A Powerful Measure of Urban Health: the Stroller Index

Cities compete for residents and tax base. Nothing defines urban livability more than a city that's kid-friendly.
by | April 24, 2013

From 2000 to 2010, the population of Hoboken, N.J., grew by nearly 30 percent, making it the fastest-growing city in the Northeast. The city had hit its population peak of more than 70,000 in 1910 and then had experienced a nearly unbroken record of decline until bottoming out at about 33,000 in 1990. Today Hoboken has slightly more than 50,000 folks. Median household income is $101,782, almost double that of the nation as a whole. In short, the town is doing very well these days, and I think I know why.

When Governing's Jonathan Walters and David Kidd were in Hoboken to research and shoot photos for an article in the April issue about the mayor's plans to better manage the next superstorm, they noticed baby strollers all over town. David coined the term "stroller index" and said Hoboken seemed to be way up there on that measure.

Actually, there's something to that. For years, when I did citizen surveys in Kansas City, I argued that the most important single measure was the percentage of respondents who rated the city as a good or excellent place to raise children. It's the canary in the mineshaft, a leading indicator that tells you a great deal about a city's financial health and direction.

A city that's a good place to raise children is generally just a good place, period. Parents want to raise their children in places that are safe, clean and attractive, that enjoy a sense of charm and place, and that have lots of fun and interesting stuff going on. Who doesn't want that? It sounds like the very definition of livability.

Strollers outside a Hoboken library  
    A jam of strollers outside a Hoboken library: a testament

    to urban livability? (Photo: David Kidd)

And public officials pursuing other growth strategies may find surprising twists in the road that lead them back to the stroller index. When I campaigned for mayor the first time, Richard Florida and "the creative class" were all the rage. So I went to a hip architectural firm in the trendy Crossroads District to pay my homage and burnish my credentials as a guy who saw their worth and wanted to keep young professionals like them living and working in Kansas City.

I was ready to talk about the arts and culture and the cool factor. I was stunned to find that what they wanted to talk about was kids. They loved the city and dreaded the thought of moving to the suburbs, but they worried about safety and schools. I was there to talk about making the city artist-friendly, and they wanted to hear about how I was going to make it kid-friendly.

Cities compete for residents and tax base. Many of the folks who live in Hoboken probably work across the Hudson in Manhattan. They probably have the wherewithal to live anywhere in the New York metropolitan area they want to, but they chose Hoboken.

AARP has a list of principles for creating "age-friendly" communities. My guess is that cities that set out to accommodate the Baby Boomers by being age-friendly are going to do very well on the stroller index as well. When more people rate a city as a good place to raise children, that means a strengthening tax base and a better environment for everyone. Just don't trip as you step around the strollers to get into that cute little coffee shop.

Mike Maciag, Governing's data editor, contributed research for this column.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com

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