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Cities for All: No Skipping Generations

Neal Peirce / Jan 24 2013

For Release Sunday, January 27, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON – We’re in a new age of celebrating America’s cities, no longer disparaging and fleeing them as we did through the pre-crash, suburban expansion era.

But who are the cities really for?

Are they for waves of young professionals drawn to glitter and opportunities? Or for America’s seniors, seeking community, supports, activity in their twilight years?

Yes on both counts.

But what about families with pre- and school-age children – especially as schools improve? Are the cities for them too?

That answer, also, needs to be an emphatic “yes.” Because the very future of cities depends on drawing young, child-rearing families.

That theme – the value of truly multigenerational cities – was embraced by a group of liberally oriented city leaders, the “Mayors Innovation Project,” meeting in Washington shortly before Inauguration Day.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt of Chapel Hill, N.C., said most people in his university town seem to be 20 or 80 – thus “missing the middle.” That crimps economic opportunity because of a serious lack of investors or workers.

By contrast, Mayor Joseph Curatone of Somerville, Mass., boasted of his Boston-area city, a close neighbor to Cambridge, as “multigenerational,” “the most densely populated city in New England.” Somerville is highly livable, he noted, with a wide range of housing units, lots of little squares and centers, high transit availability and strong civic engagement. Plus, 32 percent of Somerville’s population is aged 25 to 34 – the biggest share of that highly productive age group in Massachusetts.

More typical of today’s America is the Atlanta region, which spent decades developing spread-out suburbs. But the original homeowners are now empty-nesters, reaching senior years and driving less (or not at all). They have needs that profit-oriented subdivision developers never provided. For example: nearby medical and social services, libraries and social centers, people-friendly parks, farmers markets and safe, walkable and bikable environments.

The Atlanta Regional Commission, the mayors’ meeting was told, is trying to popularize the idea of lifelong communities. It even sponsored a “charrette” with 1,500 people discussing ways to encourage new housing options, add sidewalks and make it less perilous for pedestrians to cross fast superhighways. (For details, including links to the charrette led by Andres Duany, click here)

But are these just local issues? Not so, the mayors were told by Mildred Warner of Cornell University. For decades, she said, American communities were designed as if only people with cars mattered. Today’s imperative, she said, is to design our cities, our entire economies, as if every age group matters, including both children and “aging baby boomers who do not wish to be shuffled off to enclaves of only older adults.”

The formula seems a win-win. Both New York City and Charlotte, N.C., for example, have experimented with school buses used in the middle of the day to take seniors shopping. Many communities now encourage seniors to tutor youths, enriching life for both. In Ithaca, N.Y., a Head Start program is permanently housed in a retirement community.

Denser, less car-focused suburbs and towns with multigenerational living can also be encouraged by promoting, on the one hand, three- and four-bedroom houses and apartments for growing families, and on the other, “accessory units” – so-called mother-in-law units in converted garages and other small residences tucked into home lots. Exaggerated fears of rowdy students pouring into such units, or less on-street parking, or imperiled housing values often trigger “NIMBY” opposition. We all too easily champion our American patriotism but deny opportunity to others, from striving families to young learners to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

And there’s raw economics. Towns make a mistake when they focus heavily on attracting a single group such as young professionals, Warner warned the mayors meeting. Instead, she said, families with young children represent the true “Big Money” – that an average family spends a quarter million dollars raising a child, with three-fourths of that money supporting housing, health care, child care and other needs that create jobs and bolster the local economy.

The sad irony is that the federal government, with its huge defense and growing outlays for Social Security and Medicare, is paying precious little attention to children and families. The idea seems to be these are a state and local responsibility. Locally, some cities, preoccupied with their tax base, even try to zone out families with school-age children.

Warner’s multigenerational case is that today’s America is “under-investing in children – asking parents at the start of life, often with very low-paying wages, to pay for everyone else.” (A top example: significant deductions from their paychecks for Social Security and Medicare). The message to the rest of us, says Warner: “Invest in young kids, if you hope there’ll be someone to be your senior nurse or buy your house.”

The mayors couldn’t miss the message: Go for mixed use, a place for seniors and especially quality housing and schools for young families. Because ultimately, local futures are our national future.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Ken Wood
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    With the average downtown unit selling for about a million dollars, I’m fairly certain Austin, Texas wants people of a higher income to inhabit their downtown condos. My wife and I are both retired, and there is no way we could qualify for anything downtown.

  2. Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the great post! How to increase the diversity of housing units for households of all types is key. Census data now shows married couples (with or without children) comprise less than half of all households and nonfamily (including single occupant households) represent more than a quarter. Individuals such as my mother who now live in a single occupant household have trouble identifying units appropriate to their needs (1-2 bedrooms in a walkable neighborhood). Condo and Co-op options can have substantial variable costs associated with them making them risky investments for individuals with relatively fixed incomes, while the lack of a secondary mortgage tools for mixed use can limit the development of the neighborhoods we would like to create. The work of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council in New York has been doing great work in this area but who is working on the markets front?

  3. Stan Katz
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    My wife and I are both senior, although we still work. We live in Manhattan and we find it ideal. the services are ample, public transit is excellent and access to entertainment and the arts is wonderful. But, housing costs are steep and climbing ever-more steeply and we wonder when we might have to leave the city and where we would go. Vermont is lovely, but not year-round and it’s too far from NY. We don’t feel NYC values its older population, nor is it planning solutions for housing it.

  4. Mary DeWolf
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Warner had better check his facts. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” was the principle behind the 1935 Social
    Security Act. Then we heard from the Bible every morning in public school.
    Deductions from paychecks now for social security and medicare are for the payer’s own future old age, and those who haven’t contributed now will not receive later.
    They are not entitlements.
    They are not gifts from the young to the elderly.
    Just as banks use depoitors’ money to lend out, so the U.S.A. uses the withheld money to pay out.

  5. Posted January 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Neil is this an interesting post and you bring up some great points. If I may – I’d like give you my take what’s happening in our urban areas.

    First, you give an incredible amount of credit to government entities in the formation of cities and their characteristics. Cities are nothing but a product of their residents. Urban areas are being revitalized because young people choose to move there, not because anything the government- state, local or federal is doing. This a generational trend. Their parents wanted to create lives in the suburbs … their kids, not so much! The Millennial Generation doesn’t treasure big houses, expensive cars and conspicuous consumption as their parents do (except technology). This generation also values grouping together and the camaraderie that they can get in densely populated areas. Look who created “social media.”

    The urban elderly population is pretty much made of people that have always lived there don’t want to move because of family or can’t because of financial reasons. And it’s doubtful that any new elderly will want to move into urban areas.

    I don’t believe there is anything you can do to persuade couples with kids in their their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s to want to live in revitalized urban areas. These families want (or think they want) yards for their kids, which cities don’t have so much of. You can’t change the economics of land prices. These Gen Xers would rather commute if they work in an urban area. Again this is a generational thing. An awful lot of them came from divorced families and want to have the lives they didn’t have, but thought they should have had.

    Cities have just evolved as the country and its economic opportunities have. Big factories aren’t being built in urban areas. The urban jobs of the revitalizes are often technology or creative oriented. These are jobs for the Millennials.

    No amount a government intervention, especially considering the current political climate, is going to change generational demographics. Attempts to do so will result mainly in mis-guided wasted efforts. Urban areas will develop as market and generational conditions dictate.

  6. Posted February 7, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Really like this article.

    Our company has the same focus in trying to encourage cities to be more family friendly (and senior friendly, aka designing for all ages)

    Here is a city ranking with a focus on sustainable and family friendly: