Searching for Kid-Friendly Cities? It’s a Waste of Time

Richard Florida's 'Who's Your City?' provides a list of the most family-friendly cities, but choosing blocks within a city matters a lot more.

I’ve come across a few lists of the most kid-friendly or child-friendly cities lately. The idea behind most of these is to help families who are searching for a better life for their kids find a city to relocate to.

In his book, Who’s Your City?, Richard Florida publishes his list of the “Best Places for Families With Children”. Business Week just recently published its list of the “Best Places to Raise Your Kids 2009.” Child Magazine published its “10 Best Cities for Families.”

In my opinion, these lists are a waste of time for parents at best, and a dangerous distraction at worst.
I agree with the authors of these lists on one broad point – parents’ decision of where to live is absolutely critical to the quality of lives their children. Unfortunately, these lists are all fundamentally flawed because their level of analysis is way too broad.

Recall the old adage, “All politics is local?” Well, I’ve got another one for you: “The best childhoods are hyper-local.” Not local. Hyper-local.

Think about your best memories from your own childhoods. Most parents would say at least half of them took place in their neighborhoods, or even their blocks.

What mattered to most of us kids were the kids who lived on our block, with the next-door neighbor kids often being the most important. Also, our favorite places were places like the street in front of our house, our friend’s back yard, the vacant lot down the street, or the playground and ball field a couple of blocks over.

So, why aren’t kids’ blocks important to their lives today? As I’ve written about frequently on Playborhood.com, most blocks in America today have scant, if any neighborly activity on a daily basis.  So, if neighborhoods are dead, they aren’t going to be important to kids’ lives, which suffer as a result.

If neighborly activity is extremely high everywhere, such as it was pretty much everywhere in the early 20th century, choice of block is not important.  No matter where you go, you’ll have a vibrant community life. Conversely, if neighborly activity is close to zero in all blocks of a town, which is true of some suburbs today (check out my favorite, Atherton, CA), the block is not important at all for choosing where to live in that town.  No matter where you go, you’re screwed.

However, in a world where blocks are very different in terms of neighborly activity, child-friendliness at the block level is the most important decision attribute for a family with children by far.  That’s because there is no variable that can make a more positive contribution to the life of a child than the block that he/she lives in.

Ironically, a public debate between Richard Florida, creator of one of the lists I mentioned in the beginning of this article, and Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist illustrate this point very well.

In Who’s Your City?, Florida invokes his “Trick-or-Treater Index to describe how great Toronto, his new home city, is for kids, relative to the city he moved from, Washington, DC. During Halloweens when he lived in his DC home, “not a single kid came to our door in three years.” By contrast, In Toronto, “our house was mobbed by children of a mosaic of races.” (p. 259)

Fisher retorts:

We lived less than 20 blocks apart when he was in Washington, but our experiences were as different as could be on what he calls the “trick or treater index.”

Our block, like many in Northwest [DC], has always been busy on Halloween. Florida’s surely was not. For reasons that always baffled me, this great bard of urban vibrancy, a latter-day Jane Jacobs (the spiritual grandmother of the smart-growth movement), chose to live in about as anti-urban a city setting as could be had: far from a Metro station, way up on a hill, in a beautiful spot right near Rock Creek Park, well away from any of the amenities he preaches about in his books.

In other words, Florida writes about how his Trick-or-Treater Index doomed Washington DC for kid-friendliness, but if he had just moved 20 blocks, his same Index would have made DC look great.

My neighborhood rated pretty well in general this Halloween, but even here, there was a huge difference from one block to the next.

It’s obvious. Choosing which city is best for kids is like swatting a fly with a baseball bat. Sure, there are some things that matter to kids that vary across cities like weather, but the things that matter most to kids vary greatly within a city on a block-by-block or neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

Sorry, city raters. Your work is pretty useless for helping parents choose a place to live where their kids will have good lives. Rating blocks and neighborhoods is where it’s at.

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