Why What’s Best for Families is Also Best for Cities

Pittsburgh leaders showcase the region’s work at the National League of City's Summit on Your City's Families.

This week in Seattle, hundreds of city planners, mayors, school leaders, and influential community members from around the country are coming together at the National League of Cities Summit to focus on improving the lives of families with kids. The summit aims to help planners and policy makers examine data and develop new strategies to keep families central in urban development and planning.

While it might sound obvious that the well-being of families and children is at the heart of healthy communities, planning cities with families’ lives in mind isn’t always a go-to strategy for urban planners.

“Cities are rebuilding with an enthusiasm for attracting empty nesters and young urban professionals….” explained the American Planning Association in a 2008 memo. The push to attract young professionals comes from the notion that they’ll help spur economic growth and widen the tax base without using an abundance of city services. “But planning priorities that stem from this approach often ignore the needs of families with young children,” the memo continues.

For example, new public transit routes are almost always oriented to get people to work. But there’s a lack of routes to places equally as important for families like child care services, grocery stores and parks.

A recent article by Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres in City Journal argues that if cities want to keep their young professionals, they also have to figure out ways to welcome families. “The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own,” Kotkin and Modarres write.

One way to attract families that can sustain cities? Education. The crux of family-friendly cities is quality education systems that are inclusive of all kids—no matter where they live. That’s part of the Kids+Creativity Network’s goal in Pittsburgh, and to reach it we’re bringing together over 100 schools, cultural institutions, and afterschool programs to revolutionize the city’s learning ecosystem.

Pittsburgh’s libraries understand they’re a particularly crucial part of this ecosystem and have been long at work to become leaders in rethinking where learning takes place. Carnegie Library is home to Pittsburgh’s Learning Lab, a unique space packed with digital media tools that inspire teens to become creators and makers.

“Libraries and museums have always embraced their role as important parts of the learning ecosystem in cities,” Amy Eshleman, who is spearheading the expansion of Learning Labs around the country, told Remake Learning last summer.

Libraries are also a prime example of the ways social policy, urban planning, and education efforts constantly overlap. Kids from low-income families are too often behind their higher-income peers in reading comprehension, even before they start kindergarten. As a report from the Institute of Museum and Libraries explains, strengthening the country’s network of libraries and other out-of-school learning environments is a key to bridging that gap.

The NLC summit sees just as much potential in libraries to foster lifelong learning across cities. So much so that it’s hosting joint sessions with the Urban Libraries Council’s Partners for Success Conference. President and Director of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Mary Frances Cooper will be speaking on building a learning network in Pittsburgh, along with Gregg Behr from the Grable Foundation and Cathy Lewis Long, the executive director of the Sprout Fund.

Representatives from Hartford, St. Paul, San Diego, and Seattle will also be speaking to highlight successful public partnerships to support kids and families in their respective cities, including Seattle’s wonderful Roadmap Project, a regional effort to improve education for all kids from cradle to career.

Technologist John Seely Brown, self-proclaimed “chief of confusion,” renowned for his pioneering work at Xerox PARC and work on interplay between organizations, technology, and people will keynote, along with Sir Ken Robinson, an international leader in education and creativity.

The most-watched TED Talk presenter ever, Robinson’s work revolves around transforming the goal of education today. He stresses that creativity is as important as literacy in the 21st century and that educating students for a future we can’t predict requires a comprehensive approach from all sectors of society.

“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface,” Robinson said during his 2010 TED Talk on personalizing learning and nurturing creativity.

Solutions for making cities a great place for kids and families to prosper also aren’t laying around on the surface either; they’re much deeper and differ greatly in every region. But bringing different sectors together to figure out ways to keep families central can ensure a place for them in our cities’ futures.

Published November 11, 2013