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Confessions from a Cul-de-Sac.

2 Jun
My very own cul-de-sac.

My very own cul-de-sac.

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.

Plaza Midwood: one of the historic neighborhoods adjacent to the center city. (Image Source: ui.uncc.edu)

Plaza Midwood: one of the historic neighborhoods adjacent to the center city. (Image Source: ui.uncc.edu)

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.
Community gathering space at Birkdale Village, a lifestyle center in Huntersville, NC (Image Source: citybeautiful21.com)

Community gathering space at Birkdale Village, a lifestyle center in Huntersville, NC (Image Source: citybeautiful21.com)

Historic Dowtown Davidson, NC (Image Source: housesincharlotte.com)

Historic Downtown Davidson, NC (Image Source: housesincharlotte.com)

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 🙂

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58 Responses to “Confessions from a Cul-de-Sac.”

  1. conservadox June 3, 2015 at 11:25 AM #

    To “fix” the schools you need to realize that the whole argument is based on a lie. The lie is that the schools are the problem rather than the students. White people loved urban schools until school integration came along. But since the Supreme Court outlawed Jim Crow, urban school systems have had to have a reasonable number of blacks in every school while suburban school systems got to stay segregated (on the legal theory that they never had any blacks to discriminate against).

    Once whites realized that they could have overwhelmingly white schools by moving to suburbs, they moved to suburbs, causing urban schools to be all-black, which in turn (because of historic racism etc) means that they become dominated by underprivileged students, which in turn caused them to have lower test scores and other social problems that in turn cause even the most liberal ones to run away from the urban schools.

    So if the law allows urban schools to have the racial and same socio-economic makeup as suburbia (or forces suburban schools to have the same makeup as the urban schools) the problem goes away. Period.

  2. jenniferlenhart June 3, 2015 at 6:04 PM #

    I love the personal story in this and the struggle. I’m currently living and loving in Amsterdam, but if I ever move back to the U.S. and have kids… my passion for the city may hit a few obstacles too. I’m not there yet, and maybe I won’t have to. Not sure. But this honesty is well appreciated.

  3. mongrel20percent June 10, 2015 at 12:48 PM #

    It sounds like you have a nice life. Education in the U. S. is a mess but there are pockets of academia and intellectualism in every town and every school. If you are lucky, you have chosen a place where you feel at home and can provide an education for your children both inside and outside of the public school system. Expect the most of your children and things will be ok. [Spoken by a minority retired educator who is proud of the gender-sensitivity of her church.]

  4. densis80 June 10, 2015 at 1:49 PM #

    Reblogged this on densis80.

  5. Eli Hitler Razcon June 10, 2015 at 3:05 PM #

    The statement of high national test scores is a lie. When I lived in Washington state, the state government introduced the WASAL exam for students to graduate from high school and many students failed that test and the Washington state legislatures discontinued the test. Compare to the rest of the world American schools have poor quality of education. For example if a lawyer who had passed the bar in the US wouldn’t have not enough qualification to become a lawyer in the UK.

  6. segmation June 10, 2015 at 3:16 PM #

    Your blog makes me want to move now! One thing that is important to me when moving is that the area has lots of art and art activity! i hope your life includes art and art education!

  7. drquacky3 June 10, 2015 at 3:56 PM #

    Reblogged this on drquacky.

  8. Senatssekretär FREISTAAT DANZIG June 10, 2015 at 5:55 PM #

    Reblogged this on Aussiedlerbetreuung und Behinderten – Fragen.

  9. dannyapple June 10, 2015 at 6:00 PM #

    Reblogged this on dannyapple.

  10. reemhassan June 10, 2015 at 8:04 PM #

    This is a brilliant view point in issues in society. As previously commented, I also enjoyed reading the personal story you encorporated into the the post. I also believe success can be achieved through family support. With that anything can be achieved ❤ I hope you will visit my blog 🙂

  11. likands June 10, 2015 at 8:41 PM #

    Reblogged this on likands.

  12. liathegreater June 10, 2015 at 9:20 PM #

    Reblogged this on liathegreater.

  13. patrickhamp June 10, 2015 at 10:45 PM #

    I just moved into my first home 6 months ago. I completely understand your frustrations. Great blog!

  14. A Passionate Dreamer June 11, 2015 at 1:31 AM #

    Good to know. I’m planning a trip to check out nc. We’re looking to buy a house and I want to see my options

  15. Foghorn The IKonoclast June 11, 2015 at 1:57 AM #

    Very nice and quiet life… seemingly.

  16. aliaakash11 June 11, 2015 at 4:05 AM #

    Reblogged this on aliaakaash.

  17. oluzey June 11, 2015 at 4:44 AM #

    Reblogged this on BIENaija.

  18. lizclark851 June 11, 2015 at 9:03 AM #

    My brother is an urban planner and has faced many of these concerns, himself. Even without kids in the mix yet, Toronto living, especially when considering affordability is a very constant dilemma for residents. This blog was fantastically written and you’re very relatable. Good job

  19. shubhammalik01 June 11, 2015 at 12:19 PM #

    This is a brilliant piece of work. I really enjoyed reading your story. And I too believe that if you want to be successful, than family support makes a difference. 🙂

  20. srokuman June 11, 2015 at 1:11 PM #

    Ye

  21. Uy Do June 11, 2015 at 8:04 PM #

    Reblogged this on My Blog.

  22. langloisrealestateteam June 11, 2015 at 9:57 PM #

    Great information!

  23. Alyssa June 11, 2015 at 11:06 PM #

    Great post and welcome to the burbs. I identify with you as a city planner living in Northern Virginia.

    I was just having this conversation with an education policy expert. Very few cities control education, a fact you eluded to, so school districts (considered their own governments) need to begin to examine the role of place. I understand that is beginning to happen.

    In addition, however, there must be some incentive for suburban communities to become more inclusive in housing policy to ensure economic and social diversity in the schools. For example, where I live, an accessory dwelling unit is only allowable for the elderly or the disabled. It requires a special use permit which requires a public hearing with my neighbors. If you pass through those hoops and are granted a permit, it is only valid for five years. Not sure what happens then, but the intent is clear. NIMBY. Not in my schools. Not in my neighborhood.

    It will be interesting to see how our communities and schools as new classes of urbanist surbanites and the suburban urbanites develop.

  24. Stephen Mpuquin June 12, 2015 at 5:10 AM #

    Reblogged this on PUQUIN WORLD.

  25. mosharraflcc June 12, 2015 at 5:51 AM #

    nice

  26. walkingjournalist June 12, 2015 at 7:47 AM #

    Nice entry (didn’t have time to read the whole thing however, I have a comment about some of what was written. Totally agree, that when one’s children are of school age–it is really best to consider the schools first, when choosing neighborhood to move to. School is probably one of the most important factors in a child’s young life and even in a teenager’s life . Once school does not need to be considered, I would opt for a nice quiet place (almost country-)like, but yet close enough to shopping and city life so that one can have the best of both worlds.

  27. taralekatana June 12, 2015 at 8:00 AM #

    Reblogged this on TaraLekatana.

  28. Emmystein June 12, 2015 at 12:54 PM #

    Reblogged this on the chemistry of the world.

  29. Michelle June 12, 2015 at 4:09 PM #

    Reblogged this on whatevertheweather.com.

  30. David June 12, 2015 at 8:13 PM #

    I’m sure you have already read them, but check out Brent Toderian and Jeff Speck–two urban designers who really have a passion for the subject (as you do!).

  31. Carmen June 12, 2015 at 9:51 PM #

    Interesting read. Thanks!

  32. annamalaig10 June 13, 2015 at 4:24 AM #

    Reblogged this on acebook001 and commented:
    LIVING STYLE WITH NATURE

  33. Marie Lough June 13, 2015 at 7:59 AM #

    Very informative and thought provoking!

  34. Donkey Whisperer Farm, LLC June 13, 2015 at 11:26 AM #

    Congratulations making freshly pressed, not easy

  35. chadkmiller June 13, 2015 at 12:43 PM #

    My wife and I do not have kids, but I understand your dilemma. I teach in the suburbs and live urban. Our neighborhood has few kids, even though in Raleigh we have a magnet nearby. Maybe when they are in high school you can get “urban” again. Rage against the mini-van!

  36. BAP Blog June 13, 2015 at 6:21 PM #

    That’s pretty cool you consider all these things for your little ones. It’s not like that in many other families for one reason or another.

  37. chronicallyindecisive01 June 14, 2015 at 6:27 AM #

    Reblogged this on chronicallyindecisive01.

  38. addybobby June 15, 2015 at 11:41 AM #

    Reblogged this on morristreasuremall.

  39. Culture Cannon June 15, 2015 at 6:03 PM #

    Reblogged this on hannahglover.

  40. louismartin75 June 15, 2015 at 8:34 PM #

    This is a brilliant piece of work. I really enjoyed reading your story. And I too believe that if you want to be successful, than family support makes a difference. 🙂

  41. Roohi&Prachi June 16, 2015 at 12:46 PM #

    Great piece of work. your care towards your children and all the factors you have considered are really to be appreciated. Great thinking indeed.

  42. Château des Rêves June 17, 2015 at 7:40 AM #

    My sentiments exactly! I have missed urban living for decades. Growing up within walking distance from main square, book stores, ice cream parlors, library, small shops, etc made me long and crave for it the rest of my life… I hope that now that we are empty nesters we can go back and enjoy the city and old neighborhood feeling! The question remains, where?! Thank you for an excellent article.

    • ACoupleTalks August 4, 2015 at 12:44 AM #

      I would like to know where also. Everything in urban centers is so expensive! (I’m on the other coast in California.) I find it interesting you’re an urban designer living in suburbia. I hope you acclimate to trading a high walk score for cul-de-sac living. A yard sure is nice though. 🙂

  43. Château des Rêves June 17, 2015 at 7:46 AM #

    Reblogged this on CHÂTEAU DES RÊVES and commented:
    Excellent article about where to live and its benefits and challenges. Everything keeps pointing back to education, an obsolete and unfair school system and untapped resources.

  44. dukeofthecreek June 17, 2015 at 8:19 PM #

    Reblogged this on dukeofthecreek.

  45. Away From The Noise June 19, 2015 at 3:37 PM #

    After 20 years living in the city, I’m contemplating moving to the country/suburbs and so I found this really insightful and informative. Nice post.

  46. maghumman June 22, 2015 at 12:47 PM #

    Reblogged this on maghumman.

  47. Scott June 23, 2015 at 5:26 PM #

    There are always so many questions when you consider where your family will benefit the most. We’ve been there, but in many cases the choices were made for us – jobs, finances, safety. I wish you well.

  48. EnviroSolutions June 25, 2015 at 8:55 AM #

    This is a challenge for families worldwide. Great piece and congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  49. Kumaun Sabha Rohtak June 26, 2015 at 1:06 AM #

    good

  50. arannah June 26, 2015 at 11:27 AM #

    Reblogged this on arannah's Blog.

  51. oktavias June 26, 2015 at 7:51 PM #

    Reblogged this on oktavias8010.

  52. anijioforlawrence June 29, 2015 at 1:58 AM #

    Reblogged this on xdayschocolate.

  53. amanpan July 15, 2015 at 1:07 PM #

    Very much a challenge in today’s world. I am gad you addressed this and very nicely done, by the way.

  54. Arul July 22, 2015 at 4:43 PM #

    THUMBS UP!

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