Empty swingset” by wsilver is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Childless Playgrounds and the American City

Are American cities becoming childless playgrounds? The answer appears to be “yes,” according to the latest issue of The American Conservative, and little good will come of it. What should we do about this state of affairs? Author Benjamin Schwarz’s reply comes in the form of a lament for what we have lost. Strong community ties once upheld families of all backgrounds. He sees policymakers trying to recreate this era through the built environment — think mini-Greenwich Villages seeking to resurrect the ghost of Jane Jacobs — but believe they will only serve to please the current Creative Class rather than the generations to come.

I have no argument with Schwarz’s desire to create city environments that are friendly to families. Neither would I quibble with his indictment of planners who seek to build their way to community life. But I think his nostalgia and cultural tastes blind him to what the urbanizing wave of childless cosmopolitan globalist types represent.

We are in the midst of an irreversible movement from a familial economy to an individualistic economy. The former was marked by high social capital and low financial capital, the latter by low social capital and high financial capital. Individualistic economies are marked by globalization and innovation, but also by rules and regulations to make up for the loss of social capital (i.e., the trust between people that grew up together must be replaced by laws and lawyers that reassert trust among strangers), hence a further rise in urban planning. Not only that, but as we move from the old economy to the new we are finding that large institutions and mass communities are being replaced by dense and fluid social networks. All of this change is leading to very different forms of community and social interactions and geographic mobility and bureaucracy and life decisions (such as starting a family). And since the city is simply a social form in a physical space, individualistic, networked economies inevitably shape the city’s form.

But this does not mean that the city is inherently opposed to family formation and flourishing. Rather than laying blame at the feet of capitalism, look instead to government. Residential areas are not formed around family life because the government wants it so. Everything from zoning laws to education policy are closing city centers to families flourishing. Rather than standing athwart the winds of economic change (as Jacobs intimated), we must embrace them, for they are pushing for more housing, not less; for better education, not poorer; for public spaces where people of all ages interact; for a diversity of developments and uses; and, perhaps most importantly, for a policy of people over place.

Our economy is growing ever denser and more complex even as its key players become more atomistic. Urban areas will become more important, not less as they provide the middle ground between faceless globalism and individual ingenuity. Absent outside intervention, the built environment will reflect the growth of individualism and dense social networks. The role of the planner is to enable these diverse networks and to lower barriers to people getting ahead. The last thing we should be doing is preventing anyone who wants to take advantage of those opportunities from doing so as they start and grow a family.

Neither the suburb nor the city are entirely states of nature. They are the product of conscious choices. Therefore, we must consciously choose to make our cities open to everyone and closed to none.

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