Latest fretting about families leaving Seattle unfounded

Is Seattle really only a home for childless couples?

In my last post I wrote about why I think good public schools matter to cities in general and to Seattle in specific. Families of all economic levels and ethnic backgrounds want and expect good schools and they’ll move to get be close to them, sometimes at great sacrifice. Almost on cue came the grumblings at Crosscut of Dick Morrill a Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and the incisive response by Eric De Place at Sightline. Morrill seems a bit unmoored from today’s realities and data when it comes to families in Seattle, and what’s behind his arguments are a kind of stubborn Single Family Seattle ethic. Morrill’s vision of Seattle tries to reinforce the old stereotype that cities are bad places for families.

Here’s De Place who cuts down the feeble arguments Morrill offers:

Here are the facts. Like most countries in the industrial world, the United States has an aging population. Nationally, the share of the population under 18 shrank by 1.7 percent over the last decade, while the share of children in Washington shrank even faster, by 2.2 percent. Unsurprisingly, numerous peer cities, including Portland and Tacoma, saw a decline in the absolute number of children. Yet Seattle (and Bellevue and Salem) somehow bucked the trend, adding thousands of kids, and maintaining stability, or nearly so, in the share of their population under 18.

Morrill may not like it, but those are the facts. Traditional families are now a distinct minority in the US and the Northwest. Yet in a big departure from earlier decades, families are increasingly choosing city living in the Seattle area.

And this matters for land use because there are some out there who still want to argue that Seattle is going to forever be a single family city, built around the classic late 20th century view of home and family. Morrill’s out of touch views and flawed analysis lend comfort to the usual NIMBY suspects who are desperately trying to show that growth management, density, and more development are going to drive “real” families into sprawling suburbs, leaving the the city to un-reproductive single people. Morrill and the NIMBYs sound like the opening minutes of Idiocracy.

De Place sets Morrill and the NIMBYs straight here as well:

Seattle’s “child gap” only began to shrink after the growth management era kicked in around 1996. That’s right: after growth management started, Seattle stopped losing and started gaining kids relative to the rest of the state. Second, the other locations that did well for children — Salem and Bellevue — were also both adding considerable density during that same time period. Both, furthermore, are subject to growth management laws. In fact, local demographers tell me that Bellevue’s remarkable growth in children occurred almost entirely in that city’s densest areas: downtown, Crossroads, and Factoria.

Morrill’s arguments are tiresome at best and dangerous at worst. We really don’t have time to debate density anymore. And couching things in terms of families versus density is really just about whether we want to stubbornly hold on to the past or whether we are willing to prepare for the future. Our city will continue to grow and it should. The question is how do we plan for growth in a way that is sustainable.

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