Photo: Payton Chung.

In booming cities, the population of children is declining in gentrifying neighborhoods, according to a study of three Western cities.

Booming cities like Denver, Austin and Portland have drawn new industry and new residents. But, even as they've grown, particularly in their cores, they've lost certain demographics. Between 1970 and 2017, the share of the population that were children or youth has shrunk, according to a new study from University of Texas at Austin Assistant Professor Jake Wegmann.

Unless cities invest in children, Wegmann argues in a new article published in the journal Cities, they risk limiting their potential as sites of upward mobility. And given the greater diversity of children than the population overall, they risk doing so at the cost of historically marginalized populations.

"Housing prices are now rising faster in and near downtowns than in more outlying areas of metros across the nation," writes Wegmann, "a profound reversal from much of the last century. What is more, where housing has been added in booming urban cores such as Phoenix and Houston, it has mostly taken the form of small units catering to young adults in childless households."

Source: "Is there room for children in booming western cities? Empirical evidence from Austin, Denver, and Portland." Cities. Jake Wegmann.

In examining population change, housing type and gentrification in three of those booming cities, Wegmann asks a simple question: "[W]ill there be a place for children in revitalized urban cores?" 

For now, the answer appears to be conditional.

Gentrifying neighborhoods in those cities lost children between 2000 and 2012-2016, with the greatest losses in census tracts right in the middle of gentrifying. That occurred even as they gained population. Still, the cities managed to offset some of those losses but that was mostly because of growth in tracts with "recently-built large, master-planned communities on either greenfield sites or redeveloped brownfields within the city limits." Those opportunities, cautions Wegmann, are probably nearing the end of their development. 

Unless cities specifically prioritize the needs of households with children, the study asserts, they can expect to struggle to attract and retain them. In Austin and Denver, roughly two-thirds of children were of color as of 2017, according to the study. And even in Portland, "sometimes derided as the whitest large city in the United States," 43 percent of children were of color.

"Investments in these children, including in safe and secure housing options for their families," argues Wegmann, will "almost by default represent investments in the future of racial and ethnic groups whose members have suffered from decades of disinvestment and discriminatory policies."

After determining that "mid- to high-rise housing continues to be a complete non-factor in housing children in all three regions" when compared to other housing types, Wegmann argues that cities should look to alternatives to the "perennially popular" large lot single-family housing that still offer some measure of density. Even small lot single-family detached housing, he writes, "can be built at surprisingly robust densities, including in novel or revived historical formats such at cottage or bungalow courts." Likewise, the attached housing popular in the Northeast could offer an alternative between the classic big yard house and high-rise units. Trailer parks, he notes, can also function as "compact, family-friendly, and low-cost communities," providing the problematic "split tenure form" is addressed. Cities could, he writes, encourage "tenure conversion into Resident Owned Communities," for example, or, through city-owned or nonprofit-owned parks, maintain a "commitment to keeping residents in place."

Wegmann also sees a role for urban school districts, which he argues, would be "well-advised to think strategically about deploying their surplus land holdings towards family-friendly housing."

For cities that do invest in meeting the needs of children and their families, "[t]he benefits will be broadly felt."

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