Multigenerational Communities or Bust

Cities that don't work for people of all ages risk stagnating in the past.

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I’m raising a New Yorker. A city kid through and through. It’s not by accident that this is happening: I grew up in the city myself (Manhattan), and so it has always seemed to me like an obvious place to raise my own child. He was born, 10-plus years ago, in a downtown Manhattan hospital, and came home to the house in Brooklyn where he has lived ever since.

I expected my son to be loyal to his city, the way that I have always been, but sometimes he surprises even me with his hometown pride. Like the time he returned from a trip to a leafy Massachusetts suburb, re-entering his native burg at perhaps its lowest point – the grim streets around Penn Station. On a hot and humid night, he strode past the piles of garbage and the fluorescent fast-food outlets, breathed in the fetid air, and declared, "It’s good to be home. I love New York."

That’s a little bit extreme, I admit. But the benefits he’s getting from growing up here are undeniable. He is constantly meeting and interacting with all kinds of people from all over the world, and loves to guess which languages he is overhearing on the street or subway. When he walks down the street, the shopkeepers know his name. He plays with kids on the block and in pickup games at our local park. He regularly visits some of the world’s best museums, although he probably takes in almost as much art on the streets around him. He has seen first-hand the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, and that has given him plenty to think about.

Maybe most important, he has learned how to navigate this world on foot, transit, and bike. He has a detailed mental map of our surroundings, something that is much harder for children to acquire if they get chauffeured everywhere. By the time he’s a teenager, the whole city will be his oyster, thanks to the bus and subway.

So to me, at least, it makes all the sense in the world to raise a kid in the city. In the end, of course, it’s a profoundly personal choice, and it’s obviously not the right decision for every family. One thing is clear, though: The city benefits as much from having children as children do from having the city.

A city that is filled with children is a happier, more lively place than one that isn’t. More than that, it’s a place that is clearly headed toward the future, not stagnating in the past. A city that can keep its children engaged and stimulated is building a resource that will pay off big-time in years to come.

But as many observers have noted, kids these days aren’t encouraged to roam the streets the way they once were. Julie Rudner, a professor of urban planning in Australia, recently wrote about the problem on the American Planning Association’s blog:

In the U.S., U.K., and Australia, years of cumulative public decision making have resulted in the absence of kids from urban public space. Fewer kids walk or cycle to school, play in parks unaccompanied by adults, run errands for their families, and so forth.

The absence of kids from public urban life has become so common, that we are often shocked, concerned, or suspicious if we see them out and about by themselves. This situation impoverishes the lives of more than 20 percent of our population — children between 5 and 19 years of age.

It is a detriment to our society as a whole.

The segregation of generations goes deeper than just the swaddling of children in a cocoon of safety, though. In a society obsessed with aging, too often the generations are kept apart by prejudice and stereotypes. Young people are scared of getting old. Old people are scared of being inconvenienced. The debate over strollers in pubs seems to be never-ending here in New York, with a lot of young adults saying they don’t want to be disturbed by little kids (my opinion on a reasonable position echoes that of many commenters on this New York Times piece: In a decent place that serves food as well as booze, at reasonable times of day, there’s no reason to exclude families that are responsible about their own and their children’s behavior). Outside the city, many gated communities geared toward retirees won’t sell to anyone younger than 50, or 55, or 60. Presumably even a rowdy 45-year-old could upset the equilibrium. To quote one website marketing such a community:

Most retirement communities enjoy a level of peace and quiet that cannot be found out in the general community. Living in a retirement community allows seniors to be friends with people who have like interests.

And of course, everyone can agree on how obnoxious teenagers are.

All of which just makes me sad. Isn’t one of the best parts of being a human being getting to meet and talk to people who don’t have "like interests"? Especially in the city, isn’t diversity of age something to be welcomed, just like ethnic diversity?

On my block, several of the homes have three or even four generations living together. This isn’t perceived as some failure of the adult children to get out on their own. It’s a practical, comfortable arrangement that allows grandparents, parents, and kids (and sometimes great-grandparents) to help each other out during all phases of life and pass on their wisdom and wealth (the latter in the form of real estate).

Do these families include screaming toddlers and sullen teenagers? Yes, and having been both of those creatures myself at different points in my life, I am happy to smile and put up with it. Are there a few older people who like to stop me on the sidewalk and talk on and on about nothing in particular even if I am in a hurry to get somewhere? Yes, and I should be lucky to live so long.

In his new book Dreamland, author David K. Randall talks about the different sleep patterns we go through from infancy to old age. The baby sleeps without regard to time; the teenager stays up late and is sacked out until lunchtime; the old person awakes before first light. A recent review of the book in The New York Times summarized one explanation for the variations:

Anthropologists suggest that there was once a clear survival benefit to the sleep patterns of the nuclear family: Someone was always awake to deal with circling tigers. Teenagers took the first shift, parents the second, grandparents the hours before dawn.

That’s kind of how it is on my block. We are all on alert for tigers at different times.

Over the nearly 12 years I have lived here, I've watched some of my neighbors grow from childhood to parenthood; seen others divorce, marry, or retire; congratulated high school graduates who later turned into college graduates; and attended a few funerals.

This is life, and I am happy to say that from where I sit – and from where my kid is growing toward manhood -- you can see all of it.

Top image: Levranii/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.