Where You Grow Up: Interestingness vs. Safety

Parents of young children often say they’re moving from a city to the ‘burbs because “Suburb X is a good place to raise a family.” I would guess the real reason sometimes is, “Suburb X is less expensive.” Though suppose cost were irrelevant and we evaluate the parents’ reason at face value.

It’s a good place to raise a family. What does this mean? At its core this usually means it’s safe, i.e., in the suburbs the kids can play outside at night and we don’t worry. (Sometimes parents say it’s for the schools but suburban schools are not widely better than urban ones.)

There’s a flip side to an ultra-safe environment: it’s less interesting. The interestingness of a place is inversely correlated with its safety. Somewhere, there is an optimal point, but parents seem to sometimes forget this tradeoff.

I’m biased. I grew up in a neighborhood (Haight-Ashbury) in San Francisco that at the time was fairly rough-and-tumble. The full range of human impulses were on display. My childhood activities were extremely urban: city parks and playgrounds, streets and noise and pollution, dodging crime-inclined juveniles.

While there were some less pleasant run-ins with homeless people or the neighborhood gang, in total, I think the diversity I got exposed to contributed positively to my upbringing. All the sights and sounds around me made me more interested in how those things came to be. It exposed me to a wider range of lives and behavior. It made me more curious.

Bottom Line: Life’s about tradeoffs. Safety is no exception. I’m not sold that suburbia is usually a better place to raise a family, if safety and stability are proffered as the reasons why.

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