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April 07, 2006

Say It Ain't So, Joe

I picked up a copy of the March issue of Seattle Magazine the other day, and happened across an article (print only, I'm afraid) by the estimable Joe Follansbee.  The article claims that Seattle suffers from an inferiority complex:  whenever Seattle residents compare their home town with Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC, they always decide that Seattle comes up short. Follansbee argues that Seattle should just learn to love itself just as it is, rather than falling victim to sibling rivalry.

Interesting enough idea.  But there's one thing that sticks in my craw:  in trying to puncture the reputation of neighboring cities, Follansbee claims that Portland has an unusally low number of children, compared with its neighboring metropolises:

Portland's downtown Pearl District, hailed as the embodiment of "smart growth"...had only three more children living there in 2000 than in 1990, according to demographers.  What's "smart" about a city without children?

Do we [i.e., Seattle] want to be like Portland, childless and..."proper"?

Enough already! This factoid--that Portland is devoid of tykes--is simply false. It doesn't even pass the 5 minute Google test; that is, it takes less than five minutes of web searching to see that it doesn't hold water.  And yet, it's a theme I hear again and again in discussions of Portland and smart growth generally.

It's high time to roast this chestnut.

As it turns out, what's true for Portland's Pearl District -- that there aren't many children -- doesn't hold true for the rest of Portland.  Take a look at the Census Bureau's Portland "quick facts." As of the last Census count, 21.1 percent of the city's residents were children under the age of 18, compared with 24.7 for Oregon as a whole. 

So the city does have fewer children than the state as a whole, by 3.6 percentage points.  But take a look at the Seattle "quick facts."  Minors account for just 15.6 percent of the city's population.  In comparison, Portland is teeming with kids -- 40 percent more, measured per capita, than in Seattle.  And the gap between Seattle and the whole of Washington is 10 percentage points -- nearly 3 times wider than the gap between Portland and Oregon.

So it makes absolutely no sense -- none -- to ask whether Seattle wants to be "childless" like Portland.

Admittedly, Portland has fewer kids than many US cities.  But it's pretty much on par with Denver and Minneapolis, has a few more kids per capita than Pittsburgh, and far more than San Francisco (where under-18-year-olds are just 14.5 percent of the population).  In Vancouver, BC -- often held up as an exemplar of family-friendly urbanity -- children under 18 made up only 15.5 16.6 percent of the population in 2001. 

Diving into the Vancouver numbers a bit deeper, it seems that there's no major part of Vancouver -- not downtown, not the west side, not even the semi-suburban south end -- that has a kids-to-population ratio that's as high as in Portland.  And the kid-to-population gap between Vancouver and the whole of BC is wider than for Portland and the whole of Oregon.  Vancouver's denser neighborhoods have a reputation for having lots of kids, and in large part they do -- but only because they have lots of people, period.  As a share of the population, though, Portland has far more kids than "kid-friendly" Vancouver.

I'm sure this post won't put an end to the urban legend of Portland's childlessness (although it may perpetuate the impression that there aren't many kids in the Northwest's other major cities).  But I hope it helps.

On a deeper level, I'm puzzled by all the hand-wringing about childless cities.  As of the last census, families with children comprised less than one in three Northwest households.  And the number of childless households is growing for good reasons.  We're having kids later in life, and fewer of them -- largely because of better educational and job opportunities for women.  Plus we're living longer, so seniors are making up a far larger share of the population than they used to.  For the large and growing number of childless households, urban living has a strong appeal -- they're the ones who appear to be flocking to housing in dense urban centers.  So to the extent that the trends towards "childless cities" is real, it's largely driven by demographic changes that we'd be foolish to want to reverse.

What do the angst-ridden commentators lamenting the lack of children downtown want people to do? Have kids even if they'd prefer not to? Die before they get a chance to down-nest?  Move their families to urban condos in order to save some single-family detached houses for hipsters?  Help me out here, folks.

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» Seattle feels inferior to PDX? from Metroblogging Portland
Apparently so, if you follow the analysis done by writer Joe Follansbee. The article's not available online, but the Cascadia Scorecard blog author (and Seattle resident) read the piece, and came away with a take of his own in Say... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 8, 2006 8:12:12 AM

» Seattle feels inferior to PDX? from Metroblogging Portland
Apparently so, if you follow the analysis done by writer Joe Follansbee. The article's not available online, but the Cascadia Scorecard blog author (and Seattle resident) read the piece, and came away with a take of his own in Say... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 8, 2006 8:13:29 AM

» Seattle feels inferior to PDX? from Metroblogging Portland
Apparently so, if you follow the analysis done by writer Joe Follansbee in Seattle magazine. The article's not available online, but the Cascadia Scorecard blog author (and Seattle resident) read the piece, and came away with a take of his... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 8, 2006 8:27:09 AM


Thank you for pointing out the census stats, I think it is helpful whenever the demographic trends are discussed.

However, I never viewed the "childless" arguments to be centered around the general populations of entire cities, rather the new growth and urban density issues. In other words, we all could move out to the inner-suburbs (still technically in the city) after we have our first kid, but shouldn't we have a goal of retaining people that move to the urban core and want to raise a family?

It may just be too soon to judge the pearl since it hasn't matured into a full-service urban village yet with all the necessary amenities required for families.

Warren Olandria
Arlington, Virginia
formerly Portland, Oregon

Posted by: Warren Olandria | Apr 7, 2006 2:06:23 PM

I agree, Warren, it's too early to judge the Pearl.

And while I do think it can be a worthwhile goal to help young couples stay in their neighborhoods after they have kids, I don't think we should overestimate our ability to do that successfully. Vancouver's built itself some great urban places over the past three decades -- but they still don't have all that many kids downtown or in close-in neighborhoods. Vancouverites who want kids do the same thing that their counterparts in Seattle and Portland -- they drift to places with a little more elbow room.

There's a chicken-and-egg quality to all of this: some parents might be willing to live downtown if there were more kids, better schools, acceissble parks and grocery stores, etc. there to begin with. But only few affluent parents are willing to be urban pioneers (even near Pioneer Square). Vancouver's ahead of the game here, since they've been working for longer than other NW cities at improving downtown living; but their mixed record shows that it's tougher than one might think, or hope, to attract and keep families downtown.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 7, 2006 2:35:34 PM

Even if it is too early to judge the Pearl, does it matter? Certainly, we want cities the size of Portland to have healthy numbers of families and children, but does every neighborhood need to reside in the middle of the bell curve?

People increasingly move around the region at different points of their lives when their tastes, needs, and budgets change. My wife and I both spent our twenties living within a mile of downtown (Portland for me, San Francisco for her). Once we married and had a kid we moved to a bigger home further out. Once our kids grow up and move away, I can easily see us trading the yard for a condo somewhere more centrally located.

There are few young, hip twentysomethings in our suburban neighborhood and there are few married couples with kids in the Pearl. This is not necessarily bad at the neighborhood level assuming that our region retains a healthy mix of households and families.

Posted by: Brian Newman | Apr 7, 2006 4:10:33 PM

Brian -
That seems right to me. It's not like it's a catastrophe if there are a few square miles of urban land that don't have many kids. They're not like peanut butter on a sandwich -- there's no reason to spread them around evenly.

That said, the Pearl could turn out to attract and hold families with kids pretty well. That would be fine, too.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 7, 2006 4:22:34 PM

Funny, I was just thinking about this ball of wax yesterday (http://electricitytellsthestory.blogspot.com if you really care).

I've lived in Portland, Vancouver and Seattle. I had my child in Vancouver. Lots of moms there. In my neighborhood (or neighbourhood), Cambie/Mount Pleasant, the place was crawling with strollers. And through the mommy groups at the public health clinic, I befriended other mothers from a range of income brackets (from a Whistler part-timer to a refugee from Rwanda).

The deal is Cambie/Mt. Pleasant has a good mix of rental housing and property owners. And that's because the govt zoned inconspicuous public housing next to million-dollar condos. Plus families have more time to get to know eachother because of Canada's 52-week parental leave program.

But that uptopia is changing fast. In 2001, my cute, 2nd floor, 2BD apartment rented at $850 CAN. Last summer, I walked around the 'hood and saw basement rentals listed for $1500. It's the cost of living in the world's most scenic city--not to mention the epicenter of "smart growth."

In Pdx, I lived in a 'hood with lots of kids--everywhere. SE PDX was homogeneous, but otherwise idyllic. And rent was affordable.

Now in Columbia City (SE Seattle), I've met lots of familes who are moving here because North Seattle is unaffordable. Teachers, social workers, public servants and such.

Anyway, I lived in Chicago too, where my gentrification experience was entirely different. It focused on the lifestyle, not the neighborhood.

Point is, families grow roots in neighborhoods. Singles often are focused more on cultural consumption than building community, thus gentrification is more ostentatious and pricey in the downtown spinoffs with the galleries and clubs and lofts, like Vancouver's vapid Yaletown, Portland's uninteresting Pearl, and my former stomping ground, the formerly ultra-hip, Chicago's greater Wicker Park.

The puzzle: Keeing moderate-income families in the attractive and trendy cities so we can grow libraries, farmer's markets, improved public schools and connected people, as well as sushi bars, million-dollar lofts, and wine bars.

Posted by: Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Apr 7, 2006 5:17:30 PM

Funny to have so many conservative anti-urbanists (Kotkin et al) jumping on the demographic issue and in essence suggesting that liberals should have more sex.

(I wrote it a bit more colorfully but this is a family blog. Eh, Mr. Durning?)

Posted by: Raw Data | Apr 7, 2006 9:14:42 PM

"The puzzle: Keeping moderate-income families in the attractive and trendy cities so we can grow libraries, farmer's markets, improved public schools and connected people, as well as sushi bars, million-dollar lofts, and wine bars."

Well, Portland has a pretty good handle on most of this. Our libraries are outstanding, we have dozens of farmers' markets, one of the nation's best public transportation systems and a very involved citizenry.

What we haven't achieved is making the people with the ability and the wealth pay their fair share of the costs of education and the rest of what makes a community. We have allowed the conservatives to dump most of those costs on the middle class and convince middle class folks that there is no alternative to that tax structure.

Posted by: Alan Locklear | Apr 8, 2006 12:26:33 AM

I believe that the lessons we should learn here are:

1) As the Pearl is merely a single neighborhood in a large metropolitan region, not every neighborhood has to be a carbon copy of every other neighborhood. Indeed, from my point of view, that would kill neighborhoods, making them unlivable.

2) Lies, damned lies, and statistics....

Is it possible that what is annoying the anti-urbanists about these neighborhoods is that because they wouldn't want to live there that it must be inherently bad? And because they like their suburban sprawl, that it's inherently good? After all, this would explain how they will often decry walkable communities as "social engineering" and speak glowingly of the "market" to which they themselves restrict membership.

Here in Spokane, many developers have said that there's no market for urban living and they hold up, as proof, the suburban developments they themselves create. Yet, in the last couple of years, the hottest market buzz is about how downtown condominiums are being sold sight unseen, even prior to construction.

A diverse housing market, with different goods and services provided in different neighborhoods allows cities to have residents who only pay for what they want, and get everything they need.

It would be good for business, too, as choosing a good location would be, in effect, direct marketing. A night club would be badly placed where 50% of the population is under 21, as in my neighborhood. A child day care would be badly placed in a 55-and-over community (although, that’s more debatable, for the residents' sake).

Allowing for diverse neighborhoods recognizes the diversity we have. No "engineering" is necessary to create that. It provides choice for everyone (provided people pay the true cost of their choices), not just those who choose between a 4-level or rancher. That sounds like a pretty good community to me.

Posted by: Brian Sayrs | Apr 11, 2006 9:36:26 AM