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The city or the suburbs: which is better for kids?

By Alice Bradley

As readers of Finslippy probably know, Scott and I once lived in Brooklyn, where we wrestled with the nagging question: now that we’re a family, are we ethically and morally bound to live in the suburbs? It seemed to be a question that most people answered in the affirmative. Children need space, they said, and yards, and stoops that are maybe a little less peed-on than your average city stoop. Both sets of our parents echoed this sentiment. We had grown up in the suburbs, after all, and while we remembered the soul-crushing boredom that characterized our teenage years, we looked around us and saw disaffected teens in Brooklyn, too. Maybe, we thought, maybe it wasn’t the suburbs but our teenagey hormones that caused all that ennui. Maybe the suburbs would reward us in untold ways. And think of all the space we’d get.
We looked in the suburbs. And decided we couldn’t do it. A year later we looked again, and decided we could. And we did.
And now, dear readers, after having experienced suburban splendor for two years, we are asking ourselves: did we make the right choice? We’re not convinced that we did. I’m not going to argue that the suburbs are terrible and a cultural wasteland. We’ve made excellent friends, and we’ve found plenty of culture, when we went looking for it. There’s plenty here to recommend the lifestyle—it’s just not one that seems to fit us.
The driving lifestyle, primarily, is what bothers me. It significantly changes the rhythm and flow of everyday life. Driving everywhere, there’s little opportunity for the unexpected delight, the street fair you didn’t know about or the puppet show spontaneously being put on in the park. (Note: I never actually came across spontaneous park puppetry, in all my years in Brooklyn, but it seems like the sort of thing that could happen.) Being able to (or having to) walk everywhere changes the course of your day. When you’re walking with your child, you discover things. When you’re driving, you tune out until you reach your destination. When you’re bored in Brooklyn, you can head outside and see what’s going on. But in a driving culture, you see the people you plan to see, and do what you plan to do. No more, no less.
For Scott, it’s the house maintenance that he can’t handle. Everyone around us seems to enjoy tending to their homes. We resent it–and then carp at each other because the house doesn’t respond to our carping. Every little repair becomes a reason to bemoan our poor decision-making. Maybe our stoop was urine-scented, but at least we didn’t have to worry about our crumbling soffits. And I don’t think my son is benefiting from listening to our shouting and grumbling every weekend when another item needs fixing.
Then we think about the future, and those teenage years looming in the distant horizon. Frankly, we’re feeling right now that suburban ennui that we remembered from our teenagedom. Why would we put our son through that, when we could all be happier in what seems to be our natural environment?
On the other hand! (There’s always another hand.) There’s no question that the quality of our day-to-day home existence has improved. Henry has a playroom, which would have been unthinkable in the city. He can have multiple friends over and they can tear ass around the place without bothering the downstairs neighbors (or me). If we move back we’d have to sacrifice a lot of space—precious, precious space.
For most people there’s the big issue of schools. The suburban public schools, for the most part, are considered superior to the city’s. In this town, at least, we’re just not seeing that. The local school is fine, but doesn’t have the resources that our neighboring schools in Brooklyn did. (And next year we have to deal with a half-day kindergarten, which is a whole other topic that you don’t want me to go into because then I will write in ALL CAPS.) For preschool, however, we would have been driven into penury by the Brooklyn private schools, whereas here we had our pick of wonderful programs that, while not free, were far cheaper than anything we would have found in the city. For that reason alone, I don’t regret living here for these two years.
Schools aside, living in the city versus the suburbs is essentially a trade-off between public and private space. And we’re more public-space-seekers—preferring a park over a yard we have to maintain. Our feeling is that the best environment for our child is the place where we’d all be happy—that it’s not wrong to seek out our own happiness in addition to Henry’s.
What’s your take on the subject? Is the city better for a kid, or the suburbs? Where did you grow up, and how did you fare?

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

...

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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Guest
A

I grew up in the city and I love the city. I love cities, in general. Having lived in the city, I expect the same thing everywhere I go. As a 10 year old child I remember finding it hard to believe that other places didn’t have a subway system! Naive, yes, but that’s what I understood life to be. However, I grew up (and still live) in a Canadian city, Toronto, which, no offence, is safer than most, if not all, major American cities, including Brooklyn. We have our degenerate teenagers, and our shootings, stabbings whathave you, but that… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Thank you for putting into words what I struggle with articulating to my midwestern neighbors when asked what I miss about Brooklyn. “I miss not having to drive,” doesn’t explain what you’ve said so eloquently here. As for me, we would be on the fence, too, about whether our suburban life is better than Brooklyn, except for the big trump card: our kids’ grandparents are all here. If only we could convince them all to move to NYC – we’d be back in Brooklyn in a heartbeat.

jemma
Guest

The funny thing is, everyone who has actually lived in the city and raised a family has  a car and spends the weekends commuting outside of the city.

For me the myth of the no car city dweller is just that.

Check any major highway during the summer months, its an exodus. I would say that about equates to a slightly longer weekday commute.

As far as a child’s lifestyle. Well I grew up in the city and we were able to walk around on our own from 7 or 8 but that just doesnt happen today.

Isabel Kallman
Admin

Raises hand. City dweller. No car. There aren’t many like me, but we do exist. When we want to commute on the weekends, we rent a car. Much less expensive than having to pay for a garage all year long, etc.

Lilana
Guest

Why not try Philadelphia? It’s imminently more affordable than NY, less scary (in center city), you can get a pretty big single-family townhome (mine is 3,000 sq ft) and still have the benefit of the public transportation, culture, gorgeous parks, etc.
I grew up in the suburbs, and not only was there nothing to do, what little there was, I wasn’t allowed to do. Sure enough, I love the accessibility of the city, and wouldn’t give it up too easily for the suburbs anytime soon!

Mandee
Guest

I grew up in the country–the county in Georgia with the largest agricultural production in the state. Country, people. Ironically enough, that experience combines aspects of both city and suburban life. Because of it’s small size, we only had one high school in the entire county. Therefore, I was exposed to a much wider variety of people than if I had grown up in the suburbs. I definitely consider that one of the best things about growing up where I did–much more important than the space and the yards that we had.

cagey
Guest

I grew up in neither the city nor the suburbs. I grew up within small Kansas towns near enough to Lawrence (the University of Kansas) and Kansas City to be able to enjoy the amenities both had to offer. Throughout my childhood, we actually lived IN the town, or just outside of town in the country on 20 acres (no mules, though!) We now live in the suburbs and I do like it. I like having my own yard to roll around it. I refuse to have a swingset though, because we have several parks within walking distance and TONS… Read more »

braine
Guest

I write a whole blog about this, so how long a comment do you want? There are suburbs, and there are suburbs – and I prefer the right kind of suburb over the city. Our first suburban home was in a 1960s subdivision on a hill with no sidewalks, but with bravery and ten minutes to spare you could walk to a convenience store and a bus stop to New York. Our second (smaller, less expensive) home is on the edge of an exurban village within walking distance of a great pub, several excellent restaurants, two convenience stores, yoga place,… Read more »

suburbancorrespondent
Guest

I’m a middle-ground option person myself. I can’t stand living surrounded by concrete, yet I despise the suburbs where you absolutely have to drive everywhere. We live in a suburb about 35 miles outside a major metropolitan area, in a fantastic townhouse with lots of common area where the kids can play outside with each other; yet we’re on a bus line that allows my teens to get into the city (or other places). They can also bike to Starbucks or a bookstore or whereever. It’s an excellent compromise. Most places I need to get to are 10 minutes or… Read more »

amanda
Guest

Go with your gut. Neither the city nor the suburbs is inherently better for kids. You just have to live where your hearts are happy.
Best wishes.

lamech
Guest

Definitely definitely do what’s right for you. But, thanks for articulating what my partner and I find hard to describe to our suburb-loving friends and family. We’ve just bought a house downtown after talking and dreaming about it together for almost 10 years, and we can’t get ourselves and our kids down there fast enough. The suburbs just aren’t the right place for us–we know that for sure, having lived there for quite a while now–and that’s gotta be ok.

C in MN
Guest
C in MN

Definitely depends on your unique preferences and situation, but also on the region (in my opinion.) Here in the midwest, living in the city can still mean single family home/yard/a little space. Suburbs (other than the very old, established, closest-in ones) tend to be beige, boring, lacking in sidewalks yet replete with big box retail. Minneapolis is a spectacularly livable city with great parks within walking distance to virtually any home, coffee shops and cafes just a stroll down the street. Many “safe” neighborhoods… decent schools. Lakes. Etc. I would argue that Minneapolis proper is better for kids because it… Read more »

Fairly Odd Mother
Guest

It drives me crazy that sidewalks disappeared in our suburb. We live within walking distance to an ice cream shop, a supermarket, 3 drugstores, post office, etc. But, walking to them is dangerous alone, stupid with kids who tend to wander as they walk. That said, I do love our home and our space. The kids can go outside and play, without me having to take them anywhere and then watch them like a hawk. They have room for privacy in our house. It’s quiet and, someday, I may even get chickens (yes, this is something I aspire to). But.… Read more »

Mauigirl
Guest

I hear you – there are definitely tradeoffs for each. I actually did not grow up in a normal “suburb” for 5 of the most important years of my youth (age 9 to 14). I lived in upstate New York in a more rural area and I loved the woods and the outdoors. Suburbs are kind of the worst of both worlds – not outdoorsy enough to equal “woods” and all the fun they can provide, but not citified enough to have those interesting experiences and adventures that city dwellers have. And by the way, if you think you’re the… Read more »

Mauigirl
Guest

Just want to also say I didn’t mean to sound so negative about the suburbs – obviously since we’ve lived in one for 21 years it does have much to offer and we enjoy it. And at least there are sidewalks and a few stores we can walk to, and being near the city helps. The main thing is the great friends we’ve made in our town and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

P&P
Guest
P&P

I’m a reluctant suburbanite; the cost of housing in my East Coast city is so astronomical, that I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat if I lived in the city. However, what bothers me about urban living is re-gentrification. Once upon a time, I lived in a blue-collar city neighborhood where there were no street fairs or puppet shows, but there was a grocery store within walking distance, elderly lifetime residents who thought nothing of signing for a package and roller blading teens dressed as glow in the dark skeletons on Halloween. Alas, upscale families with small children moved… Read more »

No Refills Left
Guest

In Detroit, we have one of the worst suburban sprawl epidemics in the country. Though close to 5 million people live here in southeastern Michigan, less than 1 million of those actually live in Detroit, and the numbers are falling. We live in the city in a neighborhood built just before WWII. Lots of bungalos. Lots of trees. Lots of kids. Most of the OTHER 4 million Michiganians living in the tricounty area (suburbanites) think that our biggest struggle here in the city is crime. Problem #1 is actually transportation. Living in the motorcity S-U-C-K-S during this current oil crisis.… Read more »

Mom101
Guest

Hm, if I defend Brooklyn that’s a problem for you. If I defend the suburbs that’s a prlbem for me.
I think the answer is to be really rich and have a place in the city and a summer house in the Berkshires.

Heather
Guest
Heather

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and my husband and I have lived in the city for the last several years. We’re expecting a baby in November, and we intend to stay put. Childcare is INSANE (it’s like taking on a second mortgage), and we obviously don’t have a yard, but it’s great to live right by a park, and we feel like one of the major benefits to our child will be growing up around different kinds of people. Our suburban hometown had great schools, but it also only came with one kind of person- white, upper… Read more »

Rainey
Guest

Hey…this is a great post! Living in a small-ish town in Virginia, the suburbs are steadily encroaching on our life here but haven’t made enough of an impact to cause any real lifestyle dilemmas.
Have you seen the Canadian documentary “Radiant City?” It is all about the suburb/city split. Sounds up your alley!

Sonja
Guest

I grew up in the suburbs, but it was a fairly closed community (not elite, but little townhouses on a dead end street), so I could go outside and find people, and it had somewhat of a city feel in that sense. Now I live in a big city, in a little “rowhome” and I absolutely love it, especially for my kids, and especially for being able to go out front and see our neighbors and the other kids, and we all hang out all the time, and it’s great. I think I’d go crazy in the suburbs. There’s so… Read more »

Kristin
Guest
Kristin

I live near downtown Raleigh, NC, and I think I have the best of both worlds. The entire city of Raleigh is a suburb compared to NYC, but I do live in a neighborhood with sidewalks and parks where I can walk to a grocery store, a library, an elementary school, a college campus and a whole bunch of stores and restaurants. We have great city pools, public parks and museums, within a few miles of our house. We still have to drive many places (although if I could get more motivated, I could definitely bike to many of them)… Read more »

Rebecca
Guest

I hear you loud and clear. We were suburban through-and-through — both raised in the burbs and well on our way to a lifetime of better living through barbecues and carpools. Then we got transfered to London for 2 years with our young children and got to live the urban dream. No car… no home repairs… I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been fabulous. We’re due to return to our suburban NJ life next month and I find myself increasingly concerned that it’s just not going to work for me any more. I must admit, I’ve been casually… Read more »

gman
Guest

I live in the suburbs and always have. And I love it. I like having my own space to do anything I want to do. Last year I lived in town (still in a suburb) and could walk to the schools, grocery store, and shopping, as all were within a mile. But I hated being so close to neighbors and the house was too small. So we built a new home on 3/4 of an acre in what will one day be a large neighborhood but is currently only half complete. But we are further from everything. It is about… Read more »

Chaotic Joy
Guest

I have always thought myself a city person trapped in a suburban life. I do not care for yard work or want a bigger home. I want easy access and restaurants and parks I can walk to. I find the driving lifestyle and 2 car garages of the suburbs isolating. And competitive in ways I would never want to compete. But I have four children, something I love and chose and could not manage (or maybe just afford to manage) in the city. And so while other families are dreaming of a home in the country or at the lake… Read more »

Inzaburbs
Guest

We were city people, although we actually both grew up in small towns. But with three children we wanted the space only the suburbs could provide. I have to say that although we live in the exburbs, our subdivision is very established and close to shopping. Not walking distance, but we still have a great choice of commerce within 5 minutes drive in all directions. So we manage to keep driving to a minimum. We were also very careful to choose a subdivision where we can walk safely. People walk around the neighborhood all the time and kids pass constantly… Read more »

Elizabeth
Guest
Elizabeth

Rather than “suburb” we prefer “village.” They may not be the same thing. I have a 1/4 acre and since my house was built in 1868 right on the edge of the street, the yard is maximized. I have three large dogs and two children. I could stand to have fewer dogs (life happens), but at least one feels like a necessity to me. The yard is completely fenced and when the kids go out the door (5 and 3) I don’t have to panic (immediately, anyway). I can walk to a commuter rail train, the local grocery store, two… Read more »

Jennifer
Guest

We go back and forth on this, and back and forth again. We are currently in a very good place right now, technically in a medium-sized European town, but just at the edge, so there is green. We can walk or ride our bikes to beautiful public parks, but I still have to drive more than I’d like. That said, we are seriously considering moving back to the big city (Milan) where we lived before our son was born, mainly for my husband’s job. I am freelance, and the move wouldn’t change much for me except that I wouldn’t have… Read more »

Amy
Guest

Oh my. I’ve been thinking about all this recently — and I’m not even in the “suburbs” — I’m in Queens, NY. But we’re thinking of moving into Manhattan. I’m worried that we’re going to lose the diversity… and that Manhattan is becoming a city of the very rich and the very poor… And I love the idea of a yard.

christina (apronstrings)
Guest

This is such a good question. We live in the city, but a much smaller city than NYC (where we moved from) and plan on buying at least 20 acres in the middle of nowhere. I want my children to know what it is like to be alone in the woods.
No matter what decision you make-it will never be perfect. All we can do is try.

superblondgirl
Guest

I grew up in suburbia/the country, but I love the city and wish I could afford to live in one. I do see benefits to growing up with a big yard and all that, but the museums and the culture and stuff also tempt me so! I’m really torn between which I’d prefer. When I see my son wandering around in a stream at a campsite, or out swinging by our garden in the yard, or when we drive 2 minutes to the beach, I feel like suburbia is the obvious choice for kids. But then we go to Boston… Read more »

miep
Guest
miep

My partner and I had a lot of qualms about buying our house in the first ring suburbs of Minneapolis. I had lived in Mpls since graduating from an arty-farty college on the east coast, and my partner moved here from Fargo after a childhood spent in western PA and Long Island and Texas. Moving to the suburbs meant a loss of diversity and increased fear of homophobia. But. But we are a five minute drive (or a 20 minute bike ride) from the neighborhood we used to live in, and our neighborhood here has some other gay people, a… Read more »

Kat
Guest

I live in Chicago with my one-year-old. He went from crawling to running in a heartbeat. Suddenly, I’m looking around my condo, thinking “how am I going to CONTAIN him?” He’s loud. He’s active. I would love to have the luxury of being able to open the back door and shoo him outside without having to load up the stroller and lug it down three flights of stairs. However, besides the space issue, it’s really crime that is making me think about moving to the suburbs. These days, most of the safe neighborhoods in the city are more expensive than… Read more »

jdg
Guest

jesus alice your readers here are awesome. the post by P&P above brought up the whole gentrification issue that I think that rarely gets discussed in the whole city versus suburb debate. for whatever reason, huge swaths of several generations of Americans have been raised outside of cities, though their family’s roots were in cities and not rural environments. sometimes when I talk about culture I don’t mean museums or galleries or coffee shops with folksingers or spoken word artists, etc. I mean culture as a sort of conservative rootedness and passing down of tradition. we cultural elites love the… Read more »

sara
Guest
sara

These comments sound like they came right from Stuff White People Like.

Laura
Guest
Laura

I think one problem while looking at this, um, problem is we’re comparing THE CITY to THE SUBURBS. What about a town like Princeton, NJ? (I’m not too familiar with New Jersey, but I’ve driven through Princeton.) You could probably afford a house with a small yard, half-a-mile/a-mile from the town center. Then you could walk to shops, the playground, etc. I grew up in Schenectady – a small city near Albany, NY. I loved it. My family lived on the outskirts of the city, right near the suburban (Niskayuna) border, but also right near Schenectady’s Central Park, right near… Read more »

Loona
Guest
Loona

We moved from Manhattan to suburban NJ last summer, just before the birth of our twins. Our suburb (Passaic) is very walking-oriented. I own a car but go nearly everywhere on foot. It allows for the more spontaneous encounters and interactions you described.

dorothy
Guest

Dear Alice: I will now be an assvicey commenter, because I know how you love that. Henry’s school-age now. Go back to Brooklyn. You did the right thing for preschool – but you can always change your mind. Life’s an adventure. Seize the day! Damn the space! We ended up moving to the suburbs because a) as Cagey said, KCMO’s school district is BAD and b) I’ve always wanted to live by a lake so I can take my little 1974 AMF Puffer sailboat out and twee around on the water on the weekends. The rest of the suburb stuff… Read more »

qwyneth
Guest
qwyneth

Honestly, it’s about what you prefer. There are good and bad points of both. My husband and I found this wonderful area just outside the city but right next to a small state park. It’s also a nice walk outside of a lovely little 18th century town. Even crazier, it’s economically and racially diverse. We would love to live in the city, but we love nature more. We love seeing deer and foxes in our backyard, and we love that our son can safely explore in the woods for hours on end. When we eventually buy a house (we’re renting… Read more »

Beth
Guest
Beth

Hmmm. I grew up in a student slum, neither the suburbs nor the city, but it was good to be near a college campus. Now I’m in a sleepy neighborhood in San Francisco — my partner bought before it gentrified. Even though the real estate is “hot,” it’s so hilly that many people don’t bother with it, so it feels like an actual community. But I have to drive everywhere anyway and we can’t afford to eat out anywhere nearby. Bummer. But then again I’m spared both the competitive suburban soccer mom thing AND, thank god, the competitive hipster mom… Read more »

Crystal
Guest
Crystal

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told how lucky I was to grow up in such a cool city as Austin, Tx. Austin is essentially one long, linear, suburb with suburbs. Sorry, Austin, I conceed you have some great hang outs and food. But when my brother and I both reached 16, we had 5 cars in our driveway! Yep, one for each memeber of the family and one extra in case one broke down – because life stopped if you didn’t have a car. That’s how I thought life had to be…essentially anywhere in the United… Read more »

otrgirl
Guest

We grew up in inner-city Cincinnati and loved it. As a child I had times of embarrassment or frustration with living there, but it had more to do with being in a poverty community than being in the city. Cincinnati has great alternative public schools, so I had a wonderful public Montessori elementary school and the best school in the city for 7-12. My husband grew up in Staten Island, but went to Stuyvesant for high school. We’re now living in the burbs on the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. It’s confirmed for both of us that we’re… Read more »

Denise
Guest

I think the city is definitely better for me, but we can’t afford the space we want in any of the cities we are near. We have compromised by living in a very small town (technically a city, but with a very small-town feel) near the coast. We live in the center of town and walk most places, and we also got a house without a yard because, like you, we just take no pleasure in it at all. So we walk to the library, restaurants, coffee shops, schools, stores, etc. I still feel absolutely bereft, because despite growing up… Read more »

Phebe
Guest
Phebe

I just had to add that we once *did*come upon a puppet show in a park in Brooklyn and my daughter loved it. So it can happen.

twennytwo
Guest

@OTRgirl: Go Eagles! Are you a ‘Nut, too? I too grew up in Cincinnati, (truly great public magnet programs- I was in the language and switched to the best HS in the region for 9-12) but I’ve lived in a small Alabama town as well as in East Coast and Caribbean cities and towns. I struggled with this question because of the frustrations I faced as a kid- Cincinnati may be a city, but the public transport is NOT up to par. It’s improving, but it’s no DC or NYC. Not all cities are alike. I can say that I… Read more »

Rachel
Guest
Rachel

i grew up in nyc, on the lower east side, and still live in nyc, just in morningside heights. while i’d love more space, for us its no question – we would hate the burbs. i don’t even drive! the house maintenance thing also terrifies us. and i think the school issues are way overblown – we absolutely intend to send our daughters (now 3 and 6mos) to public school. do what feels right for you.

niko
Guest
niko

I think living in the suburbs is better cause the city life is so disturbing with all those crowded places and enrmous traffic jam.Actually, I was born in city and raised there till my first grade. When I were six,I had to moved to the suburbs and that’s when i fell in love with country life.Then, i came back to the city and still living here, but I always wanted to live in the country life which is a real heaven for me.

beth
Guest
beth

I grew up about 4 blocks outside of Chicago, and my husband grew up on a very small island. We just made an offer on our very first place – right in the middle of the city, directly across from a park and next to a subway stop. Wouldn’t change our minds for the world (or a bigger apartment).

Jennifer
Guest
Jennifer

Fascinating blog; fascinating comments. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, an idyllic city-town which – ask anyone who knows Portland – is the “perfect place to grow up” (if you discount the sore lack of minorities and annoying smugness!). The job market there is terrible, though, and due to the nature of my husband’s job we’ve been transferred twice since my son was born. Now, we’re living in what at first seemed to be another “idyllic” small town only 15 miles from a major Canadian metropolis while my husband works up here for a couple of years. It seemed idyllic:… Read more »

Henri
Guest
Henri

I’m telling you, the city beats the suburbs any day. How well can a child grow to be a good adult when they live in an area full of houses and malls? Schools in the suburbs get better scores, but schools in the city bring up children better.

Mira
Guest
Mira

I loved reading your blog and comments. Have you moved to the city yet?
We are going back and forth ALL the time. We are in tge suburbs now. Unfortunately, my husband job is in the suburbs and unless he changes it, we wouldn’t move to the city. However, I would move to the city in a heartbeat even with two small kids. I don’t need much space(I hate cleaning) and I love walking!

michele
Guest

My husband and I live in the suburbs with our three young children, and we HATE it. We hate it for many of the same reasons you do: car dependence, yard/house work (that is expensive and endless, by the way),isolation and plain boredom.

The schools aren’t the amazing mythical ones that are constantly talked about as selling points on leaving the city either. The kids are bored in the backyard–they’d rather go to the park anyway, and so would I.

My hus