What Does Family-Friendly Actually Mean?
The suburbs are Cleaver Family-friendly. Photo by pdwroswell.

The suburbs are Cleaver Family-friendly. Photo by pdwroswell.

One of the most pervasive critiques of urban life is that suburbia is the only good place to raise a family. It’s a powerful argument—parents will do anything for their children—and it’s a deeply rooted one. So it was very disappointing to read Michael Lewyn, over at Planetizen, arguing that “yes, New Urbanism can be good for families!”

Well, sure, New Urbanist developments can be good places to raise a family. As can city centers, streetcar suburbs, small towns and, yes, the exurbs. Claims otherwise would seem to fly in the face of the fact that there are in fact families from each of these places.

The real disappointment is that Lewyn argues that each kind of built environment can be a good place for families insofar as it mirrors the post-war suburb. “In particular, Stapleton appeared to me to be dominated by houses with front yards,” Lewyn boasts. And look, it’s not just New Urbanism that can be family friendly! “The streetcar suburbs of the 1920s were dominated by houses with front yards, just like Stapleton.” It seems that for Lewyn, there is almost an identity between green space and kid-friendliness.

Now I could respond with the Jane Jacobs answer, that kids prefer sidewalks and shop to playgrounds and parks. Or I could respond with the Matt Yglesias answer, that it’s better to be a kid in the city since you don’t need to wait until you have a car to have any mobility. Both are good points, but I won’t do either of those things.

I want to talk about a side of the discussion that really doesn’t get enough play. We talk about how suburbs affect kids a lot, but I think not enough about how they affect parents.

I was lucky enough to take a class about suburbia with Dolores Hayden last semester, and I want to point you to this article of hers recently republished in Z Magazine. Taking an explicitly feminist viewpoint, Hayden looks at three traditions in American housing design and their connection to gender and family life. Hayden traces the suburban ideal to Catharine Beecher and the desire to create a feminine haven for the cult of domesticity. More progressive ideals of the built environment created common facilities to allow the domestic sphere access to efficiencies of scale and technology, monetary compensation and community.

You may not agree with every detail of Hayden’s article but I think that the central assertion is crucially important: that the form of our housing both reflects and determines gender roles within the family. A post-war housing model that was designed with the ideology that women should be stay-at-home moms will make it easier to have that kind of family life. But it doesn’t make it easier to live with your extended family; a triple-decker, a duplex, or other housing types prominent in streetcar suburbs, on the other hand, are great for living with cousins and grandparents. It doesn’t make it easier for both parents to work, given that one parent needs to act as a chauffeur.

There’s no question that Lewyn is right that all these New Urbanist developments are family-friendly. Any sort of built environment can be. They’re just not all equally friendly to all families. Recognizing that will improve our families, our gender relations, our cities and our suburbs.

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