Best Place to Raise a Family? There’s a Case for City Over Suburb.

If you want a big backyard and an SUV, move to the suburbs. Otherwise, do the math. You'll end up with a city kid.

by Noah Berlatsky

When my son was an infant, we went to the same Thai restaurant virtually every week. The food was only okay, but it arrived quickly and the place was rarely crowded. More to the point, the staff loved the kid. They thought his fussing and whining was cute. They didn’t mind having to sweep up sticky Cheerios. They’d greet him delightedly when we rolled in and collapsed, pleased to know that, for a brief interlude, we weren’t bothering anyone. It was a kid-friendly restaurant. It was really nice.

The suburban propaganda machine, powered by conventional wisdom, the real estate industry, and parental anxieties, would have parents believe that cities are dangerous, expensive, and bad for children whereas neighborhoods a half an hour drive away are safe, dotted with excellent schools and well-maintained playgrounds. But that doesn’t track with our experience. Raising our son in the city has been great. And there’s evidence that, the virtues of suburbs over cities are greatly exaggerated — specifically for urbanites who move grudgingly because it feels like the right thing to do.

To understand the tradeoffs, it’s critical to understand the ways that cost of living and quality of living are entwined and the ways in which they are not.

If the principal knock against raising kids in the city is the expense of the thing, it’s important to interrogate what that expense actually looks like and the ways in which being in a city can save parents money — as odd as that may sound. But there are some savings that come with living in high density areas. Parents encounter these early. A couple days after our son was born we strapped him to his mom and walked a few blocks to our local art museum (he was unimpressed, but we had a good time). The ability to engage in those sorts of satisfying spontaneous activities eliminates the pressure to splash out on more elaborate pleasures.

But on a line-item level, transportation cost is where city’s have a huge edge on the suburbs. My wife can take the train to work, which means we only need one tiny car, rather than a driveway’s worth of four-wheel drive.

Todd Littman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute argues that long term urban living can be a better investment than the suburbs because houses appreciate and cars depreciate. He figures that a household with $60,000 annual income in an outer suburb with two cars can afford $10, 783 in annual mortgage payments, while an urban household with no cars could afford $19,044 annual payments. Over a decade, Littman says the city dweller would have $63,789 more equity than the suburban family.

There are also many cities where housing costs are higher in the suburbs than in urban centers. Chicago is one of them (New York and Los Angeles are not.) In 2018, researchers from Zillow found that suburbanites paid 16.4 percent of their income to mortgage holders on average in the Chicago area, while city dweller paid only 15.3 percent. Baltimore had an even larger gap, with suburban housing at 17.2 percent of income and urban only 6.0 percent.

Of course, there are many cities where prices are higher; New York or Washington D.C. proper come at a premium. And these things vary by neighborhood. Our home in Lincoln Park is a good bit pricier than houses in Griffith, Indiana, 30 miles away, where my wife grew up. Thisis in part because plenty of people are getting wise and making the decision to pony up.

“There has been a return to the urban core, especially in large coastal cities, but also in other areas,” Zillow’s senior economist Sarah Mikhitarian told me. “People really value being close, or relatively close to their place of work.”

Another Zillow study put a value on commute times by looking at how much a fifteen minute commute added to housing prices. In Boston, the city with the most dramatic drop, a house 15 minutes further from the downtown core cost $57,250 less, some 13.4 percent of the average home value and $3,816 per minute commute (half that if you count the daily back and forth)..

As Mikhitarian told me, though, the reason that houses are generally more expensive in urban areas is because people like living in the city. “The biggest draw is the nearby amenities. You’re close to museum or other cultural events,” she said. There are not a lot of great restaurants or theater on offer in northwest Indiana. Shorter commutes and the ability to walk around the corner to a really good café, or buy bread from the Polish baker down the street, or pop out on a whim to see Babymetal, are worth something to a lot of people. I’m one of those people.

Many parents worry that these cultural amenities come at the cost of their children’s education, though. Sure, my son and I can go see Japanese singers do aerobics to death metal riffs, but is that worth sending him to a sub-par school?

But that’s not actually a trade-off you have to make, according to Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. In his research, Schneider has found little evidence that suburban schools provide better quality education. Suburban schools do have better test scores, but that’s because the students who go there tend to be more affluent more likely to speak English, and have parents who attended college. “All young people come into school with different levels of preparation, privilege and advantage,” Schneider told me. “Therefore, the average scores at a school are going to reflect the demography of the school, more than they’re going to reflect teaching and learning at the school.” Kids from privileged background are going to do well on tests whether they live in a city or a suburb. And kids from families that face disadvantages because of income or racism are going to have challenges no matter what school they attend.

That doesn’t mean that school choice is meaningless. There are other measures of school quality—such as whether kids feel engaged, whether they are happy with friends, and whether they’re meeting and interacting with people who challenge and engage them. Racially diverse schools even improve the health of students of color, while having no adverse effects on white students. Schneider says the benefits of diverse schools are understudied, but there’s reason to believe they give everyone a better ability to understand other perspectives and a greater sense of emotional safety.

That resonates with me. One of the reasons I wanted to raise my son in the city was that I was raised in a smaller, more insular, and, I firmly believe, less pleasant place than Chicago, a mostly Catholic community in northeastern Pennsylvania. Everyone said it was a great place to raise kids, but that was a euphemism; what they meant was that the town was almost entirely white.

That said, my childhood wasn’t nightmarish by any means. I liked my parents and generally got along with my peers. But I was bullied for being Jewish and for doing well in school. Teachers made homophobic and misogynistic jokes. I’m sure homophobia is less common there now than it was then. But it’s one of Trump’s strongholds in Pennsylvania; I don’t think it’s changed that much.

Regardless, I’m glad my son has had the chance to have a different experience. He goes to a public arts high school where two-thirds of the kids are black or Latinx; at least half of his friends are queer, and many of them are trans. He had a sex-ed class that covered condoms and consent. (I think my health teacher in Pennsylvania would have had an aneurysm if he’d been forced to discuss abstinence, much less safe sex.) Language instruction is a lot better than at my old school, and there are more AP courses as well. There are probably fewer Jewish kids at his school than there were at mine and many of his peers aren’t exactly sure what being Jewish even means. But he’s not bullied because his peers don’t assume that everyone has to be the same.

And, in the same way that access to cultural institutions made my son’s first year more enjoyable, access to culture is making his teen years more interesting. An aspiring actor, he has lots of opportunities to try out for student films and plays (he got to play Malvolio in a great youth Shakespeare production). This summer, money was tighter than we expected, so we didn’t go on vacation. We just stayed in Chicago and went to a ton of theater—we saw an Ionesco performance, improv, and a play about Joan Jett Blakk, the drag queen who ran for president in 1992. In the same way that the city engaged me when he was still in the baby carrier, it now engages him. It’s hard to put a figure on that, but it’s profoundly valuable.

None of this is to say that you must move to the city at once or you’re failing your kids. Obviously, different people thrive in different places. If my son loved football instead of theater, we’d probably be making some different decisions. But, by the same token, it’s misguided to see cities as places from which parents have to flee as soon as they’re expecting.

Urban areas have always promised diversity, art, excitement, opportunity. Kids benefit from all those things, and so do adults. Our house is admittedly more cramped than we’d like, but when we leave it, we’ve got a Thai restaurant we can go to around the corner.