Building Children Out of Our Cities

Posted by Tiffany Eng on January 25, 2016

Last fall, the City of Oakland, Ca. launched a planning process to shape the future of its downtown. SPUR, a regional planning nonprofit, published a report titled, A Downtown for Everyone: Shaping the Future of Downtown Oakland. In it, the authors lay out bold recommendations focused on making Downtown more developer, transit, and business friendly.

As I read the report, one oversight really hit a nerve: there is nary a reference to making downtown more family friendly.

In the report, the words “business,” “companies,” or “office” are used over 200 times. In contrast, “families,” “family,” or “children” appear only 10 times. Even San Francisco across the Bay got 88 mentions, and “parking” got big shoutouts—over 80 of them. A scan of other recent reports reveal similar and dismaying blind spots in our local planning efforts.

I moved downtown 13 years ago and for the last six of those years, my husband and I raised our two daughters and dog in a two bedroom condo in the Old Oakland neighborhood. We loved it because it’s an incredibly convenient and friendly place to raise a family downtown. We could bike our daughters to affordable daycare, walk to work, shop at small businesses and local farmers markets, and spend hours at the nearby public libraries and parks. Six generations of my family have grown up and grown old downtown, in and around Chinatown, but the reality is that while there have always been incredible family-friendly amenities and quality schools, there are hardly any family-sized housing options available nowadays.

So it’s no surprise that early last year we reluctantly moved to the edge of town where we could find a little more space for our growing girls. We traded our 2-kid hauler bike for a second car and more than tripled our commute time. But we’re not the only ones. Over the last 13 years, I've bid farewell to many families of all incomes being sized and priced out of downtown and the city altogether. Unfortunately, our current housing crisis has only accelerated the outward migration.

It’s been said that children are the indicator species of urban health and great neighborhoods, and by this measure, Oakland is in trouble.

According to, the number of children in our city dropped 16 percent between 2000 and 2013, more than almost every other large city and four times faster than the county. Oakland also has one of the lowest percentages of youth of the top 50 largest cities.

Without incentives or requirements to include affordable or family-sized units, developers have been building a disproportionate number of studio lofts and luxury one-bedroom units that fetch higher per square foot rents and prices. Over the past 15 years, Oakland added over 2,200 condos downtown, but only 47 of them were three bedrooms. Compared to our last cycle, our current housing pipeline has an even greater share of studio and one bedrooms, and the 2 bedroom units are smaller. It’s no wonder most young families leave downtown to find a home that will better accommodate their needs.

But there’s hope. As other cities like Vancouver, Oslo, and Seattle have shown, there are compounding benefits that come with including families of all ages and incomes. As the Seattle Planning Commission has reported, building family-sized housing downtown for all incomes furthers race and social justice goals by reducing household transportation costs and increasing housing affordability near jobs. More families downtown increase urban density and reduces the region’s environmental footprint. And family sized housing options downtown also creates greater economic competitiveness and fuels hyper local spending.

So how can we build a downtown that is more family friendly? Here are my recommendations:

  • Engage parents, youth, and family friendly advocates. Family friendly cities are intentionally created when they are included in the visioning and design process, as evidenced in New Zealand, where youth designed a playground kids will love and central district everyone can enjoy. More coordination is also needed to bring the school district and leaders of downtown youth and family serving organizations into planning conversations.
  • Encourage the development of more “family-sized” housing. We need a lot more three bedroom units and housing for all ages, all incomes, and a range of household sizes. San Francisco set a minimum unit mix in transit districts and downtown Emeryville is now offering incentives. Without larger sized units where households can naturally age in place, neighborhood turnover happens at a faster pace, and it is much harder to build a connected community. 
  • Infuse family friendly and flexible design principles into the planning review. Being family friendly is a fundamental value we need to adopt for our City and implement in part through design. Let’s build more playful public spaces, more outdoor family dining and more street art by our youth. Developers should also be encouraged to design units using family-friendly design guidelines and flexible design principles allowing households to reconfigure their units as their needs change.
  • Make sure downtown is safe for our children. Anything less is not acceptable for anyone. Families living downtown will not "destroy urban nightlife," as some planners fear. On the other hand, car break-ins, gun violence and unsafe street conditions around restaurants, entertainment venues and nightclubs will dampen nightlife and all other business activity. Downtown residents habituate to most urban sounds, but no one ever gets used to the sound of gunfire--our parks, streets, sidewalks and transit should be safe for everyone, all day and all night long.

Last year, at our statewide affordable housing conference, Kent Larson, a futurist at the MIT Media Lab, spoke at length about the cities of tomorrow. It was an entertaining peek into the future, with self-driving bots, urban farms on skyscrapers and innovation corridors attracting the young and smart. But when an audience member asked, “Where do children and families fit in?” His initial glib response was something to the effect of, “Aren’t they all in the suburbs?” This made my heart sink, having just been sized out of downtown a month earlier. I know a lot of families prefer the suburbs, but that doesn’t mean we should build up our cities to exclude them.  

Oakland is rapidly changing, but with leadership, engagement, and careful planning, we can and should do everything possible to keep children and youth in the city. A family friendly downtown is in all of our best interests. 

Photo credit: Martin Luther King Day children’s teach-in event in downtown Oakland, by Tiffany Eng.

About the author more »

Tiffany Eng is the program director for HomeKeeper, a Salesforce web application designed to help affordable housing programs better manage information and measure impact and currently oversees product development, marketing and member outreach.

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Ian Rees
2 Feb 16, 7:53 pm

Oakland has an incredibly large and diverse stock of single family housing, available for several miles around downtown. Many of these neighborhoods have excellent, high quality transit access to both downtown Oakland and San Francisco, both via AC Transit bus and BART, with a new BRT line through East Oakland opening soon and additional ‘BRT/BRT-lite’ upgrades planned soon. Infill developers are also trying to deliver new single family homes on subdivided lots (although this process is bureaucratically slow and involved), and new single family homes continue to be built in the hills. All this is to say that Oakland has a deep stock of existing housing for families—even at relatively affordable prices such as in my neighborhood in East Oakland—but what is desperately missing is rental units for singles, couples, and the people moving to the Bay Area for the jobs boom.

Tiffany Eng
5 Feb 16, 2:47 am

Thank you Ian for taking the time to respond.  Not every family wants to live in a low-density neighborhood or single family home. Like other singles and couples moving downtown, some families are drawn to the convenience of living in a dense and walkable urban community.  Also, some singles (like me in 2002) start out with a roommate, but eventually want to get married and start a family in the same neighborhood.  Unlike many other cities, Oakland has quality daycares, schools, parks and organizations that families want downtown.

From what I’ve seen and experienced in Oakland, a community is sustained when neighbors can get to know each other and work together over time to make their corner of the city a better place. The families of the Santa Fe neighborhood organizing to get a neighborhood school are a good example of what can be accomplished by connected neighbors planning on sticking around.  But the reality is that it’s hard for many folks to sink roots into a community when there is a constant churn of residents living in an apartment building of studios and one bedrooms. People shouldn’t have to change neighborhoods just because they decide to move in with a partner (or even 2 roommates), get married, start a family, hire a live-in caregiver or accommodate an aging parent. Simply put, your household size should not determine your zip code. I believe a more diverse neighborhood housing stock built for households of all incomes, ages and a range of household sizes create vibrant communities for all of us to grow up and grow old.

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