Are Schools and Family the Keys to Revitalization?

by Gary G. Hamer, AICP

Do you remember when you and your spouse found out that you were having your first child? If you are like me, you probably reveled in the news and then began working on the flood of concerns circulating through your brain. Day care, family-friendly transportation, and the nursery are a few that come to mind right away. But probably somewhere down that list — and maybe a few months removed from the moment — the question of where this child would attend school came into focus. It is not surprising how as parents your values, perceptions, and concerns can immediately be replaced by very practical questions.

These questions have serious long-term implications for both families and revitalizing cities around the country. My spouse and I confronted this question and set about searching out an affordable neighborhood school that had a good reputation and high test scores, among other criteria. We identified a centrally located area that ended up being an affordable, family-friendly neighborhood with a great school within walking distance. We were lucky enough that we did not have to leave the city we love to find such a place.

Defining the Issue

However, many parents confronting the same issue in communities across the country are not as fortunate as my spouse and I were, and in some cases are forced to choose education over superior urban quality of life. The issue in its current form is different from the rapid suburbanization and social issues of the civil rights era that started many urban schools districts on their current path. In its current form, the issue for families is about finding a high-quality education, not escaping perceived urban ills. As cities contemplate their revitalization, the issue is where to place their focus: attracting young professionals; creating family-friendly livable communities; or a multi-pronged strategy that enables people to live from the cradle to the grave.

Choice within Our Communities and the Economic Crisis

John Norquist, current president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, is an ardent supporter of school choice and its potential to provide an alternative to families considering their options. Although the merits of school choice and vouchers will not be debated here, Norquist suggests that urban fortunes depend largely on school success and retaining young families. Norquist in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal opines that communities that embrace this approach can stem the tide of young couples leaving urban cities for the perceived benefits of suburban school districts (Norquist 2011). Norquist uses the example of a theoretical couple who moves to St. Louis and takes up residence in one of its many revitalizing neighborhoods. Although they enjoy urban life, they leave the city as their first child reaches school age to seek better educational opportunities. Norquist has made this point in numerous speeches and articles, suggesting that communities throughout the Rust Belt and Midwest could reverse their population declines by utilizing the voucher approach authorized by the Wisconsin legislature in August 2001 and implemented by the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Urban cities and school districts across the country are struggling under recessionary budget cuts, decreased state and federal funding, and declining enrollments. Tulsa (Oklahoma) Public Schools recently announced the closing of 14 schools as part of its Project Schoolhouse initiative and the redistribution of students throughout the district, citing decreasing enrollments and funding constraints. Project Schoolhouse is projected to save $5 million a year. The initiative is a dramatic but courageously optimistic approach to reinvigorate the district, put it on a sustainable path, and, most importantly, enrich the lives of the students the district serves. In March 2010, Kansas City Public Schools announced it would close half of its schools and cut 700 jobs from its payroll to close a $50 million budget gap (Saulny 2010). Mayor Dave Bing in Detroit, facing very similar circumstances, closed 29 schools in the fall of 2009 in part because of Detroit's rapidly shrinking population and a very large budget gap. What are the demographic trends in the communities Norquist cites (and others around the country) that have developed or announced initiatives to address their struggling public schools?


Data in Table 1 reveal the depth of the trouble facing Detroit, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, which lost a combined 295,000 people over the 10-year period between census tallies. Chicago experienced almost a 7 percent decline in population and has its fair share of economic troubles, but it is a major international city with a superior quality of life. It serves as a hub for international and financial market trade and draws its fair share of the coveted young professionals, which may place it as an outlier. It is hard to draw any conclusions from Tulsa and Milwaukee's totals, which are relatively unchanged. Kansas City and Wichita both experienced reasonably positive growth, but the fortunes of their schools are vastly different. Exploring the total change in school-age population may provide a better indication of how these communities fared over the past decade.

Table 1. Population Change 2000 to 2010 Selected Big Cities

City 2000 2010 Change % Change
Chicago 2,896,016 2,695,590 -200,426 -6.92%
Detroit 951,270 713,777 -237,493 -24.97%
Kansas City, Missouri 441,545 459,787 18,242 4.13%
Milwaukee 596,974 594,833 -2,141 -0.36%
Pittsburgh 334,563 305,704 -28,859 -8.63%
St. Louis 348,189 319,294 -28,895 -8.30%
Tulsa 393,049 391,906 -1,143 -0.29%
Wichita 344,284 382,578 38,294 11.12%

Source: United States Bureau of the Census. 2011. 2010 Census Redistricting Data. Summary File. Table P1.

School-age population data in Figure 1 further illuminate the nature of the population changes in the sample cities. The data confirms the scale of the crisis in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Detroit, which experienced 25.2 percent, 11.1 percent, and 17 percent declines, respectively, in their under-18 populations during the 2000 to 2009 timeframe. Combined, these cities lost approximately 77,000 school-age residents. Tulsa and Milwaukee lost a combined 12,000 residents under 18, representing 3 percent and 5.4 percent declines, respectively. Norquist suggests that school choice in Milwaukee partially reversed this trend and, without it, the decline would have been significantly more severe. Chicago experienced a 12 percent, or 90,000, decline in people under 18 years during this period. Wichita and Kansas City experienced 3.3 percent and 1 percent gains in their 18-and-under populations.

Percent Change Under-18 Age Population, 2000-2009, Selected Cities
Figure 1    
Percent Change Under-18 Age Population, 2000-2009, Selected Cities. Source: United States Bureau of the Census. July 2009. State and County Quick Facts.


What does this review of census data reveal about these communities? Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Detroit, with their manufacturing legacies and severe overall population declines, are likely being impacted by a convergence of factors, education being one of several but not the sole concern. Tulsa and Milwaukee appear to be stable but not experiencing robust or even modest growth, while both communities have experienced strong population expansions within their respective Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).  It is possible that improvement in these cities' educational systems may prove to be catalysts to spur economic growth. Obviously, Kansas City faired pretty well over the last decade as both its overall population and under-18 populations experienced growth. However, the prospect of Kansas City Public Schools is starkly different, as noted above, and certainly represents an opportunity. As with Tulsa and Milwaukee, Kansas City's efforts at revitalizing its public school system may provide additional lift to the local economy.

What about Wichita? Wichita, which experienced an 11.1 percent increase in its overall population and a 3.3 percent gain in its under-18 population, would seem to be a community worth emulating. Wichita has invested heavily in its school system, has a competitive advantage due to its smaller MSA, and has undertaken a number of entertainment and family-focused economic development initiatives. The city and county have both contributed to stadium, museum, and entertainment district improvements along the Arkansas River and downtown.

Recently, Nicola Bulgari, scion of the Bulgari jewelry enterprise, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that Chicago was the most beautiful American city (Kaufman 2011). Chicago, renowned for its museums, parks, architecture, and, of course, Lake Shore Drive (not to mention a gaggle of professional sports teams and the home of international commodities trading), shrank 7 percent in total population over the last decade. Its school-age population declined by 12 percent. Chicago, with its diversified job opportunities and great quality of life, would seem to be an attractive destination for the sought-after creative class. Chicago, by most popular definitions, is the city all others should aspire to be.

What about the Creative Class?

The creative class has been trotted out by numerous organizations, pundits, and planning consultants as the holy grail of economic fortunes (Florida 2002). Repeatedly, the notion that cities ultimately will succeed or fail based on their ability to attract the creative class has been cited in planning studies and comprehensive plan recommendations throughout the country. Should this be a key component to a community's revitalization strategy or an integrated part of the whole?  We have looked at the data with regards to school-age population, but what about young professionals and aging baby boomers? How do these demographic groups figure into urban prosperity? Additionally, if a city's population is shrinking, are there enough young professionals across the country to reverse this trend?

Interim population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, shown in Figure 2, provide a glimpse into the projected rate of change within the U.S. populace. It is clear from the data that the fastest growing segment of the population is that group over the age of 45, which by 2040 will compose 42.7 percent of the population. The 18-to-44 population segment is growing, but at a much slower rate. It will continue to shrink as a percentage of the total population through 2040 from a high of 36.7 percent in 2010 to a projected 34.1 percent in 2040. Also apparent from the data is that the population under 18 is shrinking as well, from a high of 24.2 percent in 2010 to a projected 23.2 percent in 2040. The fastest growing demographic is people over 65, which will compose 20 percent of the population in 2050.

Selected Age Groups as a Percent of Projected Total U.S. Population, 2010 to 2050
Figure 2    
Selected Age Groups as a Percent of Projected Total U.S. Population, 2010 to 2050.  Source: United States Bureau of the Census. August 14, 2008. "Percent Distribution of the Projected Population by Selected Age Groups and Sex for the United States: 2010 to 2050."

Economic Contributions of the Family

The changing composition of the population is obviously a critical factor in the future of our urban communities. However, the analysis thus far has looked at how these age groups are changing within our cities, but not necessarily how they contribute to their respective local economies. Utilizing 2008 current population reports on poverty and income from the U.S. Census Bureau, married couples with at least one child had a median current income of $77,715 versus $68,539 for married couples with no children (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2009). Additionally, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report (2010) of husband-wife families with at least two children calculated that families with incomes of less than $57,000 spend approximately $9,000 per child annually, while families with incomes more than $98,000 spend as much as $20,000 per child annually. In the census report, it was estimated that out of roughly 59 million families, 26 million of them had at least one child at home. From these data, it is clear that the income and consumption differences between families with children and those without children are substantial. Households with children at home clearly represent potential to contribute to local economies at a much higher level.

Considerations and Conclusions

Will the creative class or young professionals suddenly abandon the Austins and Portlands of America for the fortunes of the Great Plains or the struggling Rust Belt? If you accept Norquist's assertion, the problem is retention of young professionals, not necessarily attracting them. After all, these young professionals are likely at some point to form households and begin having children. Again, if Norquist is correct, then these young professionals will be seeking educational options for their children. I believe this question is one every community should be asking when formulating long-range economic development, land-use, and transportation plans.

The data bear out the fact that just on sheer numbers there will not be enough young professionals to revitalize or sustain every city in America. Based on the data, it would appear that cities that can make themselves attractive to all demographics from cradle to grave would be most likely to both sustain and grow their economies. Creating livable communities will be critical to the cradle-to-grave approach. Norquist's assertion that education is a primary driver in revitalization is a critical component to creating an environment in which families want to live. However, convenient, well-maintained parks and attractive, walkable streets also contribute significantly to area livability. A robust, accessible transit system is also a key component to building a community that will attract and support all age groups.  Partners for Livable Communities define livability as:

"the sum of the factors that add up to a community's quality of life — including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment, and recreation possibilities (Partners for Livable Communities)."

It is also clear from the data that families represent real consumption-based spending. Families must sustain themselves with food, clothing, shelter, and, to some degree, entertainment. The success of cities striving to build and foster mixed-use development, farmers markets, and small businesses will be dependent upon increasing the level of consumption-based spending. Small business development, cited by many as the life-blood of job creation, would appear to be prime beneficiaries of a family-oriented livable community strategy.

Additionally, a family-based approach would allow people to take root and, as they transition over time from parents to grandparents, they could age in place allowing communities to retain a larger portion of the expanding demographic over the age of 45. Leaders of communities focusing solely on entertainment-based economic strategies may want to consider broadening their strategies to formulate strong, safe, livable neighborhoods to attract and retain families, thus enabling their communities to grow their populations by nurturing people from cradle to grave.

Gary G. Hamer, AICP, currently serves as the City of Tulsa's capital planning manager and is responsible for the city's capital improvement plan. Hamer has served in a number of capacities during his more than 13 years in the planning profession, including transportation planning, zoning and subdivision administration, and project management. Hamer continues to study, research, and write on planning and public policy issues confronting local government.


Florida, Richard. 2002. Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Kaufman, David. 2011. "20 Odd Questions: Nicola Bulgari." The Wall Street Journal, April 30, Online Edition.

Norquist, John. 2011. "School Choice and Urban Diversity." The Wall Street Journal, May 2, Online Edition.

Partners for Livable Communities. "What Is Livability?" Web page accessed June 17, 2011. Available at

Saulny, Susan. 2010. "Board's Decision to Close 28 Kansas City Schools Follows Years of Inaction." The New York Times, March 11, A11.

United States Bureau of the Census. 2008. "Percent Distribution of the Projected Population by Selected Age Groups and Sex for the United States: 2010 to 2050." August 14.

United States Bureau of the Census. 2009. State and County Quick Facts. July.

United States Bureau of the Census. 2011. 2010 Census Redistricting Data. Summary File. Table P1.

United States Bureau of the Census. 2009. "Married-Couple Families — Number and Median Income by Work Experience of Husbands and Wives and Presence of Related Children: 2008." September.

United States Department of Agriculture. 2010. "Annual Expenditure per Child by Husband-Wife Families by Family Income and Expenditure Type." June.

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