Thu. August 15
The Stroller Ban: Are Cities Anti-Kids?
I always marveled at the martial arts performers that can chop a piece of wood clean in half with one swipe of a bare hand. I never understood how it was physically possible.
That was, until, I heard about stroller bans. I recently read this article about a restaurant in Toronto banning strollers, but I’ve also heard about it happening in the city where I live: Washington, D.C.
While I understand safety concerns about blocked aisles and such, stroller bans are emblematic of a deeper problem: anti-child cities.
When my husband and I found out that we were expecting, we lived in a cozy suburb of northern Virginia. Though both of us worked in D.C., we were piloting suburban life. It was a lovely year, but we did a sort of reverse-yuppie move. We moved back into the city to start our family.
People thought we were crazy. “You can have so much space in the suburbs! You’re going to need another car, and a HUGE one! Where will you park? What will you do with all your stuff?! Babies require so much stuff!!”
Look around the world. In most countries, families have no choice but to make do in cities. And they do so happily. They learn to live with less. They walk and take public transportation. Children share rooms. Everyone survives.
There are wonderful upsides to living in the city, even with children. I can walk absolutely everywhere with my daughter: to church, to the grocery store, to her doctor. Rather than buckling her in and unbuckling her for every errand, I pop her into her stroller, and she happily cruises about until the errands are done. We have learned to regularly purge and still haven’t even bought a changing table. Twenty-pound immobile humans, in fact, require very little. Neither of us spends hours commuting, and we have a lively and cultured city at our fingertips. As more children come, more creativity will be required – but city life with a child is not a burden, it’s a blessing.
That being said, the city does not always feel so welcoming to babies. People arch their eyebrows when they see me coming down a narrow aisle of the local organic store with the Bob. Subway-riders often require a little rubber nudge before they will make space. And every now and then I see the “no strollers please” sign, and I clench my teeth and visualize the karate chop.
Sociologists have long been decrying the urban flight of the 60s, when families flocked to the suburbs, leaving cities for only the richest and the poorest and those without children. This tragedy is still playing out.
Cities should not be for the rich and the single. In a first, I find myself agreeing with Paul Krugman’s recent assessment that the inaccessibility of the American city to most is helping to kill the American dream. (That and Obamacare and other job-killing liberal policies – but that’s for another day.)
But it’s believable. A major reason I wanted to be closer to the city was because I knew it would be that much harder for me to work if I was stranded in a suburb and paying a nanny while I sat in traffic.
In the studies Krugman cites, they found a direct, negative correlation between upward mobility and “residential segregation.” The people who live farthest away have the hardest time taking advantage of opportunities to learn more and earn more. Or in his words, they are “stranded by sprawl.”
In a dead-on analysis, City Journal authors Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres, point out that in areas with populations above 500,000, the 14 and under population is in steep decline. The only places where the number of children is on the rise are in areas where the population is 250,000 or less. This creates a mutually reinforcing vicious cycle of emptying out the family-enforced institutions like churches and schools that used to form the bedrock of cities, and instead loading institutions like opera houses and restaurants that are populated by singles.
In their words:
“Schools, churches, and neighborhood associations no longer form the city’s foundation. Instead, the city revolves around recreation, arts, culture, and restaurants—a system built for the newly liberated individual.”
I know first-hand that the schools in D.C. are either blocked-off by scrawling, wrought iron gates or guarded by police and metal detectors. Her churches are half-full of mostly singles or elderly Filipino ladies. But try to get a reservation at popular eatery, Rasika, and you’ll be offered 10:30 p.m. (Seriously.)
While I sometimes get frustrated with metro-riders who won’t make space on the elevator for my stroller or dog-only parks, the injustice of the increasingly anti-child city is not so much against parents, but against children.
Children should be able to experience what the city has to offer without parents losing it on an 11 a.m. weekend traffic-jam on Route 66 trying to take them to a museum or without their carriages being snubbed at a local eatery ghettoizing them into Denny’s (I happen to love Denny’s). And there are good and understandable reasons for moving out to the ‘burbs, the cost of living in cities being the primary reason families are forced out. But so many families also fall prey to Stuff and Space Syndrome, a particularly American affliction that holds one needs more space and stuff to be happy. Many would be surprised at the emotional rewards of the simplicity forced by city living. But as a gal who grew up sledding down my street, I get the appeal of suburbs and know family bliss can be found there too.
Nonetheless, the burden here falls on local policymakers, who need to realize sooner rather than later that if they don’t eventually want their cities to look like a scene out of Slumdog Millionaire — turf-wars between the poor and the mega-rich while children live in the shadows — they need to find ways to bring families back to the cities. Every American family should have a shot at city life if it’s what they want. American cities should embrace, not shun, their future.