[Paleopsych] NYT: Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children

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Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children
March 24, 2005


    PORTLAND, Ore. - The Pearl District in the heart of this perpetually
    self-improving city seems to have everything in new urban design and
    comfort, from the Whole Foods store where fresh-buffed bell peppers
    are displayed like runway models to the converted lofts that face
    sidewalk gardens.

    Everything except children.

    Crime is down. New homes and businesses are sprouting everywhere. But
    in what may be Portland's trendiest and fastest-growing neighborhood,
    the number of school-age children grew by only three between the
    census counts in 1990 and 2000, according to demographers at Portland
    State University.

    "The neighborhood would love to have more kids, that's probably the
    top of our wish list," said Joan Pendergast of the Pearl Neighborhood
    Association. "We don't want to be a one-dimensional place."

    It is a problem unlike the urban woes of cities like Detroit and
    Baltimore, where families have fled decaying neighborhoods, business
    areas and schools. Portland is one of the nation's top draws for the
    kind of educated, self-starting urbanites that midsize cities are
    competing to attract. But as these cities are remodeled to match the
    tastes of people living well in neighborhoods that were nearly
    abandoned a generation ago, they are struggling to hold on to enough
    children to keep schools running and parks alive with young voices.

    San Francisco, where the median house price is now about $700,000, had
    the lowest percentage of people under 18 of any large city in the
    nation, 14.5 percent, compared with 25.7 percent nationwide, the 2000
    census reported. Seattle, where there are more dogs than children, was
    a close second. Boston, Honolulu, Portland, Miami, Denver,
    Minneapolis, Austin and Atlanta, all considered, healthy, vibrant
    urban areas, were not far behind. The problem is not just that
    American women are having fewer children, reflected in the lowest
    birth rate ever recorded in the country.

    Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize
    a city - dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and
    mass transit that makes a car unnecessary - are driving out children
    by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families.

    Other cities have tried and failed to curb family flight. In Portland,
    the new mayor, Tom Potter, says demography does not have to be
    destiny. He has dedicated his term to trying to keep children in the

    Every child a city loses, on average, can mean a loss of about $5,000
    for the school district, officials say. Children also create a
    constituency for parks, trails and public safety improvements, Mr.
    Potter said, and their parents tend to favor upgrading those amenities
    through higher taxes. He has been bringing children in to speak to the
    City Council and has pushed for incentives for affordable housing with
    enough bedrooms to accommodate bigger families.

    A former police chief who helped pioneer community patrolling, Mayor
    Potter has 14 grandchildren and says a city's health should be
    measured by its youngest citizens. "We can't let Portland become a
    retirement city or a city without neighborhood schools," he said.

    New York and Los Angeles, because of their large immigrant
    populations, have maintained their base of children, but demographers,
    pointing to falling birth rates among Latinos and other ethnic groups,
    say the nation's biggest cities may soon follow the others.

    In Portland, the trends are not in Mayor Potter's favor. From 1990 to
    2003 the city added more than 90,000 people, growing to an estimated
    529,121 residents, but Portland is now educating the fewest students
    in more than 80 years.

    The problem is not that children are leaving for private schools,
    officials said. It is that new people attracted to the city tend to
    have higher incomes, having already raised a family; are retiring; or
    are single and unlikely to have children.

    After interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at
    Portland State found that high housing costs and a desire for space
    were the top reasons.

    Tina Ray lived in Portland for 12 years before moving to Gresham,
    where her 9-year-old daughter attends school. Her family left for a
    bigger house and more space, she said. "It's kid friendly, with a
    great sense of community, and lots of sports leagues," she said.

    Many Portland families are relocating to the newest edge suburbs,
    where housing prices are cheapest, including Clark County across the
    Columbia River in Washington, Portland State demographers say.

    After a drop of 10,000 students in the last decade, Portland officials
    called in March for the closing of six schools, prompting cries of
    grief from three generations of adults who say that nothing takes the
    heart out of a neighborhood like a shuttered school.

    The pool of school-age children is shrinking so fast that Portland
    will have to close the equivalent of three or four elementary schools
    a year over the next decade, according to school district projections.

    "I don't think we're going to become a nearly childless city like San
    Francisco, but the age structure is really changing," said Barry
    Edmonston, an urban studies professor at Portland State, who does
    demographic projections for the school district. "People are not
    turning over the houses like they used to. They're aging in place, at
    the same time that prices are really going up, making it hard for
    young families to move into the city."

    Nationally, the birthrate has been dropping while the overall
    population is aging as life expectancy increases. The problem is not
    just in cities. New figures released this month showed North Dakota
    losing more children than any other state.

    Scottsdale, Ariz., a fast-growing Phoenix suburb, lost 571 students
    last year. San Jose closed three schools last year and expects to
    close three more soon.

    Between 2003 and 2004, only six states had an increase in their
    elementary school population, the census bureau reported in March.

    In that sense, the United States is following Europe and the rest of
    the industrial world, where birthrates now rarely exceed the rate
    needed to replace the population.

    "If you took immigrants out of the equation, the United States would
    be like the rest of Europe," said Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at
    the New America Foundation, a public policy research organization in
    Washington. He is the author of "The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birth
    Rates Threaten World Prosperity and What To Do About It."

    Mr. Longman said a decline in children not only takes away "human
    capital" needed to sustain an aging population, but "having fewer
    children really diminishes the quality of life in a city."

    Most city leaders seem to agree. Even in San Francisco, where
    officials are preparing for another round of school closings amid a
    projected decline of 4,000 students in the next five years, city
    officials are aggressively marketing the city and its schools to young

    But what they cannot do, especially after the failure last year of a
    ballot measure sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce to encourage
    affordable housing, is bring housing prices down.

    "It's a real challenge trying to raise a kid in San Francisco," said
    Jim Armstrong, a father of two who is active in Little League in the
    city and rents a home. "It takes a degree of fortitude for a parent to
    stay with the city."

    Other cities that have tried to reverse the family outflow have had
    mixed success. As mayor of Seattle for 12 years, until 1990, Charles
    Royer started an initiative called KidsPlace, which has been widely
    copied by other cities. It included marketing the city's neighborhoods
    to young families, building a small mix of affordable housing, and
    zoning and policing changes to make urban parks more child-friendly.

    Mr. Royer said he was ridiculed for signs placed around town
    proclaiming "Seattle is a KidsPlace" and took criticism from social
    service agencies who thought bringing in more families would only
    place more demands on the limited money they had. Mr. Royer said he
    was bucking historic changes, and Seattle now has some of the nation's
    highest-priced real estate and its lowest percentage of children.

    "I said things like, 'We don't want to be like San Francisco,' but in
    the end, I don't think we were terribly effective at stemming that
    tide," Mr. Royer said. "It's not so much a social problem as it is a
    demographic and financial problem."

    Here in Portland, the city is bemoaning the demographic cycle as it
    unfolds before their eyes. On the day of the announcement to close
    Kenton Elementary School, which has anchored a north Portland
    neighborhood for 91 years, some parents and residents reacted as if
    there had been a death in the family.

    "I feel heartbroken," said Mary Krogh, who had planned to enroll her
    4-year-old son, Chase, in the school. "It's just a terrible loss."

    The school and a tightknit community were among the things that
    attracted Ms. Krogh and her husband to the neighborhood seven years
    ago, she said.

    But now the school will be shuttered, and improvements from Portland's
    beloved light rail line have contributed to rising real estate prices,
    defeating the broad goals of the mayor's effort to bring and keep
    young families in the city.

    "Portland is a great city that attracts a lot of educated people," she
    said. "But the real estate is becoming outrageously expensive. And
    then you get wealthy singles and wealthy retirees. What's missing are
    kids. And that feels really sterile to me."

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