeless shelter. But, conservative individuals and organizations are meeting needs in every corner of the world, from clean water in the Third World to medical care in large metropolitan areas to GED tutoring in the poor urban core. The reason Conservatives don’t support socialized medicine or government assistance and subsidies is not because they don’t want to give their money to support good works, but because they’d like to have more control over how their money is spent and how that work is done.

5. Not all Conservatives are trigger-happy war mongers. Let’s be reasonable here. George Zimmerman does not speak for everyone who is passionate about 2nd Amendment rights. And not all people who support US involvement in wars do so because they profit from those wars or love the feel of blood on their hands. These issues are more complex than that and we do ourselves a disservice when we write them off as having simple solutions.

6. Sometimes, Conservatives are right. You can learn a lot from people who are different from you. If you care at all about being right, not simply winning an argument, it might be in your best interest to take some time to understand what Conservatives really believe and think. Find a Conservative that you respect and ask their opinion about something, not for the sake of debating but for the sake of understanding. You might be surprised to find that your new friend knows something that you don’t. Let down your guard, give them the benefit of the doubt, and try to learn something.

7. Sometimes, Conservatives are wrong. Yes, just like you, sometimes Conservatives are wrong. But do you think you will ever change someone’s mind by minimizing their opinion? If you are unwilling to sit across the table and peaceably discuss an issue with a Conservative you, frankly, don’t deserve their time. This should be a no-brainer, but if you want the opportunity to change someone’s mind, you need to show them the same courtesy that you’d expect from them.

All seven of these things might seem obvious but they’re things we need to be reminded of every once and a while, especially in times when the “Us vs Them” narrative dominates the political scene. This is true in Cincinnati right now and true elsewhere, as well.

A Quick Note about Subsidization

Subsidization.

Depending on which side you’re on, the word elicits either hope or disgust.

I’m sympathetic to both sides.

I have worked in the nonprofit industry for the past 9 years and know firsthand how stark the difference is between private donations and corporate funds. In our world, the difference between small award money and large government grants can easily mean the decision of sticking to volunteer help vs hiring paid staff, seeking free tagline promotion vs paying for billboards, or repairing outdated computers vs upgrading to new office supplies. Subsidies make the impossible possible. And, when used strategically, they provide better services and improved efficiency which, in turn, actually paves the way toward independence and increased capacity.

Conversely, I understand that the goal of every entity is to be independent of government handouts and subsidies, free from corporate entanglements, and at liberty to make decisions without needing to answer to those who are actually footing the bill. And I do believe that privatized systems usually do work better and more efficiently (which is why I am not a Socialist).

When it comes to an issue like the Cincinnati streetcar–whose controversy has made national newsthe opposition has a legitimate point: Why should residents in the outskirts of the city subsidize a project that (directly) benefits only a small minority of the population? Like I said, it’s a legitimate question.

So it needs to be addressed.

One of the gentlemen who commented on my blog post about the streetcar debate echoed many other Cincinnatians when he wrote (mocking me by his quote):

So… the “strong urban core” requires looting people from the suburbs. Who is depending on whom?

I am sympathetic to his point and I’ve heard it said a million times in a million different ways. But I believe it speaks out of a misunderstanding of how vibrant cities actually work.

A metropolitan area is a complex machine. If a city were the human body (the most complex machine in existence), the city’s infrastructure would be the veins and arteries and the people would be the blood vessels. The urban core is the heart of the city. The heart pumps the blood that pushes out into the rest of the body to move the limbs and keep the brain functioning at full capacity. If the heart dies, the rest of the body dies.

What does this have to do with subsidies?

No part of the body–or the city–functions alone. We all want to pretend that we exist independently of each other, but we don’t.

Too many of us have a false sense of autonomy.  It’s as if we believe that we are “self-made men” who have not (directly or indirectly) benefited from the financial investments of others. And maybe it’s true. Maybe we never accepted $20 from our parents for gas money. Maybe we didn’t attend a public university with the help of some sort of financial aid. Maybe we purchased our home with cash and have never borrowed from a bank. Maybe our neighborhood association paid for the street lights on our street. Maybe we wrote a personal check to off-set the cost of the mega-grocery store relocating to the shopping complex down the road. Maybe we don’t send our kids to Cincinnati Public Schools or use city trash services. Maybe we live off the grid and use electricity from solar panels (that were made by a company that was not partially-funded by a government grant).

Maybe someone somewhere lives in a place that is growing and thriving and a safe, wonderful place to live, but where everyone pays for only their own stuff and no one ever has to share anything.

But I don’t live in that place.
I live in a city.
And, in a city, we share.

When we choose to live in a city–and I don’t mean an “urban area,” I mean an incorporated City in the proper sense–we make a promise to cooperate with our neighbors to make the city a better place for all of us. When we have an opportunity to embark on a new project that could benefit us all, we do it together or we don’t do it at all. And, if we can’t agree how to do it or how to pay for it, we put it up for a vote and the majority rules.

I understand that some people are skeptical of the streetcar project. I’ve admitted many times that I’m a bit skeptical myself. But, in this instance, the majority has already ruled.

Twice.

When people on the edges of Cincinnati say that they “shouldn’t have to pay” for development in our urban core, they are functioning with that false sense of autonomy. They act like the quality of life or culture, energy, or economic vitality of the urban core means nothing for the quality of their own lives. It’s as if they’ve never watched a Bengal’s game. Or had a job with one of downtown’s Fortune 500 companies. Or their kids didn’t beg to go see the fireworks on the riverfront or the Christmas tree on the square or the exhibit at the museum. Or they didn’t buy their wives or husbands or grandparents or secretary a ticket to the Symphony or the ballet.

Amenities and cultural institutions are what make Cincinnati a vibrant and desirable place to live, work, and play. A healthy urban core gives businesses and institutions a safe and comfortable place to exist and a safe and comfortable place for you to bring your out-of-town guests (and take your urban-chic family photos, which are all the rage among suburban folk). Without a healthy urban core, we decentralize these amenities to a point where we lose the very thing that draws people here in the first place–our shared identity.

We, collectively, choose to subsidize the infrastructure of our city because it’s what keeps the people–the blood, if you will–moving in and out and around the entire machine. Without a healthy urban core and an efficient and updated infrastructure, we simply cannot make the city the machine it needs to be to sustain the rest of the parts.

Said another way:
We can live without an arm, but not without a heart.

Or:
If you want a healthy city, you need to pump some love into its heart.

My Mother’s Day Article That Never Was

A few months back, I received an email from someone looking to interview a mother living downtown. She was writing an article for Her Cincinnati‘s issue about different Cincinnati neighborhoods, the women who live there, and what their lives are like. Always happy to wave the flag of urban parenting, I responded right away and, over the next few days, she and I engaged in an email interview.

Sadly, a few weeks before the article was set to publish, the magazine was kicked to the curb and the article never ran. There was talk about it being passed to a Mother’s Day issue of CityBeat, but that never came together.

Amanda, the woman who interviewed me, gave me permission to cut & paste the interview here on my blog.

Just for kicks- this is a bit of what you might have read, had the article been published:

1) Where do you live?

Orchard St., Over-the-Rhine

2) How many people are in your family, including pets?

My husband, myself, and two kids–Israel, a 4 year-old boy; Elsa an 18m-old girl. (Update: Elsa is now 21m-old and we’re expecting another baby girl in September.) No pets. We’re going to add a few more kids before we venture into animals. (Oh! And we’ve talked about backyard chickens.)

3) Describe your house (number of bedrooms, bathrooms, yard,and what you deem as the most important rooms)

Our home is a 1890’s italianate 2-story detached rowhouse with an unfinished basement and a finished attic. It was gutted after a fire around 1980 and then rehabbed in a few phases between then and now. So, unlike some of our neighbors, it’s neither a historic-quality renovation, nor a modern hip living space. It’s a bit of a hodge-podge that we are slowly working to personalize. After the fire, the kitchen was moved to the second floor and the first floor was cleared out to use as a workspace/shop while the owner was rehabbing multiple properties at once. Now, the majority of the first floor is a large “library” that we use as an entertaining space and for hosting events like house concerts. There are three bedrooms, and three bathrooms—one on each floor. We have a small yard, with the potential for off-street parking, but we are working to renovate it into an outdoor playspace with (eventually) a small edible garden. We spend the majority of our at-home time on the second floor, between the kitchen and what should be the master bedroom (which we use as our informal living room).

4) Where/how does your family eat meals? What percentage is homemade vs take out?

The kids and I eat most meals at home or, during warm months, outside. My husband brings a bag lunch to work most days. We eat all dinners together as a family, most of them at home and homemade. We eat dinner out once or twice a week.

5) Where do you shop or purchase food?

I run many errands on foot, in smaller trips. I get groceries at the OTR Kroger or the Avril-Bleh market if it’s something last-minute. We frequent Findlay Market–especially Madison’s–during the week (when it’s less crowded) for bread, deli items, eggs, and produce. I get a delivery of fresh, organic produce from Green BEAN Delivery every other week and own a herd share for local, raw milk which is delivered, as well. (Update: our herd share was recently cancelled and I’m shopping around for another one.) For bigger trips, I drive to the new Target or Kroger just across the river. It’s only about 5 minutes from downtown. I also make a monthly run around town bargain shopping at places like Big Lots.

6) How long have you lived where you live and why do you continue to live there?

We have lived in OTR since we got married five years ago. Our first apartment was an industrial loft space on Vine St.; We bought this house about 2.5 years ago.

Why are we here? Many reasons. This neighborhood is a part of our history together. My first job in Cincinnati was in OTR. We met in the neighborhood–seven years ago–and got married downtown. When we got married, both of our jobs were downtown. We believe in this city. We love the history, the architecture, and the particularities of Cincinnati. Also, ideologically, we believe that the health of a city depends on the strength of its urban core. So, we are committed to helping it thrive. What better way to show our commitment than to actually invest in living here?

As a mother, I value the urban lifestyle and what it offers my children. Urban living is not always “easy,” by modern American standards, where we’re accustomed to getting everything we want quickly, conveniently, in once place, and with a drive-up window. But, once we adjust to a more pedestrian life, the convenience of urbanism becomes undeniable. In one single summer morning, I can take my son for a haircut from “Mr. Frank,” pop in somewhere for a cup of coffee, drop a package in the mail, let my kids dance to some music on Fountain Square, buy my husband a new pair of socks, grab a bag full of new library books, picnic at Washington Park, and be home by naptime–all on foot. And when we get tired of the city, we hop in our car for a quick trip to a nearby forest preserve or park for a long hike.

On a more personal level, we are a pretty conservative family, so living in the city balances us out in a way that a suburban lifestyle may not. The city is healthy for us, constantly challenges us, and gives us endless opportunities to rub shoulders with awesome people we would not otherwise know (neighbors, business owners, artists and artisans, kids at the park, etc). We may not live here forever, but it’s best for us in this season of our family life.

7) Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, went to college in Elgin, IL, and then moved to Cincinnati almost eight years ago.

8) Are you at stay-at-home mom? Furthermore, how do you divvy up housework/childcare?

When my son was born, I went down to working 15 hours a week for the nonprofit Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, so I’m a “mostly” SAHM. On days when I work, we have in-home childcare.

In general, I handle most of the housework and do the grocery shopping and cooking. My husband has a job that is very physically demanding, so I let him take it easy when he’s home. But, I’m a pretty miserable housekeeper so he helps make up the difference, especially when we’re expecting guests. Also, as a contractor, he can do all sorts of home maintenance that I cannot (which is very helpful in an old house). We are both very active in parenting our children, but I am their primary caretaker–i.e. it’s my job to make sure they have clean clothes for the morning.

9) If you had to trade places with another family in the country/rural area for a week, what do you think some of the challenges would be?

We have some friends who are renting a large farmhouse on a few secluded acres in Mt. Washington. I’d like to trade places with a family like that and have some quiet and privacy for a little while. But, I wonder if it would be lonely and isolating. I’ve also really grown accustomed to the noise and busy-ness of the city, so being in the suburbs now seems eerily silent, dark and kind of scary to me. It would take some time for me to get re-acclimated. I would also hate having to get in my car to run even the smallest errand.

10) Your age as of April 1, 2013:

30.

And, then, the follow-up questions:

11) How many children do you see yourselves having?

We’ll have at least one or two more.

12) What about your children’s education? Homeschool, public, private, Montessori, Waldorf, etc…?

We’re going to homeschool our children using a hybrid Classical and Charlotte Mason model. We believe strongly in the high value of home-based education. But, were we to choosing standard schooling, Cincinnati Public has a lot of options for parents in our area. Many other downtown kids attend Fairview German School in Clifton or the SCPA. Both schools are great. There is also a contingent of local parents pushing CPS to establish the  Rothenberg Academy as a high-ranking, competitive school that will draw more young families to the area.

13) What would you say to someone who says “Well, isn’t OTR a dangerous place to raise a family?”

I could say a lot about the whole issue of “safety” as it pertains to parenting young children but, basically, I would say that no child is really “safe.” Never. Nowhere. With no one. If you believe that because you live in a place where every house looks like yours, everyone dresses like you, you all drive similar cars, and your bank accounts hold the same amount of money, your kids are necessarily “safer” you are fooling yourself. I don’t say this to be harsh, only to point out that danger comes at children from all angles. Depending on where you live, the dangers will be different, but no less scary. I think I’m pretty reasonable about the dangers of city life, never negligent, but not overbearing. Many families have gone before us and raised wise, competent children in cities around the world and I’ve learned a lot from reading stories about other families struggling through the same urban issues.

Living in the city may require more attention on my part, more oversight, and a more watchful eye while my children are young. But it would be more dangerous for me to live in a “nice neighborhood” where the perceived safety gave me a false sense of security. I grew up in a nice, suburban area. And so I know what goes on behind closed doors, in basements and backyards at those houses and with those kids. “Bad people” are everywhere. We don’t talk much about the prevalence of alcoholism, chemical dependency, suicide, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, and parental negligence in the suburbs because it’s done in secret. But, you cannot hide in the city. And, as a parent, that’s actually reassuring. At least we know what we’re fighting here. We are blessed to live on a fantastic street with great neighbors who know each other, communicate well about what’s going on around us, and help each other out. So, from our angle, it’s easy to see that there are plenty of “good people” everywhere, too.

As for our neighborhood specifically: In OTR, if you are not buying or selling drugs (or sleeping with someone who is), you are about million times less likely to be the victim of a violent crime. The average car ride is much more dangerous than minding your own business, walking down a city street. In simple terms, it’s much more likely that another child would be injured in a car accident during the 30-minute trip to his soccer practice than my child being mugged around the corner for his pocket change. I can’t give you the statistics on that, but I’d put money on it.

But Does It Really Matter?

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…

My Problems With The Suburbs

It should be no surprise that I favor urban areas and adamantly support families choosing to live in urban environments. I’ve made a lot of bold statements about the value of urban environments, the quality of life available to urban families, and (what I believe to be) the challenges inherent in suburban living. When I make these statements, my suburban friends sometimes take offense. Some offense is appropriate, of course. I am, after all, calling their most basic lifestyle decisions into question. But, too much offense would be disingenuous. We all, every time we make a life decision for ourselves and our family, are calling other people’s decisions into question. Just because I say my reasons out loud should not make me an enemy.

That said, before I quickly explain my thoughts on the suburbs, I should clarify some things for people who don’t speak the language of the “city vs suburbs” question because much of the offense comes from misunderstanding what I mean when I say certain words or phrases. I apologize, ahead of time, for the way these clarifications will lengthen this post.

So, some clarification:

1. When I speak of an “urban” environment, neighborhood, or area, I do not mean a large, metropolitan city. Of course, large cities are “urban,” but urban design extends to many other built environments. When I speak of an “urban” environment, I am speaking less of size or population and more of issues related to city planning and design. Urban areas are spatially dense, socially diverse, economically diverse, are supported by a public infrastructure, and are culturally unique, regardless of their size.

2. Urbanism extends beyond the center of large cities. To give an example: Cincinnati is a metropolitan area of almost 3 million residents, divided into 52 distinct neighborhoods and surrounding municipalities. In a city like Cincinnati, the Central Business District is not the only definitively “urban” neighborhood. There are multiple neighborhoods within the city that could qualify. The same goes for some of the surrounding municipalities. Likewise, in a city like Chicago, the central urban core is much larger than in Cincinnati and the sub-urban sprawl extends much father from the core. Many of the surrounding municipalities are designed much the same way as large cities, but on smaller scales. Many of these areas are ex-urban areas or commuter cities that depend, in some way, on the vitality of the nearby large city, but also have their own urban character.

3. Not all “urban” areas or cities or parts of cities are the best example of the best of urbanism. I am speaking in generalizations. If your situation or experience does not match my assessment, then you are welcome to share the difference between your situation and my assessment, but it does not negate the truth of a generalization.

4. As should be obvious by my numbers 1 & 2 above, areas outside (or even far from) a city are not necessary the “suburban” areas I take issue with. The purpose and design of sub-urban areas has shifted drastically in the past 150 years and, so, the areas established outside cities at the turn of the 20th Century will be very different from those developed in the past 3o years. In general, most of the areas that meet my critique are those developed post-WWII.

5. It seems ridiculous to even have to say this, but I will. As in number 3 above, not all “suburban” areas are the best example of suburbia. Again, I am speaking in generalizations. If your situation or experience does not match my assessment, then you are welcome to share the difference between your situation and my assessment, but it does not negate the truth of a generalization.

6. Now, for my suburban friends: I will say, and have always said, that there are legitimate reasons to live in the suburbs. I have many wonderful friends and family who live in neighborhoods and houses that I would never choose to live in, but have made what they believe to be the best decision for their family. I did not have a “bad” experience growing up in the suburbs; I had a pleasant and safe suburban childhood. Unless you ask me for advice, I’m not out to make personal judgements about your personal decision, but I am willing to call out the entire culture of suburbia based on what I know about the design of the suburbs and have learned about the nature of vibrant, thriving communities. Maybe your community will fit the bill; maybe it won’t. That’s not for me to decide. If our life situation changed and my husband got a great job in the suburbs or if we needed to move in with or nearer to my parents or my mother in-law, I may find myself in a different position. But, regardless of where I live now or in the future, I am not afraid to make bold statements about the design of suburban areas and what it means for the lifestyle of those who live there.

7. It should also be said that I am not a professional urban planner and a purist may argue with some of my definitions. If you want to know the real ins and outs of the “city vs suburb” debate, look to someone else.

So, here goes.

My problems with the suburbs are as follows.

Suburban areas are characteristically homogeneous. Everything from the appearance of the buildings to the income of the residents is the same after the same after the same. There is no economic or social diversity–everyone lives the same kind of life, drives the same kind of car, has the same kind of job, and lives in the same kind of house. There is no aesthetic diversity–every building was designed by the same architecture firm for the same developer to look exactly like the other building next door. This is true for suburban business districts, churches, and schools, as well as residential developments.

There is no value in the aesthetics of an area that is designed for economic expediency by a large, corporate land developer. Beauty is an afterthought when efficiency is valued above creativity. A “custom home” in which your choice is between beige and ivory vinyl siding is not truly custom by any stretch of the imagination. When every lot is the same size, every home is the same average sq footage, and the city legislates the color of your painted trim, there is no room for aesthetics. It is boring at best and ugly at worst.

Real estate and property values in the suburbs have a tragic economic depreciation rate. What is the lifespan of your home? What will your home be worth, in its current condition, in 30 years? Which areas are still thriving during our economic recession? Look it up. I dare you. This is especially true for big-box commercial developments and crappy strip malls which seem to be designed to for demolition in 20 years, just to make way for another economically expedient, aesthetically-void development.

You simply cannot survive in the suburbs without a car. Even in suburban areas where things are close in proximity, nothing is designed for pedestrian traffic. A walk to the grocery store–even if it’s three blocks away–is a death wish in suburbia. Try going to visit a friend, picking up Chinese food, or taking your child to school without using a vehicle. Add up the cost the average American family incurs by relying so heavily on car use–especially in a two-car family. Add up the time wasted in a year’s worth of commuting. It will amaze you.

Physical space in the suburbs is completely privatized. Have you ever been out of town, passing through a suburban area, and tried to find a place to stop and walk around? To stop and let your kids play? To stop and park and take a break from driving? Good luck finding any space that is not owned by someone else. Nothing is shared–not driveways, not yards, not parking lots, not even ponds or pools or walking paths. Sure, some homeowners’ associations or corporate office complexes do a good job of creating an appearance of “public space,” but it’s different. And only an outsider can really feel the difference. Spending leisure time in someone else’s suburban empire requires–more often than not–paying your way. Buying something in a dining establishment, paying for recreation, or shopping are often your only options.

The economy of suburbia is entirely corporate. Hey, I like eating at Chili’s as much as the next person and I still buy my jeans at the GAP. But, another Chili’s restaurant or Sam’s Club or Wendy’s does nothing to bolster my local economy or put my neighbor’s kids through college. Sure, it might be good for tax revenue, but do some quick research on the economic return of a “mom & pop” establishment, when compared to a corporate entity. What is worth the investment? If the economic return is really so substantial, isn’t it worth paying an extra dollar for your sandwich or cup of coffee?

The suburbs require no personal interaction in your own community. The average suburban resident may go days without interacting with a single neighbor. Heck, you may not even know their names. Private driveways, closed garage doors, privacy fences, and long, off-set front entryways say to neighbors, “This is MY kingdom. Call ahead, please.” Close friends live a 30+ minute drive away. Shopping is done at a corporate mall across town. You hire a contractor from the Yellow Pages instead of the local newspaper. You attend church in someone else’s neighborhood with people who live somewhere else and who you see for 2 hours a week on Sunday. (And you call this “community?”) You live here. You mow your lawn. You send your kids to the safe, clean schools. You pay your taxes. That’s all that is required of you.

In closing,

Obviously, living in an urban area does not guarantee a different life. There are dying and vibrant communities everywhere. So, why do I think urban design is superior? Easy. Building community might not be contingent upon design, but it is aided (or hindered by it) and urban areas are, by definition, designed for it. So, choosing to live in a place that is designed to be inaccessible to outsiders, economically hollow, and fiercely privatized is counter-productive to the very nature of community-building. It might not make it impossible, but it does not make it any easier.

Is it “easy” to live in the city? In some ways; not others.

Is it “easy” to find a place to live that is both “urban” and affordable for a family? Not everywhere, but you’d be surprised.

Is living in an urban environment “comfortable?” Not necessarily.

Is sacrificing the personal security blanket of suburbia worth the investment into the urban, shared environment? Absolutely.

Is the Urban Middle Class Destined for Extinction?

Blogger Aaron M. Renn (aka: The Urbanophile) posted a link on Twitter to an interesting New York Times article that questions the affordability of Manhattan real estate for middle-income residents. The article discusses how market rates have shifted in the past 40 years, the difference between market rate and rent-regulated housing, and the near complete void of anything market rate that is affordable to the average family.

You can read the complete article here.

As a property-owner in an area of Cincinnati that is experiencing a renaissance, this issue hits really close to home. My husband and I are firmly planted in the middle-class. And we benefited from an opportunists’ real estate market a few years ago. But, were we to try to find a similar home now, it would be very difficult, maybe impossible. Heck, even a significant raise in taxes might make our home unaffordable.

Urban revitalization is a risky endeavor. But when we talk about the dangers of gentrification, we usually talk about how it will effect the poor, the homeless, those who depend on Section 8 and other “affordable housing” situations. We rarely talk about the way it will effect the rest of us–the working class and the middle class, those who benefit greatly from the amenities and accessibility of the urban environment. When the difference between the costs of subsidized housing and market-rate housing continues to increase, will there be anything left for the rest of us?

In a city like New York City, the middle class was being phased out decades ago. Am I crazy to think that Cincinnati could be inching toward the same problem, even if if happens on a much smaller scale? Similar to the outlying boroughs of NYC, there will still be neighborhoods of Cincinnati in which average families can purchase homes and rent affordable apartments. But, what about those of us who actually want to live downtown?

Some other things to consider:

-Let’s be honest: Having a family changes everything.

“One way to stay in Manhattan as a member of the middle class is to be in a relationship. Couples can split the cost of a one-bedroom apartment, along with utilities and takeout meals. But adding small roommates, especially the kind that do not contribute to rent, creates perhaps the single greatest obstacle to staying in the city.”- O’Leary, The New York Times

Since I believe that strong families are so important for the health of a community, I believe it’s absolutely necessary that there be a place for families to live in vibrant, thriving cities.

-Employers can help. It’s not unheard of for large employers–universities, hospitals, corporations, etc.–to purchase property and rent to employees at subsidized rates to aid in hiring, relocation, and job stability. What if event smaller businesses did this? What if there was a resurgence of business owners living within walking distance of their businesses and providing reduced-rate housing for their employees?

-There has to be a way to get in on the ground-level of development. One way that middle-income families make it work in Manhattan is that they have been around long enough that they secured their real estate before prices soared. They have, essentially, been grandfathered-in to the Manhattan lifestyle. Cincinnati’s downtown is still relatively affordable, but it may not always be. If you’re anything like me, you could not afford the new built-to-suit single-family homes in Over-the-Rhine. But many of us could possibly afford one of the remaining vacant properties that are ready for renovation. Securing these properties can be tricky and finding loans for their rehabilitation even trickier. So, it reasons to say that cities who wish to preserve a thriving middle class must encourage entrepreneurship and provide the means for early investment by those who have staying-power in their community.

I’m curious to know whether all cities experience this phenomena of a disappearing middle class and how they cope. I’d also love to know more about the rent-regulated properties in NYC. Who regulates them and what does it take to get ahold of a property? I’m also curious how Section 8 housing plays into the issue and when the number of government housing subsidies actually works against the working class to limit their housing opportunities.

Anyone want to chime in?