Once they have kids, families move out of the city and opt for the big house, picket fence, and longer commute. That’s the story we’ve all heard. But the reality is that—at least over the last 12 years—the Northwest’s biggest cities have done a much better job of attracting and retaining kids than their suburban and rural counterparts.

Yes, it remains true that, like most other big cities, Seattle and Portland have a smaller share of kids than their suburban neighbors. In 2012, 13.5 percent of Seattle’s population was under 15, compared to nearly 20 percent for the rest of the state. In Portland, 16.4 percent of the population was under 15, compared to nearly 19 percent for the rest of Oregon. But this “child gap” has existed for decades in Seattle, and it widened the fastest during the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, the gap is closing.

Recently, the Northwest’s densest cities have bucked powerful demographic trends and managed to retain families with kids, something few other places have done. From 2000 to 2012, Seattle saw dramatic growth in its number of children under 15, outpacing the rest of the state and the country.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

In Portland, which has historically had more kids than Seattle, the uptick in kids under 15 isn’t as dramatic. But the city still saw a greater percentage increase than the rest of Oregon or the US. (I’ll tackle Vancouver BC and its longstanding efforts to create dense family friendly neighborhoods in a subsequent post.)

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

The raw numbers don’t tell us what’s driving the trends, but it’s worth noting that Seattle’s “child gap” began to narrow around the time that growth management investments really kicked in and started channeling building to urban areas. It could be that millennial parents are starting to make their demographic mark, and that they and GenXers have different preferences than the Boomers who came before them. In a recent survey done by the American Public Transportation Association, 40% of Seattle millennials and 50% of Portland’s millennials “strongly agreed” with the statement that having kids doesn’t mean you have to move out of the city.

Whatever the underlying causes, the data certainly make intuitive sense, given the expectant parents I know searching for cribs that will fit in the closets of their Capitol Hill apartments and downtown daycares with open infant slots (harder to find than a magical unicorn!). In my own Seattle neighborhood, the new elementary school that opened four years ago to handle our local baby boom filled up so fast that there’s now a lottery to get in.

Here’s a more detailed look at the trends, showing how Bellevue, Washington, fits into the picture, which, interestingly, shows a smaller baby/toddler boom but boasts strong growth in its population of older kids. In general, the trend of expanding under-15 populations in urban areas holds true for every age class. Bear in mind, though, that part of the stratospheric growth in the under-5 population is because there were fewer children in that age group to begin.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

But here’s the truly surprising story.

At a time when larger demographic trends are driving nationwide declines in the share of the overall population under 15, Seattle has actually increased the share of its population that’s made up of kids. The recent kid trend in Seattle is practically unheard of. Take a look:

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our Free Use Policy.

Here’s why that’s so unusual. The combination of aging baby boomers, longer life spans, and record low birth rates means that the entire US population is skewing older. Proportionally, there are simply fewer kids. That’s why in Washington, Oregon, and the US, the under-15 share of the population contracted from 2000 to 2012—decreasing by somewhere between 8 percent and 10 percent.

  • Portland’s under-15 population shrank less than that, by 7 percent, and Bellevue’s declined by 5 percent. Seattle’s total share of the population under 5 actually increased, and it did so by a whopping 14 percent over the same period, while the percentage of the population that is under 15 grew by more than 2 percent.

    What that means is that after adjusting for these large-scale demographic trends, those cities did a better job of retaining children and families than other areas.

    There’s still much heavy lifting to be done to make the Northwest’s densest urban areas more attractive, affordable, and supportive to families with children. When you dive into the numbers a little deeper, for instance, it’s clear that Seattle and Portland are still doing a better job of holding onto their younger kids than older ones. I’ll be spending the next few months making the argument that there are many, many things we should do to make urban housing, streets, play areas, schools, transportation networks, and shared spaces work better for kids and parents.

    The numbers I’ve presented here (and others) should put to rest any arguments that cities are fundamentally unattractive places to raise kids or that it’s inevitable couples will pack up for the ‘burbs once a baby arrives or kindergarten deadlines loom. In the 21st century, it’s just not true.

    Notes: Demographic data in all the charts come from the 2012 American Community Survey 3-year Demographic and Housing Estimates (DPO5) and the US Census 2000 Profile of General Demographic Characteristics (SF 2).