London is experiencing “family flight” according to a new report from the UK’s Office for National Statistics. What this means is that families are being priced out of the city’s heart and are heading for the countryside. Last year some 84,000 people in their thirties and forties said goodbye to the capital and took 65,000 children with them (their own, one hopes).
On the city’s limits, the fleeing parents would have crossed the paths of the hordes of twenty-somethings coming the other way. Because that’s who is taking their place; the hearts of cities across Europe and the US are proving ever popular with a young, creative class who want to live among likeminded people and have a good flat white and a craft beer for sale but inches from their door.
Now why this matters is because we want our cities to remain diverse and able to support people of all ages. But I am not sure that the statistics reveal all the trends at play because there are many older people who are returning to the cities when their kids have left home. They have had enough of the rose bushes and long walks and also fancy having all of the services they need within easy reach. They probably fancy a craft beer, too.
What unites these two groups is their lack of burdens. Both groups are child-free and not worried about good schools. Both have money to spend on themselves. And, crucially, both sets are happy to live in small spaces in return for a central location. And that’s lucky because city authorities are increasingly looking to boost density by approving the construction of ever dinkier residential units.
And here’s where the problem arises. Because if you over-engineer your city in favour of the child-free, the person happy to live compactly, then you will, of course, leave no space for families.
So while family flight may be a real thing, its causes seem to be down to more than just housing costs. It’s also that we are giving up on building homes for families and giving them no option but to head for the hills. In the end we need to decide who the city is for and perhaps give density a miss every now and then if it means finding a spot for all the family.
Andrew Tuck is the editor of Monocle.