| September 4, 2013
The child-friendly city: When having a future means having a family
Shortly before the Aug. 12 issue of Time magazine hit newsstands, the Summer 2013 issue of City Journal arrived in the mailboxes of policy analysts across the country.
The Time cover extolled “The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having a baby.” Inside the pages of City Journal, contributing editor Joel Kotkin and urban geography professor Ali Modarres lamented “The Childless City.”
“What is a city for?” Kotkin and Modarres asked. “Ever since cities first emerged thousands of years ago, they have been places where families could congregate and flourish.”
In many cities, that’s no longer the case. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of children 14 and under declined in cities with populations greater than 500,000, according to U.S. Census data cited by Kotkin and Modarres.
So, what does it matter? As the Aug. 12 Time cover article made clear, it’s possible to live a self-satisfied life without children. Yet, families without children — however meaningful in and of themselves — lack a future. Without children, bloodlines end, surnames cease, new gene combinations are locked.
So, too, do cities without children lack a future. Without children, schools close, churches shrivel, neighborhood associations flounder. Fewer children also means fewer future workers, voters and consumers, especially for those cities that can’t attract as many young adults or rich retirees from other places.
Fortunately, Oklahoma City is a baby boom city. From 2000 to 2010, the population of children 14 and under actually grew from 231,567 to 263,717, an increase of 13.9 percent.
According to one listing, Oklahoma City ranks among the top three cities for savvy young families.
As Oklahoma legislators have consciously sought to attract businesses to the Sooner State, they’ve created a climate that is attractive to families, too. New businesses mean new jobs, and fathers and mothers need jobs to provide for their children. A low income tax allows fathers and mothers to retain more of what they earn. Oklahoma City’s famously low cost of living allows families to stretch every dollar to the utmost.
Family-minded folks also famously care whether a city offers three additional essentials: Decent schools, safe streets and affordable housing accompanied by ample green space. In recent years, Oklahoma City has taken steps to offer all three.
In 2001, the people of Oklahoma City approved a new tax to fund improvements to local public schools. Voters also approved a $180 million bond issue to fund additional projects in Oklahoma City’s District I-89. The resultant program — Metro Area Projects for Kids, an offshoot of the city’s much-touted Metro Area Projects program — applied $470 million to the construction or renovation of more than 70 schools, $52 million to technology projects and $9 million for bus fleet replacement, according to okc.gov.
As Mayor Mick Cornett’s former chief of staff, David Holt, put it in an interview, a school building in and of itself might not educate the students inside it, but it at least ensures they’re not distracted by sagging ceilings or peeling paint.
In 2012, the city council voted to expand the metropolitan police force — the first such expansion of the force in two decades, according to Holt. In 2013, they expanded the force again. The city also recently invested $65 million in sidewalks and will soon boast a new park south of I-40.
Sometimes, though, it seems like urban developers and city planners in the OKC metro area aspire more to create a hipster hangout in the heartland than to foster family life downtown.
As builders prepare to construct the largest single-housing project — with 330 units — in downtown Oklahoma City, fewer than 5,000 single-family homes are for sale in the city at large, according to Zillow.com. Just 370 of those are new construction. Yet, single-family homes are the preferred housing of 80 percent of American adults.
In the fall of 2012, Cathy O’Connor, the director of the Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City, ranked a grocery store as the top priority for downtown dwellers. About that time, Native Roots — an elegant, organic grocery store — opened in the Deep Deuce neighborhood. It’s a convenient place for apartment homesteaders to purchase milk and eggs — but few families could afford to shop there regularly. A box of crackers costs about $5, a frozen pizza about $20.
Precisely because they’ve succeeded at creating a city attractive to the so-called “creative class,” Oklahoma City leaders risk forgetting the arguably more important procreative class. Some policies that mean little to businesses and even less to single young adults seeking entertainment can be the deciding factor for families contemplating a move to the city.
In particular, enterprising city leaders still have room to target schools and safety more creatively.
Metro-area school districts still lag behind their international counterparts. Parents of children in these districts need school choice.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City is safer than just eight similarly-sized cities in the United States. Among cities with populations of 500,000 or more, Oklahoma City has the ninth highest crime rate. It’s not necessarily that we have too few police officers. The nation’s top 5 safest cities have an average of 21.6 police officers per 10,000 people; the nation’s 5 least-safe cities have an average of 41.74. Oklahoma City has 17.7. It might be, however, that reducing crime in creative ways — say, by recollecting the Broken Windows theory — is rarely a top priority of Oklahoma policymakers.
Even as Oklahoma City denizens are rightly bullish on their hometown, it would be a mistake for policy leaders to favor self-consciously chic consumers and forget the foundational institution that enables any city to thrive.