How Philly Can Keep Millennials in the City After They Have Kids

Asking twentysomethings to patiently wait for improvements won't work.

You may have noticed, but American cities are currently in the midst of a population renaissance. As my generation continues to ditch its cars and suburban boulevards for fixies and city streets, the metropolitan lifestyle continues to become just a little more mainstream. In fact, the population of Greater Center City alone, the area bound by the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and Tasker Street and Girard Avenue, has grown more than 10 percent in the past decade.

But now, as a recent USA Today report notes, the focus for cities is shifting to keeping millennials in city limits once they’re there. As the twentysomethings age, the inclination recent generations have had to move out of cities to raise their families looms large. That population boom brought construction, press and money to many once-dilapidated areas, and the worry is that familial flight syndrome could ruin all that progress.

As Artists & Instigators founder Wayne Kimmel pointed out at last weekend’s Philly Mag ThinkFest, young people are Philadelphia’s greatest asset. Cities should be scrambling to keep them, but not without looking at why we millennials migrated to cities in the first place. From there, it’s a matter of adapting those initial attractors to a family lifestyle.

I’m from Delaware County, so the first thing that attracts me to Philly is that it isn’t Delaware County. I love my ancestral homeland, believe me, but it is not conducive to the type of lifestyle that twentysomethings tend to want to lead—at least not as much as a city like Philadelphia. So if what we need to do is foster a downtown sector that can compete with the Pat’s Pizza’s and Ruby Tuesday’s of my suburbia, it shouldn’t be that hard. MacDade Boulevard sucks, anyway.

But then, entertainment isn’t really a problem for Philly. That’s not keeping people out or turning them off in the same way that, say, our horrifying murder rates might. Then there’s the school system that’s FUBAR, a shameful level of poverty, abandoned buildings that could be affordable housing (right, Ori?), and fewer parks than would be desirable for moms and dads (… Ori?). Philly, I love you, but these are the things that drive people away.

Cities generally, ours included, have historically focused on drawing in those 18- to 24-year-olds with classes to attend (or not) and excess money to burn. Sure, that’s worked in the short-term to pull some derelict neighborhoods out of the toilet—lookin’ at you, Fishtown. Now, though, as the gastropubs and quirky shops lose their powerful draw to the need for grocery stores and day care, cities like Philly are experiencing a little bit of premature separation anxiety. Rightfully so—just imagine all those potential tax dollars funneling back to the burbs.

To put it into perspective, Philly has the third largest downtown population of any major city behind New York and Chicago. Most of that population nationwide comes from empty-nested baby boomers and millennials, but proportionally more of the young set. After all, there are only 77 million baby boomers compared to the 86 million millennials in the US today.

So what can cities do to keep us here? Well, how about taking those tax dollars and funneling them toward all those aforementioned things that keep people out in the first place? Maybe allow land developers to easily purchase city-owned land to account for the increased housing demand most recently surrounding Center City (PolicyShop has some tips there). Actually try to elevate our public school system to a level that produces graduates in numbers comparable to the burbs. Implement advanced technology to help make our officers more efficient and lower crime rates to unintimidating levels for new parents.

Easier said than done, yes. But isn’t that attitude why millennials might want to leave in the first place? We’re a  values-driven group that is highly impatient (thanks, Internet!), so if we can’t get safety, education and housing for our coming families in Philly or some other city, we’ll get it somewhere else. In the USA Today piece, author Richard Florida estimates that roughly 60 to 70 percent of millennials might leave for the suburbs as they age and start families. Less than previous generations, but even if that’s so, Philly is still facing some trouble.

Then again, maybe population is cyclical. Young people move to cities, have kids, leave the cities to raise the kids, then the kids move to the city and the process begins all over again. Cities, from that perspective, are a young person’s arena, not fit for the fragile nuclear family structure that requires so much nurturing in such an unforgiving setting. But given the Center City population boom, along with increased demand for homes in the area, evidence indicates otherwise.

In that sense, we’d be wise to strike a balance between the restaurants, bars and social activities that drew people like me here in the first place, and the family-oriented aspects of city living like housing, schools and low crime levels that would keep us here. Not doing so is merely the difference between having a whole lot of Philadelphians over a whole lot of former Philadelphians. Either way, my generation’s gotta stay somewhere.