Three months ago my family and I moved into our first home. Something about buying a house makes you feel like a real bonafide adult. And with that comes real adult decisions. We moved to Charlotte from Tampa in January and when my husband and I were deciding where in the city we wanted to live, we like many young families, fell into the trap that is holding back so many of our cities: providing our child with a good education.
Like so many other cities in America, in Charlotte you can find the public schools with the highest test scores in the suburbs. Decades and decades of socio-economic trends, not to mention racism and segregation, are the major cause of this divide – in fact, that could be a blog post all on its own. Of course many will tell you test scores are not everything, and they would be right. But when you’re new to a city, don’t know the schools, and plan to live in your house for a long time those test scores and rankings can put your mind (and your real estate agent’s) at ease.
I consider myself a true urbanist – completely devoted to the center city and its surrounding neighborhoods. It’s what I stand for and it’s what I work for every day. I was faced with the decision of living close to downtown with the schools in the neighborhoods I could afford some of the worst in Charlotte, but benefit from mixed-uses, sidewalks, beautiful street trees, urban parks, and cultural institutions – or – I could put education first, and move to where the best schools are, and suffer from a completely car-dependent built environment, zero walkability, and the single use of the single-family house.
I wrestled with this decision more than I wrestled with any other decision of my life – that includes who I married, when and whether to have kids, what graduate degree to pursue, etc. This commitment and investment became so much more than just a house – it became a reflection of my identity.
There are brave urbanists out there who fight this forced expulsion to the suburbs and step out of the box to avoid the education decision.
- Private School – For those who make the big bucks! With some schools reaching $20,000 a year for kindergarten this option is out of reach for many.
- Home School – Me a teacher? It takes a very special person to be a teacher, especially a good one, and especially of your own children.
- Take Over the PTA – Strength in numbers! In some neighborhoods like trendy Plaza Midwood, parents are making a pact. They’re enrolling their kids in the local elementary school and then committing to each other to transform the school through volunteering and leadership positions.
- House Poor – expensive house, unaffordable lifestyle. Some will overextend themselves to buy a house in the most expensive neighborhood in the city to ensure their children are surrounded by the best peer group.
- The Magnet Lottery – Cross your fingers and hope for the best! The technology, language and arts magnet schools accept children from all over the city, but they don’t accept every one. If you are one of the lucky ones prepare for the long bus ride, or the long commute.
The first and last strategies are probably the most popular, but for many people the risk and work of these options are unrealistic, or impractical. For my family number 1 was out (did I mention I am an urban designer? :) ). Number 2 and Number 3 take an enormous amount of time and preclude you from having a career. Number 3, 4, and 5 are all risky – and for a risk averse person, very scary, when making a large financial investment.
But most families choose the public schools in the ‘burbs because honestly – the ‘burbs ain’t that bad – yet. And even an urbanist, when up against the aforementioned challenges, I can get used to the large yard and the grocery store that has everything.
The truth is our cities are up against a challenge. To most people, even with a growing desire for walkable, urban places, the good suburbs (at least) are still pretty nice. For many young families the weekdays are completely consumed by school, work, soccer practice, getting dinner on the table and doing it all over again. They can head into the center city to get their fill for true urbanism, culture, and entertainment on the weekends and then return to the world of affordability and convenience. And that works for a lot of people.
Here are some more challenges that face our cities:
- Many suburbs can still offer what the city offers including the best restaurants, coffee shops, and recreation facilities. While not walkable, these uses are still very convenient and plentiful, often a short drive away. In Charlotte some of the most trendy restaurants in urban neighborhoods (Amelie’s in NoDa and Midwood Smoke House in Plaza Midwood for example) are taking advantage of the untapped market of the ‘burbs.
- The ever-popular lifestyle center is a development type that ultimately fools people into thinking they live in an urban environment. If you forget that you had to sit in traffic to drive there, walking down a wide, tree-lined sidewalk with outdoor café seating feels pretty nice. Entertainment and community events in a central open space can be reminiscent of small town America
- Speaking of small towns – before there were suburbs there were true small towns. Even though they have been surrounded by the metropolitan sprawl, they have survived and are now benefiting from their adjacent population growth. Downtown Matthews and Davidson are Charlotte’s shining examples.
- If you have to drive everywhere anyway, you might as well enjoy that big ‘ole yard. There is enough room for your pups to run around and that swing set. It can become a personal haven to relax after that stressful commute or provide the perfect setting for a cookout with your friends. Even though sacrificing a big lot is an easy one for people who understand the benefits of a walkable, urban environment – when you have it, it’s still pretty nice.
And now for the kickers:
- We live in a warped market. We’ve been building single-use, disconnected suburbs for a half a century in this country. Even with a documented increase in the desire for dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, lenders and developers still know that more affordable and less risky suburbs will sell. Since the new walkable neighborhoods that are built are so few and the demand is increasing, that leaves most of them unaffordable. This means that people still choose to purchase in the conventional suburb, fulfilling the fallacy for lenders and developers that people prefer suburbia.
- Driving still isn’t expensive enough. There will come a day when the price of gas is just completely unaffordable and technology hasn’t made enough progress to provide us with alternative ways to fuel our car-driven culture. And when that happens, watch out! People will swarm back into the cities left and right. Until then, sticker shock at the pump isn’t shocking enough.
When it comes down to it, there is no doubt in my mind that everyone loves good places. And the best places are walkable, mixed-use, higher density with a unique identity that ties into their history and culture. But because of the factors above, these are harder to come by – planning exists in a political, financial, and social context that prohibits us from making changes in our cities fast enough.
If there is one thing we can do that will transform our cities faster than any other planning strategy, it’s fixing our urban schools. What a tall order! If we can navigate the socio-economic inequality and challenges that face us we will do more for our cities than any planning document or design will ever achieve. While planners and urban designers use the tools of redevelopment, economic development, and transit for catalysts of change, we are missing the one piece to the puzzle – improving education. And unfortunately we don’t have the ability to put that in our toolbox.
Putting urban schools on par with their counterparts in the ‘burbs will put cities and the suburbs on a much more level playing field. Neighborhoods long forgotten in the city will open up to new markets. Infill development taking advantage of existing infrastructure will make new development more affordable and obtainable by young, middle class families. And when that happens the choice for many, especially urbanists like me, will be easy.
Until then, you will often find me on I-485, repeating my mantra “I love my kid, I love my kid.” It makes the guilt stay at bay :)