I picked up a copy of the March edition 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 Distirct, 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). Vancouver, BC—often held up as an exemplar of family-friendly urbanity—children under 18 made up only 16.6 percent of the popualtion 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.