Why we stayed in the city

Marta (center) with her son and his partner on the left and her daughter and husband on the right.

Raising children in the city could be considered somewhat novel in a country where the conventional wisdom dictates a move to the suburbs as a family grows. But one family in Washington, DC is glad they stayed in the city, which they believe offers benefits that suburbs often can’t replicate. The challenge is to ensure that more families can reap the same benefits from living and growing in a city.

The year was 1984; my husband and I had been married for two years when we decided to buy a house. We were living in Washington, DC at the time and knew we wanted to stay in the city. We found a modest, single-family detached house on a small lot, just a few blocks inside the DC/Maryland line. While local schools hadn’t factored much into our choice of location, when we began to think about starting a family we were fortunate that the nearby elementary school had an excellent record.

We ultimately had two children, and as they approached their middle school years, many parents of their contemporaries decided to move to the suburbs where the houses and yards are bigger and the public schools are considered safer and better resourced. But we never considered moving—the city just had too much to offer.

In retrospect, I now know for sure what I suspected then about raising kids in the city versus the suburbs just a few short miles away. Here is what I concluded:

  • My kids and their friends in the city grew up much more independent and self-sufficient. They learned early how to navigate the Metro, get their own lunch, meet their friends across town, conduct field research, go to concerts, and accomplish whatever else they needed to, often without the aid of chaperone or chauffeur. The transportation options gave both our children and us as parents much more freedom than our friends in car-dependent locales.
  • Our kids seem to have fewer biases or expectations when it comes to race, class, religion, ethnicity, physical abilities, or sexual orientation. They attended classes, worked on projects and plays, competed with, and befriended just about every kind of person. Cities tend to have so much more diversity, which was integral to their lives growing up.
  • They appeared to have a much deeper interest in and understanding of world events and differing perspectives than most of their contemporaries. While DC may be somewhat extreme in this regard as the capital city, the melding of people has helped them develop empathy and curiosity about unfamiliar people and places.
  • Finally, they decided that their hometown is so interesting and filled with opportunity that, despite having attended colleges in other regions and living in other cities for a few years, they chose to return to Washington, DC to settle down.

Living in the city certainly has its challenges—from a transit system (slowly) recovering from decades of underinvestment, to a severe housing affordability crisis that prevents many would-be residents from making a home here too. As our experience shows, cities can be great places to raise a family; but a lack of housing—often a product of overly restrictive zoning that ban modest home choices like triplexes and backyard cottages—makes it impossible for many families who want to stay to remain. A family-friendly city is a city that has enough housing choice and variety that it’s possible for families to stay. And good schools, complete streets, and quality public transit can help a family grow in a city.

Our family has been fortunate in being able to start and mature here, enjoying the benefits, both tangible—museums, music, theater, markets, pageants, etc.—and intangible, that the city has to offer. Our hope is that the DC government and leaders in cities across the country work to address their challenges so that more families can experience the joys of family life in the city.

Marta Goldsmith is the Director of the Form-Based Codes Institute , a program of Smart Growth America.